By and  on September 17, 2007

What does a businessman do after a career that culminates as the chief executive officer of a major apparel manufacturer that launched a famous designer, got caught up in a bloody junk bond takeover battle and was the major men's shirt player, which also happened to have its stock price multiply 24 times during his tenure?

Play golf, of course. But if you're Laurence C. Leeds Jr., former chairman and ceo of Manhattan Industries, you also launch a new career.

Leeds was ousted from the top spot at Manhattan Industries 16 years ago following a hostile takeover of the company led by the then-junk bond king Michael Milken. Leeds then entered the investment industry by becoming an analyst at the Buckingham Research Group Inc., parent of Buckingham Capital Management Inc. Today he serves as chairman of Buckingham Capital, running one of the top-performing hedge funds in the nation, Buckingham's RAF fund. RAF invests in retail, apparel and footwear stocks — hence its name.

"A dollar invested in Buckingham RAF when we began 11 years ago is now worth between $17 and $18," Leeds said over a steak tartar lunch at Patroon, which is near Buckingham's Midtown offices and one of his favorite lunch spots. "That's a pretty good return for those people who were willing to give me a chance as an aging rookie in the world of hedge fund managers."

Leeds was investing in the retail and fashion sector long before it became au courant to do so. He is considered a trailblazer in the sector, taking large stakes in retail firms and holding them for the long haul. Leeds now has plenty of company with other funds such as Turner Investment Partners, Invesco plc and State Street Corp. jostling for positions in the industry's top public stocks as well as big, private equity companies such as KKR and TPG making stakes as well.

Leeds' top picks in the fund include Polo Ralph Lauren Corp., Coach Inc., Abercrombie & Fitch Co., American Eagle Outfitters Inc., Gildan Activewear Inc., Kohl's Corp., Urban Outfitters Inc. and Phillips Van Heusen Corp., among others.

Leeds' Buckingham RAF is held in high regard by investors as well as industry peers, and he's considered a top stock picker. One investment banker of a large, New York-based firm said he rolled a "lot of personal money" into Leeds' $1.5 billion fund. The banker's faith in the fund is based on its robust performance: a compound return rate of slightly less than 30 percent through the end of last year.

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