Everyone on Wall Street has a story of Jimmy Lee, mainly because he was the kind of banker who doesn’t really exist anymore. The vice president of JPMorgan Chase & Co., who died suddenly this morning of a heart attack at age 62, was the kind of investment banker who told you right away what he was doing. could do for you, not what he could not do for you, then, by his considerable willpower, forced his company to keep its myriad of promises.
He never seemed to get bogged down in the mechanics of making deals, nor did he seem very concerned with the hellish political struggles that are an integral part of every great Wall Street company (even though he did. almost flawless political skills). On the contrary, he maintained an air of constant euphoria over the prospect of making deals. It wasn’t for nothing that Jimmy – still Jimmy, not the more formal James B. Lee Jr. – wore his signature suspenders with silver dollars depicted all over it. With his slicked back hair and Hermes ties, he looked like a brave and shameless investment banker. He didn’t have the slightest conflict over what he was supposed to do, even in the years after the financial crisis, when Wall Street bankers were increasingly portrayed as unsavory types. That kind of soul-searching wasn’t for Jimmy.
Jimmy Lee was made for big business. And his clients, such as private equity moguls Henry Kravis, Steve Schwarzman and Teddy Forstmann, knew it. And so, in the time of the Big Deal, they rushed to get it listed on their side of the ledger, knowing full well that by doing so they were solving the key problem in their financial equations: where am I going to find it? money to buy the business? Jimmy always got their money. It’s just the way he rode. Needless to say his customers loved him (for the most part).
But more and more in recent years, CEOs, beyond heavy users of leverage, have come to respect Jimmy’s banking sense as well. He liked really complicated business. When Lucent had to restructure his complex business a decade ago, Jimmy got the call from Lucent CEO Henry Schacht and immediately agreed to help, even though the real mission turned out to be a nightmare to run. He worked for Rupert Murdoch, helping the founder of News Corp. to buy The Wall Street Journal, and Jeffrey Immelt, helping the CEO of General Electric make the decision to dismantle GE Capital and sell as much as the market could bear.
Indeed, the last time I saw Jimmy was on April 9, the day before General Electric announced that it was withdrawing from most of its financial activities. My wife and I have been invited to a dinner with the President of Williams College, which is attended by our two sons as well as Jimmy and his three children. Jimmy loved Williams. He had recently joined his board – something he had longed for – and dinner was one of the ways he got financial support for the college. The dinner was a small, intimate affair – about eight people – and it was held in the private dining room of JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon on the 42nd floor of the company’s headquarters at 270 Park Avenue. Jimmy was his usual charm, extolling the virtues of Williams College and facilitating a dynamic discussion at the table about the virtues of a liberal arts education.
But Jimmy, being Jimmy, also wanted me to know he was working on an exciting new contract that would make all the papers the next day. Jimmy liked the reporters who covered Wall Street. He enjoyed discussing his role in making these complex transactions. That night he was truly giddy with anticipation, knowing that it would soon be revealed that he and JPMorgan Chase were part of Immelt’s plan to get rid of chunks of GE Capital. He was careful not to reveal what was going on, but you could tell it was major.
A few days later, I sent Jimmy a congratulatory note. âI don’t know how the amazing Jimmy Lee could juggle the GE Capital divestiture and the Williams dinner at the same time, but you did! ” I wrote. âAs someone who started his brief career on Wall Street at GE Capital funding LBOs, it was indeed a while. Congratulations on the most important case of the year. Half a day later, Jimmy replied, âYou are a good man. Yeah, it’s been a tough night for me. But a great day on Friday for our client. And that’s what matters most as you know all too well. Thank you my friend. A career phone call to get. Jimmy. “This turned out to be our last conversation.
Some 18 years earlier, when I was still climbing the ladder of my career in investment banking and considering leaving Merrill Lynch & Co., where I was director of the M&A group, I was offered a job offer new jobs at Bear Stearns & Co. and Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette (both now defunct). Jimmy had heard that I was looking around. He was then head of investment banking at the Chase Manhattan Bank, which had merged with the Chemical Bank – where Jimmy started out – and the Chemical Bank guys took over. In the mid-1990s, Jimmy intended to expand Chase’s investment banking business. He wanted the bank to be known for more than just giant loans to finance leveraged buyouts. He wanted to be part of the most prestigious (and profitable) profession of advising CEOs on buying and selling businesses.