Obituary: Dan Oakes, 1972-2023
For one of the most considerate men in capital markets, nothing was ever too much trouble.
There must be better things for a banker to do than spend their time explaining the intricacies of convertible bonds to journalists struggling to appreciate their full beauty. But to listen to Dan Oakes enlighten another neophyte, you couldn’t be so sure.
It wasn’t just the unfailing generosity with his time that marked him out from his earliest days in banking. His considerate nature compelled him to enquire after one’s wellbeing before addressing any other subject. To do otherwise was unthinkable.
That he never lost his patient approach to explaining complex ideas might have reflected his own journey into capital markets, a business that he would work in for 28 years until his death in his sleep at the age of 50.
It was not economics or business that he studied at Bristol but French and German. He joined the graduate programme at HSBC, spending time in the offices of heritage brands James Capel and Samuel Montagu in the very last years before they assumed the name of their sprawling parent.
Duly trained, he emerged into the field that he would stay in for most of his career – European convertible bonds. In 1999 he moved to WestLB, where he served as head of convertible bond origination at the German bank, which had bought the UK investment bank Panmure Gordon a few years earlier.
Joining Nomura in 2006, where he helped run convertible bond origination as well as leading the Germany, Austria and Switzerland equity capital markets effort, he would team up with another deeply respected convertible bond stalwart – Lorraine Lodge, who also died tragically soon, in 2013 at the age of 52.
At Nomura, Oakes would come into the orbit of ECM chairman John St John, by then already a veteran who had started out in the business at Barings in 1985. It would prove a useful connection after the turmoil of 2008-2009, which saw Nomura’s business subjected to upheaval as it tried – frequently unsuccessfully – to make a happy marriage of its own teams with the ex-US businesses of Lehman Brothers.
Oakes quit Nomura in March 2009, and headed to join St John at the firm he had just founded, STJ Advisors, a start-up upstart that would go on to shake up the independent ECM advisory business. It was the start of Oakes’ journey out of convertible bonds, although he never lost his interest in that market.
STJ was in those days an eat-what-you-kill shop; salaries only came later. And so, by the middle of 2010, by now father of a young child, Oakes was again in the market for a more predictable income stream.
He found it at what would be the last bank he would work for, Commerzbank, where he initially served for nearly nine years as head of UK ECM and head of international ECM origination. Part of him might have wished he could have stayed at STJ, but bumping into his former colleagues in the years that followed he would always tell them how delighted he was for their later success – and they would always know that he meant it.
With German clients he was a particularly good fit – they liked his specificity and his ability to be straightforward; rare qualities indeed among investment bankers. His industry prizes – and pays top dollar for – an ability to exaggerate one’s own abilities or those of one’s employer: Oakes never played that game, and seemed all the happier for not doing so.
At Commerzbank he was nothing if not pragmatic about the firm’s position in the investment banking business – we are never going to rule the world in ECM, he would say drily. But he believed passionately in the role of a bank that could serve entrepreneurs and mid-market corporates properly in a region that was full of them. If he ever expressed frustration at all, it was at the refusal of some to see how good Commerz was at doing precisely that.
Only rarely did he not have a view, and then he would not waste anyone’s time by pretending that he did
Keeping this firmly in mind was the way he stayed focused through the endless rumours of what might happen to the bank. Would it ever merge with Deutsche Bank? He tried not to care too much – and by the time the talk had reached fever pitch he had already moved to Paris to take up a post-Brexit coverage role for the bank's Irish clients in particular. Away from London, he would say, he had a slightly different perspective on it all.
In later years, get him onto a broader topic within investment banking and capital markets – regulation, disintermediation, the future of IPOs, or Commerzbank itself – and he would be off to the races. Only rarely did he not have a view, and then he would not waste anyone’s time by pretending that he did.
The move to Paris in 2019 was an opportunity for a new start following the tragedy of the death of his first child, who had been severely disabled – colleagues would say that his own situation made him acutely sensitive to the problems of others. And while he loved the city, he was also able to escape to the south of the country, where he and his wife had bought a cottage.
In his final career move earlier this year, he had relocated to The Hague to take up the role of managing director in the bank's newly-formed Benelux branch.
He celebrated his 50th birthday in September 2022, sounding delighted despite a frantic week of travel and work. All through his career, he never actually seemed to age – his LinkedIn profile captured his boyish features well, but he combined them with an old-world courtesy that endeared him to colleagues and clients alike.
He loved constructing elaborate imagery to describe the arcane world of his industry. “Like shutting off the plumbing to stop the dishwasher leaking, but then finding one can’t get a glass of water,” was his explanation of the discovery at one bank of its dependency on a particular business that it was keen to dispose of.
“I’ll leave you with one thought,” he would often say in ending a conversation with a journalist. It was invariably the one that mattered most.
A celebration of Oakes' life will be held at St Michael’s Church, Highgate, at 3.30pm on Saturday 22 April