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John Birkelund, Banker Who Led Dillon Read Revival, Dies at 88

John Birkelund, Banker Who Led Dillon Read Revival, Dies at 88

  • The firm was sold to Swiss Bank Corp. for $600 million in 1997
  • He previously ran the Rothschild’s main U.S. investment arm

John Birkelund, who led a 1980s revival at the investment bank Dillon, Read & Co., has died. He was 88.

He died on May 10 in New Canaan, Connecticut, according to Hoyt Funeral Home. No cause was given.

In the early 1980s, Birkelund joined Dillon Read, a Wall Street firm with long-time clients such as General Mills Inc., Anheuser-Busch Cos. and R.J. Reynolds Industries Inc. By that time, the firm, one of Wall Street’s oldest, had lost key accounts and some of its relevance.

Birkelund, who rose to chairman, revitalized Dillon Read by emphasizing venture capital, leveraged buyouts and merger advisory services to bolster profits.

His early strategy was to keep Dillon Read small and maintain strong management, according to a 1991 New York Times article. “In the ’80s, the emphasis was on people who could make big transactions happen,” he said. “We stuck to our knitting.”

The Bechtel family, who ran the international construction and engineering firm Bechtel Group Inc., acquired a controlling interest in Dillon Read in 1981 and hired Birkelund as president.

Firm’s Sale

Birkelund helped repurchase control from the Bechtels starting in 1983. In 1997 he oversaw the firm’s $600 million sale to Swiss Bank Corp., which merged Dillon Read with its investment banking arm, SBC Warburg. Swiss Bank merged with Union Bank of Switzerland to form Zurich-based UBS Group AG in 1998.

John Peter Birkelund was born in Chicago on June 23, 1930, to George Birkelund, a banker, and the former Ruth Olsen, according to Marquis Who’s Who and the funeral home.

He graduated from Princeton University in 1952, then served three years in U.S. Naval intelligence in Berlin.

Prior to joining Dillon Read, he ran New Court Securities Corp., the Rothschild family’s primary investment vehicle in the U.S.

After leaving Dillon Read in 1997, he joined Saratoga Partners, a New York-based private equity company.

Birkelund and his wife, the former Constance Smiles, had four children, Gwynne, Elizabeth, Constance and Diana.