His office may be in Chicago, but Joseph F. La Manna most often can be found on the road, in search of value among finance companies.

"Finance companies specialize in higher risk business. I find it necessary to remain in close contact," he said recently from his car phone while heading back to his office at William Blair & Co.

Almost all financial analysts are frequent fliers, but Mr. La Manna seems a particularly indefatigable business voyager. And the hard work seems to have paid off.

This year, Mr. La Manna, 37, was tops in estimating quarterly results for finance companies, according to American Banker's Wall Street Sharpshooter survey of earning forecasting accuracy by analysts covering banking and related industries.

He also was promoted to his assistant director of research last Friday, which will add fresh responsibilities to job as an analyst.

Asked to account for his precision, Mr. La Manna said it probably has to do with his conservative estimating tendencies, as well as his ardent pursuit of all there is to know about the companies he follows.

"I would rather have a company beat my estimate than fall short," he said. "The finance company stocks tend to sell at low price-to-earnings multiples compared to (earnings) growth rates, so you don't need to be aggressive on the estimates."

Mr. La Manna's universe of coverage as an analyst spans an unusually wide spectrum. It ranges from subprime auto finance companies, the best known of which is Mercury Finance, to traditional bank holding companies, including Chicago's venerable Northern Trust Co.

"My group is eclectic," acknowledges Mr. La Manna. "But I would rather cover distinct companies with specific niches that offer (earnings) growth as opposed to a broad group. And I would rather provide coverage on a smaller group of companies than more superficial research on twice as many companies."

His "buy" investment grade recommendations right now go to Green Tree Financial, Charles Schwab & Co., and Credit Acceptance.

"The easy period is over," Mr. La Manna said of equity investing in general. "We are now entering a period where the market is increasingly separating the winners from the losers."

"He is an outstanding analyst," said John W. Croghan, president of Lincoln Capital Management, Chicago. "Nobody that I know covers the finance companies as thoroughly and professionally as he does."

Mr. La Manna quickly developed an interest for finance companies after joining William Blair 10 years ago. "My mission to find growth opportunities led me away from banks," he said. "Nonbanks were taking their market share and growing more than 10% a year."

Previously, he was a bank analyst at Duff & Phelps Credit Rating agency, and prior to that he worked at Continental Bank.

A graduate of Knox College, he also has a masters degree in business administration from the University of Chicago.

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