Wall Street Dealmaker Tries to Restart His Weeknight Party Scene
(Bloomberg) -- Before the vaccination checks, air kisses, borrowed cigarettes, chilled Champagne, jumbo shrimp, strip steak and triple-chocolate pots de creme, the banker Euan Rellie arranged about 60 place cards himself.
The co-founder of investment banking boutique BDA Partners was inside the Waverly Inn’s garden room in Greenwich Village this week to celebrate his firm’s quarter-century anniversary. But what made the scene so significant was that there was a scene at all. Covid’s global rampage may be fueling record profits for BDA and rivals, but it largely silenced the bank parties that had long been so normal on any given weeknight in Manhattan.
“First big one,” said Rellie, a veteran of Wall Street and that scene. His aim as host was to celebrate cautiously, without feeling embarrassed about success. “If I was really oversensitive about it,” he had said a few days earlier, “I wouldn’t be an investment banker.”
Beyond the big galas that resumed in recent months -- like the Metropolitan Museum of Art benefit that just grabbed national headlines -- Wall Streeters once bumped elbows nightly in favored outposts around town, hunting relationships and deals. But that scene suddenly fell dormant in 2020. Much of the action shifted to smaller, private gatherings or to roomier locales, like the Hamptons and Florida. Manhattan parties thrown by banks may be last to restart.
At the Waverly Inn, waiters wore masks. One of them, who began tending tables for the first time in about 20 years after losing his job as a beverage director at a major museum, said he didn’t want to live in fear. Rellie asked him to open the Champagne.
Guests made their way into the glass-ceilinged, ivy-walled space with a tree growing in the center and a crackling fireplace at the back. One veteran of mergers and acquisitions was wearing his best suit for the first time since early 2020. Next to him, by the tree, an investment banker who specializes in apparel had just put on her heels again. The room quickly filled with the once-familiar sound of voices straining to be heard.
“It’s sort of inspirational how crowded it is,” said Anthony Gellert, founder of Livingston Capital Management. “I think the steak dinner matters,” he added. Then he made a prediction: “It’s going to be an arms race again: Who’s going to offer golf and steak dinners more than the other guy?”
But Frazer Rice, who helps money managers for wealthy families at Pendleton Square Trust Co., predicted Wall Street parties will roar back, only to decline. “You have pent-up demand, let’s call it, for social interaction and business interaction,” he said. “There will be an initial bump, and then the concepts of inequality and ESG are going to really take hold.”
Nearby, technology investor Sundar Subramaniam disagreed. “I’m not sure if the concerns of inequality will withstand the pressure to close deals,” he said. “The force of capitalism is so strong they’ll do whatever it takes.”
Guests sat down for a dinner menu that included burrata, strip steak and a Georgia peach crumble. Private equity executive David Hoffman hadn’t put on one of his ties because he’s using them to decorate an ottoman. Sitting at the table felt surreal, he said, like being dropped into the past. Dee Poku, who founded WIE Suite, a private community for women leaders, said at the same table that she expects Wall Street to dial its culture down.
“They don’t want to be seen as insensitive,” said Poku, a former Hollywood executive who served on a Credit Suisse Group AG advisory board. “What is keeping them up at night is the optics.”
Indeed, the pandemic is far from over. As the party got underway Monday evening, Covid had killed about 675,000 in the U.S., overtaking the toll of the 1918 influenza pandemic.
It’s not like Wall Street has been staying home. Banks have been throwing terrace gatherings for employees, interns have been getting drunk downtown, and dealmakers have been toasting triumphs. Even Rellie hosted a smaller group at the same venue a few months ago. “Now we’re gaining the confidence to give a big party,” he said. “This was a momentous occasion for us.”
He was 28 when he co-founded BDA, a firm that specializes in dealmaking involving Asia. So far this year, it has advised on sales of an Indian valve maker, a Hong Kong chemicals group, a Singapore data firm and a chemical plant in China, along with capital for a Shanghai grocer and a dental chain in Vietnam. Outbreaks of the delta variant have hit Vietnam hard this year and ravaged India. By Rellie’s estimates, BDA will make an average of $2 million on about 30 deals, hitting a record $60 million of revenue.
The veteran dealmaker stood up to give his toast to the crowd near Poku’s seat, with a glass in one hand, and a white spread-collar shirt and dark tie that he joked made him look like one of the waiters.
“It’s probably a bit corny to say it’s a family and it’s not about the money,” he said. “Of course it is, partly, about the money.” He smiled. “But actually we have quite a good time. And we -- occasionally -- throw parties.”
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.