Newsmakers : Firm Fails to Keep it in the Family

United States

One wonders what Frenchman Michel David-Weill is thinking these days as Lazard, the closely held investment bank that his immigrant family founded in 1848 as a New Orleans dry goods store, may soon be on the auction block. The lead auctioneer for the possible initial public offering? Rival firm Goldman Sachs.

David-Weill has watched enormous changes sweep the international investment banking landscape as well as Lazard since he took charge of the boutique advisory firm nearly 30 years ago. A graduate of the Institute of Political Studies in Paris who also attended the Lyce Franais in Manhattan, the imperious David-Weill inherited control of the firm from his father. Since that time, he reacquired the long-lost London branch, revamped the New York office and strengthened the working relationship between the three branches of the firm long known as Lazard Freres.

And in an effort to keep pace with a consulting industry that is rapidly globalizing, Lazard Asset Management in August strengthened its own consulting business by hiring high-powered talent so it can compete with the likes of Watson Wyatt Investment Consulting and Mercer Investment Consulting.

But the 71-year-old aristocrat must have known that the genteel style of Old World finance was truly over when he hired Bruce Wasserstein, the Wall Street legend known as Bid em up Bruce, as chief executive in January 2002. The clash of cultures between the two powerful dealmakers reached a peak earlier this year overwhat else?money. Based on differences in their methods of accounting for compensation arrangements, David-Weill claimed that the firm lost $150 million while Wasserstein calculated a gain of about $250 million.

Some say Lazard may be using talk of an IPO to flush out a takeover offer from a large commercial bank. Others believe David-Weill, who as chairman retains the power to veto any sale, will do so unless his 9% stake in the bank is bought out.

Paula L. Green