As a child, Michel David-Weill survived the Nazi occupation of France. He then made a name for himself at the head of Lazard, his family’s venerable Franco-American bank-boutique. The financier became known for skillfully steering the company through its 1980s heyday, and later, reluctantly, into the era of modern finance.
Lazard has never been bankrupted, bailed out or otherwise subsumed by a financial supermarket like once flashier rivals. Instead, copycat companies have tried to replicate his simple approach, seemingly in homage to a bygone era of finance that David-Weill, who died at the age of 89, embodied.
His strict rule and reluctance to embrace Wall Street fashions sometimes frustrated his colleagues, who worried that David-Weill’s risk aversion would make Lazard an anachronism in the 21st century. Yet today, loyalists note that Lazard has remained independent, with a multi-billion dollar valuation. Its core business remains advising captains of industry and governments on their thorniest issues.
In 2001, David-Weill lured Wall Street legend Bruce Wasserstein to the company. Wasserstein pulled a public listing from Lazard in 2005, a deal that crystallized a billion-dollar fortune for David-Weill. But David-Weill viewed the IPO as the antithesis of his conception of the company as a close-knit partnership. He left the disagreement, marking the first time in its 150-year history that Lazard no longer employed a member of its founding family.
Michel David-Weill was born in Paris in 1932. His great-grandfather Alexandre Weill had transformed Lazard, originally a haberdashery company in New Orleans founded in 1848, into a bank operating in the United States, in London and Paris.
When World War II broke out, David-Weill’s mother had him baptized as a Catholic to avoid being recognized as a Jew. He moved to New York after the war and, after apprenticeships in other companies, joined Lazard in 1956. He returned to France to replace his father at the head of Lazard Paris when the latter died in 1975. A few years later later, he goes back. in New York to take over the management of the office, succeeding the imposing André Meyer.
During his 25-year career, David-Weill has made crucial strategic decisions. These included the growth of an asset management unit that would eventually generate half of the company’s profits, the buyout of a Lazard stake previously held by British conglomerate Pearson and, most importantly, the merger formal of the Lazard “houses” of Paris, London and New York which previously functioned as a loose confederation.
But his greatest talent was spotting particular types of bankers, and his preservation of a creative space in which these men could pursue their craft.
“There is an immense diversity of backgrounds within the Lazard companies,” David-Weill told Euromoney in 1993. “But they share one thing: the excitement of being able to individually make a difference through their intellectual contribution.”
James Kempner, hired in the 1980s as a junior associate and then promoted to associate, compared David-Weill to the owner of the New York Yankees who was obsessed with fielding baseball championship teams. “Like George Steinbrenner, Michel had a way of bringing in incredible superstars,” he said.
Antonio Weiss, another long-time Lazard collaborator, explained that David-Weill was uniquely able to hold together the distinctive personalities on either side of the Atlantic.
“We stayed because of a personal relationship with Michel. He had an individual approach for each partner. You were called into his office and, whether the discussion lasted ten minutes or two hours, you always learned something from him.
Eventually, those ties would fray. At the end of the 1990s, high finance became institutionalized. Sprawling complexes like Citigroup have been destroyed. Goldman Sachs, itself a historic partnership, sold its shares to the public. Vast wealth was being created in tech start-ups, venture capital, private equity, and hedge funds. Lazard’s inherited owners absorbed so much of his profits that there was not enough to pay the growers.
David-Weill, then in his 60s, was accused of entrenching himself atop Lazard. He and his wife Hélène had four daughters, none of whom joined the business. A son-in-law was selected as a possible heir, but walked out after disappointing his elders during a stint with Lazard. Others left when it became apparent that they had fallen out of favor with the president.
Even after he was no longer officially affiliated with Lazard, David-Weill’s contemporaries made frequent pilgrimages to his Fifth Avenue apartment to carry on their long conversations. “In life, sometimes there are good surprises,” he said in 2019. “And one of them is that Lazard is still Lazard to me.”