Bruce Wasserstein, the Wall Street investment banker who helped pioneer the hostile takeover in the 1980s and reshaped the mergers and acquisitions business into a high art, died Wednesday.
Mr. Wasserstein, 61, was the chairman and chief executive of Lazard. The cause of death could not be immediately learned, though he had been hospitalized earlier this week for what was described as an irregular heartbeat. The company had described his condition then as serious, but said he was “stable and recovering.”
Mr. Wasserstein, who began his career as a lawyer but quickly moved into investment banking, worked on some of the biggest deals of the past three decades, including Kohlberg Kravis Roberts’s takeover of RJR Nabisco.
Mr. Wasserstein never looked like a stereotypically urbane investment banker, long preferring a rumpled look, his shirt often untucked. But he transformed deal-making from a business built on relationships, as practiced by forebears like Andre Meyer and Felix G. Rohatyn of Lazard, into one built on high-priced free agency.
To Mr. Wasserstein, deal-making was a chess game, one ripe for complex strategies — that often came at high cost. Never one to easily lose a deal, he often urged clients to reach deep into their pocketbooks to win, often stroking their egos with what became known as his “Dare to be Great” speech. (Critics bestowed upon him a sobriquet he detested: “Bid-‘em Up Bruce.”)
“He was a great tactician,” Mr. Rohatyn said Wednesday. “He frightened people. That’s why they called him ’Bid-‘em Up Bruce.’”
Mr. Wasserstein was never afraid to speak his mind. After working on a three-way takover battle for City Service involving Gulf Oil and the corporate raider Boone Pickens, he said: “There are ten people in the world who know how to do these kinds of deals. And Boone Pickens isn’t one of them.”
Bruce Wasserstein was born Dec. 25, 1947, in Brooklyn. Even in his youth, Mr. Wasserstein was known for his precocity. One of his sisters, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein (who died of lymphoma in 2006), once remembered her hiking adventures with her brother.
”At the end of the trail, Bruce planted a stick, proclaiming it Bruceania,” she said. “It never occurred to me to claim the new world as Wendyania.”
He graduated from the University of Michigan at the age of 19, moving to Harvard Law School and the Harvard Business School, where he somewhat improbably served as one of Ralph Nader’s “Nader’s Raiders.” He later studied at Cambridge University in England as a Knox Fellow.
After graduation, he first began working at the law firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore. But he soon left for the more lucrative world of banking, joining the nascent mergers and acquisitions department at First Boston.
Together with Joseph Perella, Mr. Wasserstein built the firm into a powerhouse deal shop. Many of the deals that symbolized the frenzy that was the 1980s Wall Street — Texaco’s acquisition of Getty Oil, ABC’s sale to Capital Cities — bore their fingerprints. (Mr. Rohatyn said he tried to lure Mr. Wasserstein and Mr. Perella to Lazard in the 1980s.)
But in 1988, after months of public feuding with First Boston, he and Mr. Perella left to set up their own shop, Wasserstein Perella & Company, taking many of their former colleagues and clients.
“When Bruce and Joe left First Boston, they and their colleagues came across Park Ave to our office to continue working on a number of major deals,” said Martin Lipton, a partner at the law firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz and another gray eminence of deal-making. “They were so busy that they overloaded our phone system so that they, and we, were out of business for several hours.”
It was there that Mr. Wasserstein advised on K.K.R.’s takeover of Nabisco, memorably recaptured in the book “Barbarians at the Gate.”
Though Mr. Perella left the boutique firm in the 1990s, Mr. Wasserstein stayed on and sold it to Dresdner Bank in 2000 for about $1.4 billion. Ever the inveterate deal-maker, much of those proceeds went to him.
In 2002, he was hired by Lazard’s Michel David-Weill, then the firm’s chairman, to run the investment bank he had long admired. Mr. Wasserstein, however, persuaded many of the firm’s deal-makers to support one of the biggest deals of his career: taking Lazard public and ending more than a century of private ownership. The move set off a bitter feud between the two men, one often played out in the press.
Soon after Lazard went public, Mr. Wasserstein embarked on another major deal, aiding Carl C. Icahn in trying to shake up AOL Time Warner, his former client. However, that effort ended quietly, with the company reaching a compromise with the gadfly investor.
Most recently, he has led the team advising Kraft in its potential takeover of Cadbury.
But Mr. Wasserstein had interests beyond the boardroom. In 2004, he made a surprise bid for New York magazine, defeating some of the city’s richest businessmen in the process. Years before, he purchased a passel of trade publications including The Deal, a trade publication aimed at deal-makers, and American Lawyer, one aimed at the legal field. He sold the magazine group to Incisive Media, a British publisher, in 2007 for $630 million.
Adam Moss, New York’s editor in chief, described Mr. Wasserstein as an unusual owner for the magazine.
“He had always been interested in journalism, an interest sharpened by being on the receiving end of it,” Mr. Moss said. “But he never used it to wield influence the way other powerful men would have, never tried to plant a story, never complained about anything we published.
“He just took a kind of personal pleasure in owning it, and was an enormous believer in it as a business.”
Mr. Wasserstein is survived by his wife, Angela Chao, and seven children, including the daughter of his sister Wendy. He has been divorced three times.
– Andrew Ross Sorkin and Michael J. de la Merced