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Martin Whitman, Founder of Third Avenue, Dies at 93

The legendary value investor spent more than six decades in finance, and in his later years taught students the art of buying “safe and cheap.”

  • By Leanna Orr

Martin Whitman, founder and former co-chief investment officer of Third Avenue Management, died Monday evening at 93 years of age, the firm announced Tuesday afternoon. 

“We are saddened by the loss of our founder, friend, and mentor,” the management committee said in a statement. “Everyone in the Third Avenue family was blessed to have had the opportunity to know Marty and learn from him. He was an extraordinary investor, an impactful teacher, and a true capital markets pioneer.”

Whitman helped define the practice of value investing, following his maxim to buy securities that are both “safe and cheap.” 

His first major success came in the 1970s, with a $100,000 investment in the then-bankrupt Penn Central Railway’s mortgage bonds, as noted in a 2003 profile in Syracuse University Magazine. The distressed asset play returned five times his investment, and helped seed the mutual fund firm that would make him famous. 

Third Avenue Management opened for business in New York City in 1986. Whitman launched the flagship Third Avenue Value Fund three years later, which he managed until 2009. It remains the deep-value firm’s hallmark product, according to its website. 

At its peak in 2006, Third Avenue reportedly ran $26 billion across its various funds. But in the later years of Whitman’s tenure, the firm began struggling with outflows of capital and talent, according to Bloomberg

Whitman retired from managing the flagship portfolio in 2012. 

“As those that interacted with Marty over his storied career know, he was one of the sharpest-minded investors in recent times,” the firm’s committee said. “The principles that he developed over the course of decades are more relevant today than ever, which is why Third Avenue will carry on his deep-value approach to investing.”

Yet Whitman’s true passion, his colleagues said, was teaching. 

Born and raised in the Bronx, Whitman served in the Navy during World War II and attended Syracuse University’s business school on the G.I. bill. He graduated in 1949. More than 50 years later, he made one of the largest donations in the university’s history, which funded a new building that bears his name: the Martin J. Whitman School of Management.

Steven Barnes, chair of the university’s board of trustees, called Whitman a “treasured friend” of the institution, and particularly to its business school students. 

“His achievements helped pave the way for countless students to follow his example as they launch their own careers in the world of business,” Barnes said in an obituary published Tuesday by the university. “He will be greatly missed.”

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