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April 1, 1999

BuildingThomas Weisel's New Trading Machine

By John A. Byrne

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  • BuildingThomas Weisel's New Trading Machine

Tim Heekin was still running the global equity-trading desk last September in London for Salomon Smith Barney when his telephone rang. The caller needed no introduction. He was Thomas Weisel, legendary founder of Montgomery Securities, once among the largest and most lucrative securities firms on the West Coast.

In 1997, Weisel sold his firm to Charlotte-based NationsBanc for about $1.3 billion, making him a tycoon as well as a serious philanthropist on the San Francisco Bay-area scene.

Weisel, however, wasn't exactly happy. He had recently quit as chairman of newly-named NationsBanc Montgomery Securities, having lost control of the business to NationsBanc's tough-talking chief executive, Hugh McColl. McColl, an ex-marine had masterminded the BankAmerica buyout.

Weisel is also tough. A former bicycle and ski racer with an athletic frame, his deal-making skills seem straight out of a textbook. In that respect, the symmetry between Weisel and Heekin stands out. Heekin is an avid skier and a mountain biker, as well as a well-respected dealer on the trading floor.

Crestfallen

At first crestfallen about losing control at Nationsbanc Montgomery, the 57-year-old Weisel soon put the memory behind him. He was determined, in the words of one person, to exact revenge on NationsBanc Montgomery, though he has publicly dismissed the assertion.

Weisel quickly plotted a plan for his return to the big league cloak-and-dagger world of West Coast brokerage.

The plan: to jumpstart a research-driven merchant bank in San Francisco, providing investment banking, institutional brokerage and private equity to the growth companies he believed bulge-bracket firms were ignoring. His primary goal was to repeat the success of his old Montgomery Securities in institutional brokerage and investment banking.

So Weisel's call to Heekin last September carried a sense of urgency. The call was one of hundreds Weisel would make over several weeks in a personal campaign for star pros at his new firm.

By the time Weisel had called Heekin, both their worlds were topsy-turvey. Heekin was interviewing for another job, his 18-month sojourn in London facing disruption. Under an employee-reduction plan, Heekin and other staffers on the Salomon side of his firm were getting pink slips. Heekin, meanwhile, was mulling several offers. Weisel's offer tempted him the most.

"When I got the call from Tom last September, it was perfect timing," said Heekin, a strapping 42-year-old trading veteran who once taught math at a private school in New Jersey. "I wanted to get back to the U.S. markets. When I heard Tom's business plan and the people he had assembled, the decision for me to move to San Francisco became very easy."

So Heekin soon packed his bags and flew home to the U.S. to join the new firm's trading desk, launched on February 1. He has been living in San Francisco ever since, working at Weisel's new firm, Thomas Weisel Partners, based in the Pacific Telesis Towers. And he is running the equity-trading and sales-trading desk, which is staffed by eight market makers,12 sales people and counting.

Enthusiasm

The former Salomon Smith Barney pro sounded enthusiastic in an interview with Traders Magazine, talking at length about the small to large-cap growth companies that the desk is covering in technology, consumer media and telecommunications, healthcare, and business and financial services.