Bruce Wasserstein, the legendary financier who lucratively traversed decades of changing markets—from the era of corporate raiding to the tech boom-and-bust and through the Panic of 2008—died Wednesday, Oct. 14, just days after being rushed to the hospital with an irregular heartbeat. The exact cause of death has not yet been determined. He was 61.
The investment banker had been the chairman and chief executive of Lazard, where he was renowned as one of Wall Street's most connected and prolific mergers-and-acquisitions talents—a go-to guy for everything from media valuations to discounted cash-flow analyses of food conglomerates with liability-prone tobacco assets.
"We are shocked and greatly saddened by the passing of Bruce Wasserstein," said Lazard's board of directors in a prepared statement. "He was a visionary leader, a devoted father to his children and a good friend. At Lazard, he has put into place a long-term strategy as well as a broad and deep leadership team, in whom we have confidence and who will sustain his vision." Lazard named Vice-Chairman Steven J. Golub, 63, as interim CEO, effective immediately.
A graduate of both Harvard's law and business schools, Wasserstein deftly straddled the worlds of finance and corporate counsel arcana. He became a one-stop shop for deal-seeking executives, who nicknamed him "Bid 'Em Up Bruce." "Even in an industry of larger-than-life figures, Bruce truly stood out for his intellect, his tenacity, and his fearlessness," says friend and financier Steve Rattner, who often crossed paths with Wasserstein in their numerous media-deal pursuits.
The "whiz-kid" label suited Wasserstein, who entered college as a 16-year-old, just fine. At age 19, he graduated from the University of Michigan, where he was the editor of the school paper. As a Harvard graduate student, Wasserstein signed up to be one of activist Ralph Nader's "Nader's Raiders." His studies subsequently took him to a fellowship at Cambridge University in England, where he specialized in merger law.
Wasserstein would go on to parlay his wunderkind stint at white-shoe law firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore into leadership roles at First Boston, Wasserstein Perella Group, and Lazard. Throughout, Wasserstein had his fingerprints on some of the most high-profile deals in M&A history, including the frenzied, Machiavellian bidding for RJR Nabisco in 1989, which was profiled in the best seller Barbarians at the Gate. A year later, he helped structure Time Inc.'s (TWX) megamerger with Warner Bros. He was recently advising food behemoth Kraft (KFT) in its pursuit of Cadbury (CBY).
Through his private equity shop Wasserstein & Co., moreover, Wasserstein capitalized on the many dislocations in the Internet-age media world. In 2004 he acquired New York magazine, turning it around from a long somnolence into an award-laden glossy. Wasserstein was interested in acquiring BusinessWeek from The McGraw-Hill Companies (MHP) before dropping out of the auction a few weeks ago. (Bloomberg has since emerged as the winning bidder.)
The financier might be most remembered for wresting control of Lazard from its private owners. The boutique investment bank that was founded in 1848 in New Orleans thrives today in the wake of the failures of Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, and the continued travails at Citigroup (C) and Bank of America (BAC). Lazard's restructuring business is flourishing at a time of unprecedented corporate tumult and stretched balance sheets.
"We're sort of in a group by ourselves when it comes to the quality of the advice we provide," Wasserstein told BusinessWeek in November 2006, mere months before subprime rot ate away at Wall Street and the broader global economy. "Quality is not the focus of a lot of our competitors because having lots of capital is their focus, or lending capital, or whatever it is."
Reportedly worth $2.3 billion at the time of his death, Wasserstein was barely a generation removed from the huddling masses of Ellis Island. His late father, a Jewish immigrant from pre-Nazi Poland, came to New York to start a ribbon company. Wasserstein is survived by his wife and children. His sister Wendy Wasserstein, the Pulitzer and Tony award-winning playwright, died in 2006.