For one breed of Wall Street bankers, business is booming again

By Jodi Xu Klein

The job market is grim on Wall Street - except in one little corner of the financial world, where managers can't read resumes fast enough. Photo / Getty Images
The job market is grim on Wall Street - except in one little corner of the financial world, where managers can't read resumes fast enough. Photo / Getty Images

The job market is grim on Wall Street. Trading desks are shrinking, hiring is flat, even incentive pay is taking a hit. Except in one little corner of the financial world, where managers can't read resumes fast enough.

The turnaround expert is in hot demand.

With company after company in oil, coal, retail and other industries in distress -- the Bloomberg Bankruptcy Index is at a six-year high -- business is booming. Banks are assembling or expanding teams, with Lazard, Guggenheim Partners, Perella Weinberg Partners and AlixPartners all hiring, often within a circle of familiar faces.

Lazard's global restructuring head, David Kurtz, just tapped Ken Ziman of Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom; they worked on Millennium Health's bankruptcy last year. Durc Savini, who'd headed Peter J. Solomon's restructuring group, recently joined Guggenheim.

"Firms are hungry for experienced restructuring professionals, who are increasingly in short supply," says Richard Shinder, hired in March to build out Piper Jaffray's efforts.

"You need to reach deep into your Rolodex to find people you know who are capable, and you need to move fast."

For Ronen Bojmel, it's like going back in time. He was 29 when he started at Wasserstein Perrella & Co, the firm co-founded by the late investment banker Bruce Wasserstein. Now, at 48, he's building the restructuring team at Guggenheim, working with six old Wasserstein hands, including Savini.

"Cycles come and go, but when a wave hits, you want to make sure you are in the right seat with the right group of people," says Bojmel, a senior managing director.

"We are putting the band back together."

Shinder returned to restructuring advising after more than two years at TPG Specialty Lending, which he'd joined from Perella Weinberg. That firm hired Goldman Sachs's Bruce Mendelsohn to lead the practice and added two senior members after four left to start the advisory firm Ducera Partners. It's in the market for more, according to a person familiar with the matter.

A Perella spokeswoman didn't respond to requests for comment.

Peter J. Solomon hired Houlihan Lokey's Derek Pitts as its new practice lead, starting in September. AlixPartners is hosting in-house recruiting days every other week instead of monthly.

Much of the activity has been tied to the slide in oil prices. Crude may be rebounding, but it's still down more than 50 percent over the past two years. Coal producers are suffering as much as ever.

Energy companies made up 80 per cent of corporate bankruptcy cases last year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, tracking companies with more than $500 million of debt. In the past 12 months, a total of 56 companies filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy with a combined $146 billion in debt, the data show.

During the worst of the rout earlier this year, "if you stayed in Houston's St. Regis, you ran into everybody in the restructuring business," says William Snyder, national leader restructuring at Deloitte Transactions and Business Analytics.

"People are hanging out in the lobby, baggie eyed, coffee in hand."

Cycles come and go, but when a wave hits, you want to make sure you are in the right seat with the right group of people.

The specialists anticipate opportunities far afield from commodities. "Retail, for-profit education and power companies are among areas that need more turnaround help," says Lisa Donahue, global leader of turnaround and restructuring at AlixPartners.

While a May report from Moody's Investors Service says that energy remains as one of the most distressed industries, with a 10.3 per cent default rate expected in the next 12 months, Moody's says trouble is spilling over to sectors including metals and mining, durable consumer goods and retailers.

"The wave is already here," says Tim Coleman, head of PJT Partners' restructuring and special situation group. "Many risky debt deals have been done as people chased yield -- and it's a matter of time before many of them blow up."

Guggenheim has one of the fastest-growing turnaround teams, with 11 senior advisers brought on in less than three years. Projects include advising satellite operator Intelsat, which has more than $15 billion of debt.

For Lazard, the largest independent merger adviser, restructuring advisory revenue jumped 84 per cent to $42.6 million in the first three months of this year from the same period last year, according to filings. Its work included negotiating turnaround plans for Vantage Drilling, an oil-and-gas company that sought bankruptcy protection in December, and Walter Energy Inc, a coal producer that filed last summer.

Judi Mackey, a spokeswoman at Lazard, declined to comment.

Back in the 90s, Lazard, Blackstone Group and Houlihan Lokey dominated the space, dealing with the aftermath of the first junk-bond boom, when companies such as Pan American World Airways failed. There was a flood of bankruptcies in 2000, tied to the burst of the dot-com bubble, and the 2008 financial crisis spurred another.

"Restructuring advisers have been busy moving to different firms lately. That shows a growing conviction that the next cycle is upon us and there is a desire to be in the right seat when the music stops," says Guggenheim's Savini. "And if you're really lucky, among friends you know and trust."

- Bloomberg.

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