WILL CS FIRST BOSTON EVER WIN? SWISS-AMERICAN RELATIONS
(FORTUNE Magazine) – Is there any reason to believe the latest reorganization of CS First Boston can succeed? Swiss parent CS Holding has proposed combining its perennially problematic New York investment banking outpost with Credit Suisse's European corporate banking operations, as of January 1, 1997. The plan is for the new entity to muscle its way into a global-banking market currently dominated by the like of Deutsche Bank, J.P. Morgan, Swiss Bank, and Union Bank of Switzerland.
There certainly are reasons for skepticism. For one thing, the history of the firm is a saga of false starts and turmoil, especially since 1990, when CS pumped $725 million into First Boston, mostly to cover crumbling bridge loans. Then there are the overwrought histrionics between these transatlantic partners, which have kept Wall Street laughing for years. Every so often the New York bankers and traders stomp out en masse because they're insulted by what they see as paltry bonuses from the abstemious Swiss (never mind that CS First Boston's profits have fallen chronically short of powerhouses like Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs, and Morgan Stanley). A business professor who, like many interviewed for this story, asked not to be identified, is dubious: "This plan just might kill the whole enterprise."
One reason to bet the reorganization might actually succeed and surprise us all is that Swiss bankers, over time, tend to get what they want--almost as if through sheer inertia. Another is that the new Credit Suisse First Boston will boast vastly increased equity capital--$8.5 billion, compared with CS First Boston's $1.8 billion. But perhaps the best reason to bet that it will work is a wiry 48-year-old native of New Mexico named Allen D. Wheat.
Flamboyant, risk-taking, with a 24-karat record for building moneymaking enterprises, Wheat came to CS First Boston in 1990 and was named president and chief operating officer in 1993, reporting to CEO John Hennessy. In the new scheme, he'll essentially be running the show, reporting directly to the new CEO, Zurich-based Hans-Ulrich Doerig. One Wall Streeter describes Doerig as "dull as an old Swiss shoe." No one's ever going to say that about Allen Wheat. "You know as soon as you meet Allen that he is extraordinary," says Neil Powell Jr., an investment banker with SPP Hambro. "He puts facts and information together to see things others can't, he knows where he's going, and he's always on the right side of a trade."
Son of a West Point graduate who lost money speculating on Wall Street, Wheat had to finance his own education at the Wharton School and New York University's MBA program. (He's never gotten over it. When his dad came calling one day after Wheat had become a big-shot banker, he refused to see him.) After graduation Wheat put in stints at Chemical Bank and General Foods, then moved to Bankers Trust. There he catapulted to the top of the burgeoning new world of derivatives. Explains Powell: "In those days derivatives were voodoo--nobody understood them. But Allen saw that they would be huge. He got on his board, paddled out to that wave, and rode it right in onto the beach." In the process he created a select corps of followers who became so slavishly devoted to the boss that cynics dubbed them the "Kool-Aid Kids" after the Jim Jones cult.
When Wheat defected to CS First Boston (he left long before Bankers stumbled into its celebrated derivatives lawsuits), 18 Kids went with him and promptly performed the same alchemy. So profitable a business did they create that Wheat is believed to have earned $33 million in the past six years.
Not surprisingly, Wheat has stepped on many a toe on his road to the top. One of his charming ways is to constantly ridicule bureaucratic bosses and "idiots" who aren't part of his inner circle. People criticize his machinations as Machiavellian. Indeed, Wheat clearly outmaneuvered his former boss. Quipped a friend: "Hennessy must have a permanent crick in his neck from trying to watch Wheat behind his back."
Given the tensions of his new assignment, even Wheat's glittering past can't ensure future success. Whether he--or anyone--can get the Americans and Swiss to pull in one direction is an open question. And all that new capital will count for little unless Switzerland's sober, team-playing commercial bankers can learn to trust Wheat's gunslingers. Worse, the smoldering disagreement about pay scales will likely reignite.
Observes NYU finance professor Roy Smith: "Wheat has been successful at creating moneymaking businesses out of nothing, and that's a lifeblood First Boston badly needs. His difficulty is to make this whole thing with the Swiss work."