Boutique Banks 101

If working at a huge multinational investment bank is not your cup of tea, then you might instead set your sights on landing a job at one of many specialized, or boutique, investment banks spread across the country.

How Are They Different?

Unlike large “bulge bracket” banks such as Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan and other Wall Street powerhouses, boutique investment banks tend to be much smaller and specialize in certain industry fields, including technology, biotech, healthcare and energy.

They’re also usually private partnerships, not publicly traded firms, and often resemble what investment banks used to look like before major regulatory changes and consolidations transformed the banking industry in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Why Boutique?

And the top-tier boutique banks are considered excellent and often lucrative places to work for those yearning to break into investment banking.

“It’s one of the best training grounds for young investment bankers,” says Alex Hart, a managing director at Signal Hill, considered one of the more prestigious boutique investment banks in the U.S., with offices in Baltimore, Boston, Nashville, New York, Reston, Va., San Francisco and Bangalore, India. “You can gain a lot of experience at a boutique that you can’t find anywhere else.”

What’s Their Niche?

The evolution: Modern boutique investment banking can trace its roots to roughly the early 1980s, when then young tech companies like Microsoft, Apple and other tech firms were first emerging as titans, or potential titans, in places like Silicon Valley and Boston’s Route 128 high-tech corridor.

Back then, boutiques played a key role in helping startups and medium-sized firms by raising capital and providing advisory services for mergers and acquisitions (M&A). But the bottom fell out on many boutiques in the late 1990s, as federal regulatory reforms allowed larger banks to jump into a wider field of financial services, including investment banking. Several boutiques ended up getting snapped up by giant financial firms.

“Many of these (mergers) failed miserably, as the cultures were quite different,” says F. Mark D’Annolfo, who formerly worked in investment banking at Deutsche Bank Securities and Adams, Harkness & Hill, a boutique firm that was purchased last decade by Canaccord Genuity.

The current climate: Over the past 10 years or so, boutiques have reemerged as key players within the investment banking field, often taking on smaller deals that mega-huge firms don’t want to touch. In other words, they’ve found a nice and often very lucrative niche.

What’s their bread and butter today? Some boutiques raise capital for IPOs and other public offerings, while also providing advisory services for M&A deals. But the majority of boutiques focus on the M&A advisory side of the business, effectively acting as middlemen between small-to medium-sized firms of all stripes and potential financiers, such a private equity firms and other fund companies.

Why it works: Boutiques tend to specialize in certain industry fields — such as technology, healthcare, biotech and energy — and often locate in major cities with cutting-edge companies and industries. Their deals are usually smaller than what the bulge bracket banks handle. Boutique deals can range from $20 million to $1 billion.

“After that, you’re starting to compete with the big guys,” M. Benjamin Howe, chief executive and head of investment banking at AGC Partners in Boston, says of the huge Wall Street firms.

The Best of the Best: Top Boutique Banks

There are literally hundreds of investment banks across the U.S., largely because anyone can technically call him or herself an “investment banker” and try to act as a financial advisor on major M&A and other financial deals.

But the most well known, top-tier boutique investment banks include Evercore Partners, Signal Hill, AGC Partners, Pacific Crest, Catalyst Group, GCA Savvian and others who are considered key financial players within certain industry sectors.

D’Annolfo, the former investment banker and now managing director of the Stephen D. Cutler Center for Investments and Finance at Babson College, cautions that those applying for jobs at boutiques need to carefully research firms to make sure they’re the right fit, such as whether a bank’s industry focus matches a candidate’s own expertise and interests.

“You really have to do your homework, as the experience can be very different from firm to firm,” he says.

The Best of the Best: Ideal Candidates

The best boutiques want the same type of job candidates as the big investment banks: potential top-notch financial analysts who are excellent at sifting through and analyzing complex financial data.

They also tend to recruit from top colleges and universities, though some boutiques may be partial to smaller prestigious schools close to their headquarters or satellite offices. Like bulge bracket banks, they look highly upon candidates who have majors in both business and specialized fields, such as computer science, biology and other science-related fields.

Compensation

Compensation at boutique investment banks tends to be lower than what is paid at the mega-
big banks, largely because their deals are smaller, and they don’t have as much capital and global franchises.

But the compensation at boutiques, by any other standard, is still excellent, with some boutique starting first-year analysts off at $80,000 to $100,000, with additional performance bonuses. The pay rises as employees move up the corporate ladder and, if they can crack into senior management positions, compensation can easily surge into the seven-figure range.

The Typical Day — and Why It’s Better Here

For junior employees at boutiques, the average day is not unlike what financial analysts endure at big firms — long hours of research, research and more research.

But there’s a huge difference: Early-career boutique employees can get much more involved in actual deal strategizing, working closely with senior investment bankers and even clients. In other words, their jobs can be more flexible within a collegial environment, allowing them to gain far more experience than they might at bulge bracket banks.

“They’re also on a much faster track to partnerships because firms are smaller,” says AGC Partners’ Howe.

 And another big plus: Many young boutique bank employees can parlay their valuable experience into landing jobs at private equity firms, hedge funds and larger banks.

Some even occasionally take the entrepreneurial plunge by joining young startup firms that they’ve previously worked with on finance deals.

About the Author: Jay Fitzgerald is a business journalist based in Boston. Over the years, his articles have appeared in The Boston Globe, the Boston Business Journal, the Boston Herald and other publications.

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