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Bruce Wasserstein, University alum and finance giant, dies at 61

Courtesy of Tom Copi
Bruce Wasserstein (third from right) talks with fellow Daily staffers in 1966. Buy this photo

BY NICOLE ABER
Daily Staff Reporter
Published October 14, 2009

Bruce Wasserstein, whose savvy decision-making and pragmatic disposition led him on a trail of successes from the University's campus and The Michigan Daily newsroom to the loftiest positions on Wall Street, died Wednesday at the age of 61.

Wasserstein, the chairman and CEO of Lazard, an investment bank, was first hospitalized Sunday due to an irregular heartbeat, according to the Associated Press. The cause of death is still not known.

In finance, Wasserstein is perhaps best known for developing a more aggressive strategy in mergers and acquisitions — now termed the “hostile takeover.” But for those who worked in the Daily newsroom in the mid-to-late 1960s, Wasserstein was known for his shrewd reporting, strategic and brilliant mind and jumbled appearance.

Born in Brooklyn on Dec. 25, 1947, Wasserstein — who started his career as a lawyer — quickly became a Wall Street luminary by the early 1980s. He brokered one of the biggest deals of the 20th century: Kohlberg Kravis Roberts’s takeover of RJR Nabisco, a deal canonized by the book “Barbarians at the Gate.” He also facilitated the industry-altering Morgan Stanley-Dean Witter and AOL-Time Warner mergers.

Long before his days of billion-dollar dealmaking, Wasserstein attended the University of Michigan for his undergraduate education and served as the Daily’s executive editor from 1966 to 1967.

As a reporter and editor, Wasserstein covered numerous topics during a tumultuous time on campus and at the Daily. According to Mark Killingsworth — the Daily’s editor in chief from 1966 to 1967 — Wasserstein’s most notable coverage was of the University’s response to a subpoena from the House Un-American Activities Committee in September 1966.

That coverage, according to Killingsworth, demonstrated the underlying intelligence that would be Wasserstein’s trademark for the rest of his life.

“He was a very hard-headed, careful reporter with an eye for personal details and was, I think, very good at strategizing, scoping things out, and again, of course that’s where he made his living,” Killingsworth said in a phone conversation yesterday evening.

Many on campus were angry after the University turned over a list of names to Congress, according to Killingsworth, who is now a professor of economics at Rutgers University.

Wasserstein responded to the University’s decision by extensively interviewing members of the University’s Law School community to find out where University officials stood on the event and whether they had tried to prevent it, Killingsworth said.

“It’s eerie reading (Wasserstein’s article) and then knowing he went on to become, first of all, a great lawyer and secondly, a great deal-maker,” Killingsworth said. “All of the themes of that, I think, are clearly visible in what he did.”

Though Wasserstein was recognized by all who knew him for his remarkable smarts, he was also keenly identified by his Daily co-workers by his disheveled appearance, according to Daniel Okrent, another Daily alumnus who now writes for Time Magazine as well as other publications.

“The key things about Bruce was he was incredibly smart (and) he was a total slob in college,” Okrent said. “He meant to tuck in his shirt but he never managed to really pull it off. He was pudgy, he was amusing and he always seemed to be thinking a few steps ahead of the rest of us.”

Those messy tendencies proved to be more endearing than detrimental.

Wasserstein graduated from the University in 1967 at the age of 19 with an Honors degree in political science. He later went on to graduate from both Harvard Law School and Harvard Business School, and later studied at Cambridge University as a Knox Traveling Fellow.

“I guess (his appearance) didn’t do that much against him,” said Andy Sacks, who was a Daily Photo Editor. “You and me were probably taught that we had to tuck our shirts in to get ahead in the world. Bruce got ahead without paying much attention to that detail.”

Killingsworth said Wasserstein — a born deal-maker — was also instrumental in handling a situation during the winter of 1967 in which the Board in Control of Student Publications rejected Roger Rapoport, the editorial staff’s nominee for editor in chief. At the time, top editors needed the approval of the Board — a process that is no longer in place.

The paper’s top editors decided that despite their ongoing efforts to resolve the confrontation with the Board, they had a responsibility to report on the proceedings.

“Bruce’s attitude about the whole thing was that we were first and foremost reporting this,” Killingsworth said. “And sure we had to make decisions about how we were going to wage war against the Board. Bruce was, I’d say, one of the key strategizers in figuring out what to do and sticking to it.”

Killingsworth said it was during this time that Wasserstein’s commitment to journalistic integrity was truly proven.

“The remarkable thing about it, I think, was he never, ever, even for a moment, suspected or considered the possibilities that we might somehow withhold something that we knew for fear that it would clear a deal with the Board,” Killingsworth said. “His attitude was, ‘We’ll press ahead with what we want, but in the meantime we’ve got to report the news.’”

“I have an enormous amount of respect for what he did at the Daily,” Killingsworth added.

Respect for Wasserstein carried on long after his time at the University ended — especially because of Wasserstein’s attachment to his college workplace.

For example, one day during the summer of 1984, Wasserstein came back to Ann Arbor and stopped off at 420 Maynard St. to visit the Daily’s summer staff, according to Neil Chase, who was working as the Daily’s summer editor-in-chief at the time.

Wasserstein treated the Daily staffers to lunch at Cottage Inn on East Liberty Street, inquired about their doings at the Daily and spoke of his time there. Meanwhile, because of Wasserstein’s humble nature, they had no idea they were hanging out with one of the most prominent names on Wall Street, Chase said.

“It wasn’t until after he left, we did a little research on our own and figured out what a powerful guy in the investment business he was,” Chase said. “He was already really successful by then.”

Though primarily a finance guru, Wasserstein did contribute substantially to the world of journalism, Chase said.

Wasserstein went on to found The Deal, a financial newsweekly, and also bought and reshaped other publications like American Lawyer and New York magazine. Before his death, Wasserstein was also rumored to be among the potential bidders to purchase BusinessWeek.

He also co-founded Wasserstein Perella, an investment banking firm where he served as CEO from 1988 to 2001. Following his success there, Lazard hired Wasserstein in 2002. In his first year on the job, Wasserstein boldly took the company public after more than a century of private ownership.

Besides his undeniable mark on the investment banking, Wasserstein left a definite mark on University of Michigan students’ lives. He established the Morris Wasserstein Award through the LSA Honors Program, in honor of his father, which provides honors students on the Daily's writing and editorial staffs with scholarship money that "can exceed $1000/term for one or two terms," according to the University of Michigan Honors Program website.

Though Okrent claims Wasserstein was “smarter than the rest of us combined,” he never could have guessed he would become such an immense leader in the finance world.

“When he went off to get his juris law degree at Harvard, you knew that if Bruce ever got his act together, which he did, he would be very successful, but there was no clue he would pursue a career in high finance,” he said.

Killingsworth, too, said he didn’t foresee Wasserstein’s trancedence from Daily editor to Wall Street power broker, but he did know Wasserstein had the skills to be very successful.

“He was a phenomenon,” Killingsworth said. “He was amazing.”


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