Friday, October 16, 2009

Primus inter Pares

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.

— T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Bruce, you sneaky bastard.

By now, most of you in the hermetic little world of finance have discovered that Bruce Wasserstein passed away Wednesday. He snuck out of the theatre early, making some excuse or other about taking a phone call or smoking a cigarette or something, and never returned. He left so quickly and quietly it feels like he skipped out on a debt. He was 61.

It is a measure of how much the world has changed from the days when the so-called "Father of M&A" bestrode the financial markets like a colossus that the ripples from his passing have already begun to dissipate. He has already disappeared from the front page of The, the online version of the M&A newspaper of record which he conceived over a decade ago and supported until his death, hurried off by the bustle of current deals and events. From my admittedly narrow vantage point atop a skyscraper deep in the heart of the least American part of America, I cannot tell whether his passage even registered with the country at large. "Bruce who?," most people probably asked, "Wasn't he the boy who got trapped in the balloon?" Sic transit gloria.

In some respects, I think Bruce would have wanted it this way. Dealmaking is a guerrilla war that never ends, fought in both sunlight and shade, in clamor and in silence. When your captain is killed, you pause to recite a hurried prayer, then you step over his cooling body and move on. There are no battlefield monuments in this war. Nor should there be.

On the other hand, there was part of Bruce—a big part—that loved the limelight and craved being the center of attention. In this way, he was completely unlike T.S. Eliot's attendant lord. During his heyday in the 1980s, Bruce intentionally broke the mold of the modest, retiring consigliere to become a prime mover himself. He abjured the merger advisor's traditional place behind the throne of the CEO or the private equity mogul to become a kingmaker, a catalyst, and a decision maker in his own right. He grabbed the spotlight away from companies and firms actually doing the deals and shone it upon himself. In the process, he shone a light into the heretofore obscure and recondite universe of M&A bankers, and he helped raise awareness of them and their trade far beyond the claustrophobic little world of central and lower Manhattan and the boardrooms of major corporations. Bruce became the story.

And some people never forgave him for that.

* * *

Like most complicated men, Bruce Wasserstein leaves a complicated legacy.

He was brilliant and precocious, sure. He was also loud, arrogant, and overbearing, but he could sweet talk a pit bull off a juicy bone. He was principled and opportunistic. He could be simultaneously disheveled and as smooth as glass.

As the mainstream media has done the rounds of his peers, clients, and competitors, many have come to call him an innovator in the field of M&A. I think this misses the mark. Sure, Bruce was smart as hell, and thought up some pretty tricky maneuvers in his day, alongside a pretty long list of other people. But it's not like he made the kind of enduring contribution that, say, über-attorney Marty Lipton did when he invented the poison pill. There is no M&A Heimlich Maneuver with Bruce's name on it. It would be foolish to look for one.

Being smart and effective in M&A requires being able to apply techniques, approaches, insight, and analysis to an ever-shifting set of contingencies and personalities in the context of a potential deal. At base, it is a tactical art, and Bruce was a master tactician. Virtually no deal is exactly like another, just as no client, deal rival, or competitor is like another. You need to be able to sense shifting strengths, weaknesses, threats, and opportunities and craft an approach to deal with them in real time. It is an art that requires quick, perceptive, deep, and supple thinking. Like chess, it encourages you to think several moves ahead. Unlike chess, legal moves are practically unlimited, and each of your pieces has a sometimes distressingly unique personality and often requires tremendous persuasion just to get off its ass and move already.

Unlike many M&A bankers, however, who are good in the trenches of individual battles, Bruce proved himself capable of waging a war as well. Like the best generals, he could think not only tactically but strategically. This, for me, is most clearly demonstrated by his masterful campaign to wrest control of the storied investment bank Lazard from the iron grip of Michel David-Weill. By the time David-Weill hired Wasserstein to help bolster his firm's sagging fortunes, Bruce had already made a large fortune pawning off his old boutique to Dresdner Bank. It is not clear to me he was looking for much more than a comfortable perch to while away the twilight of his career and enjoy his newly monetized wealth. However, soon after he arrived, Bruce must have sensed an opportunity to gain control of the factionalized firm from its imperious owner, and he set about doing so. Long story short, he totally remade the firm by hiring tons of expensive new bankers, which had the simultaneously happy effect of stacking the ranks with Wasserstein loyalists and draining so much cash from Lazard's coffers that David-Weill and the other absentee owners ultimately had to agree to take the firm public. In the midst of these maneuverings, Bruce executed a neat judo flip and defenestrated the fearsome David-Weill from the firm which had been his lifelong legacy. It was a masterpiece of strategic dealmaking and boardroom Realpolitik.

But Bruce could often be his own worst enemy. He famously detested the moniker "Bid 'em up Bruce" which rival dealmakers painted him with early in his career, but the label stuck, and for good reason. Furthermore, his determined cultivation of the limelight and naked pursuit of his own self interest severely colored most corporate and private equity dealmakers' perceptions of him. Shortly after he achieved notoriety on Wall Street—and, later, in the broader corporate and dealmaking world—people began to view Bruce as a form of plutonium. In other words, a really powerful substance that was extremely effective in limited—often hostile—circumstances, but one which could poison the unwary user if not handled with extreme care.

Many CEOs and Boards of Directors held their noses when hiring Bruce, and kept their hands on their wallets at all times when he was in the room. A common complaint of dealmakers at the time was that there were always at least five competing motives at play when a client discussed a potential deal with Bruce: the client's own, Bruce's own obvious self-interest, and three other motives percolating in Bruce's head which might or might not become apparent over time. The only thing most clients were certain of was that Bruce's motives were only coincidentally aligned with their own. Often, companies which had already retained advisors would hire Bruce's firm as well, just to prevent him from working for real or potential competitors on the deal. They would then pointedly fail to invite him to meetings. Bruce probably took umbrage at this kind of behavior, and I am sure some of it was unfair, but you can be sure he cashed the fee checks anyway. I certainly would have.

* * *

I do not have a strong handle on Bruce Wasserstein as a person. He was neither mentor nor friend to me, and we crossed paths only a few times over the course of my career, and not meaningfully.

But I did admire how he aged over time. He seemed to lose some of his rough edges and arrogance with age and success, and he developed a personal gravitas that was both pleasing and impressive in recent years. Some of the most heartfelt tributes to him I have seen have come from the field of journalism, which he had a lifelong passion for, and which he supported with money and influence for decades. It appears he could stay in the background, in a supporting role, where his media properties were involved. This does him great credit.

His peers and rivals have lined up to offer praise and remembrance as well. I suppose I am too cynical, but my investment banker's radar has picked up far too much preemptive posturing and self-aggrandizement in most of these supposed encomia. Even in death, Bruce's competitors feel the need to measure themselves against him. Which, I suppose, is a fair measure of his stature.

At an industry conference in Cambridge today, David de Rothschild said

he was “extremely sad to see someone of that caliber go” and that “no normal banker should feel any different to see such a competitor go.”

Methinks this smacks of too much protest. Every senior investment banker—and hundreds of senior executives outside the industry all over the world—is perfectly justified in having mixed feelings about Bruce Wasserstein's passing. On the one hand, a brilliant and tremendously influential industry figure—one who arguably did more than anyone else to transform the M&A industry—has passed away, and the industry is the poorer for it. On the other hand, Bruce was a fearsome and clever competitor and adversary to many of us, and I am sure a substantial number of people around the world breathed a somewhat guilty sigh of relief at the news of his passing.

After all, I do not recall any of the leaders of Europe suffering particular regret at the news of Napoleon Bonaparte's death, either.

* * *

For the dead, we owe only honesty and respect. For the living, we owe our sympathy.

In closing, let me acknowledge that Bruce was also a human being, with family, friends, and others who cared for him. I extend my personal sympathies to each and every one of them for their loss.

Exalted and sanctified is God's great name
in the world which He has created according to His will
and may He establish His kingdom
may His salvation blossom and His anointed near
in your lifetime and your days
and in the lifetimes of all the House of Israel
speedily and soon; and say, Amen.

© 2009 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.