Bruce Wasserstein, Chairman and CEO of Wasserstein Perella


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When investment bankers turn to writing, few professional scribes lose sleep over the competition. A banker's motivation for putting pen to paper is often either ego or epitaph. Neither makes for a gripping read. A book by Bruce Wasserstein, co-founder of New York M&A boutique Wasserstein Perella, might therefore be expected to be met with scepticism.

But despite a publicity photograph that makes the author look as if he's auditioning for a part in a mafia movie, Big Deal: the battle for control of America's leading corporations is far from an exercise in self-promotion. And even though Wasserstein is now in the elder-statesman bracket among Wall Street's finest, the book doesn't imply his retirement or retreat from the M&A business. "In fact the reverse," he says. "Last year was our [Wasserstein Perella's] best ever, and this year looks like it's going to be even better than last."

When I refer to the book as a weighty tome (it's over 800 pages), Wasserstein requests: "I'd rather you called it a page turner." And the gospel according to Wasserstein is about as readable as investment banking manuals come, which, he says, was part of the intention: "I thought that there wasn't really a book that tried to explain how deals are done that isn't incomprehensible."

Wasserstein can certainly call on experienced help if he has trouble turning a good sentence. His wife, Claude, is an Emmy-award winning journalist and film producer; his sister, Wendy, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. Friends and family were called on for assistance when he was stumped for apt quotations to begin each chapter - and these range from Xenophon to Kafka and Lewis Carroll - but Big Deal is definitely his baby.

He says the idea for the book, two years in the making, "was something that I'd been kicking around for a while". Big Deal falls somewhere between an M&A manual and a memoir. The focus is on deals and how they're made or broken, and is punctuated with mini-profiles of famous and infamous characters such as Sumner Redstone and Michael Milken and blow-by-blow accounts of big deals.

The emphasis on the importance of personality in M&A negotiation is one of Big Deal's most attractive features. But if readers are hoping for a trawl through Ron Perelman's dirty laundry they'll be disappointed. "I tried to give each [profile] a twist beyond what you would pick up in a retrieval on your machine. But I'm not writing 'the hubris of Mr X'", says Wasserstein. "It's not Vanity Fair, but something that you don't get in Vanity Fair: a deal profile of a person."

Having been involved in more than 1,000 deal negotiations, Wasserstein is well placed to offer observations on his rivals' strategies. He can also offer in-depth analysis of some of the largest deals of the past two decades.

On Wall Street, Wasserstein's reputation is second to none. After graduating in law and business at Harvard Law, and spending a year at Cambridge University, he began his career as an M&A lawyer at Cravath, Swaine & Moore. He spent five years as a lawyer before being lured into investment banking by First Boston. By the time he left in 1988 to set up Wasserstein Perella, he had risen to be co-head of investment banking.

During that time he's noticed some subtle changes in the business. "People use firms because of other products, not just for advice. There is also an increasing role for the industry specialist. On the one hand it's good to know a subject in depth, but it can be bad because the breadth of experience is narrow." He points out that skills you might learn in an advertising merger may be very useful in a financial services deal. "Tactics are universal," he suggests.

To that end, he offers a detailed breakdown of the elements involved in every deal, almost a step-by-step guide to M&A. "A lot of people think of negotiations as exercises in machismo. I want them to think about the objectives," he says.

At one point in the book he suggests that in many deals investment bankers are, in fact, unnecessary. Isn't that ... "Heresy?" he cuts in. "Banker determinism is exaggerated. You can make a constructive contribution, but in a lot of deals the banker just gets brought in at the end to rubber stamp the deal."

The financial services industry is now the focus of much headline-grabbing merger activity, and the message seems to be that bigger is definitely better. The book was written before the Citicorp-Travelers merger unfolded. Wasserstein says of that deal: "You've got a bunch of smart people there and I think it will do better than the sceptics think. It will take a lot of work to put it there, but there are talented people involved, not only at the top, but also in the next generation." Personality, again, is at the fore in Wasserstein's thinking.

But where does a small boutique such as Wasserstein Perella stand in this era of the mega-bank? "There is still a place for people who give advice," suggests Wasserstein. "Our role is really to go upmarket and find the people who appreciate that."

Among the advice on offer in Big Deal is an enlightening passage on how to deal with journalists. Wasserstein advocates respectful caution, and practises what he preaches. James Rutter