A Rainmaker Seeks to Grow His Firm at a Time of Big Media and Tech Deals

Posted December 17, 2017 10:05 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — Five years ago, investment banker Aryeh B. Bourkoff, on his own after having left UBS, hitched a ride on the private plane of the billionaire John C. Malone and pitched a deal: Now was the time for the mogul to get back into the telecommunications business.

The vehicle was a small cable company named Charter Communications that had emerged from bankruptcy a few years earlier.

Malone was intrigued by the possibility. And what started with a $2.6 billion investment into Charter has become a national cable empire that includes the former Time Warner Cable — and the promise of yet more deal-making, led in part by Bourkoff and his boutique bank, LionTree.

The banker and his firm, specialists in deals within the telecom, media and tech worlds, are poised to gain prominence as those industries are consolidating like never before. (Disney is spending $52.4 billion to buy the bulk of 21st Century Fox last week, and when AT&T is willing to pay $85.4 billion in a bid to take over Time Warner.)

But the question Bourkoff faces is whether he can transform his schmoozing into a business that can outlast him.

LionTree, powered by what media and telecom executives describe as Bourkoff’s nonstop networking, has claimed a number of advisory assignments, from Charter’s deal for Time Warner Cable to Verizon’s purchases of AOL and Yahoo to helping advise Snap Inc. on its initial public offering. Overall, the firm has advised on more than $350 billion worth of transactions.

“Aryeh is going to be involved or peripherally involved in everything that’s going on,” said Les Moonves, the chief of CBS.

Bourkoff said he was ready to turn the moment to his advantage.

“It’s a fortunate thing that we happen to be at the right place at the right time,” Bourkoff said in an interview in his Midtown Manhattan office. He added, “The entire firm today, based on what we see coming into the future, is keenly structured to play into that.”

Standing out among independent investment banks, many started in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, is difficult. Bourkoff and his team at LionTree are hoping their focus on tech, media and telecom — as well as some untraditional features, including a publicly traded investment vehicle, a weekly newsletter and podcast — will lead to success.

Since founding LionTree in 2012 with a fellow UBS alumnus, Ehren Stenzler, Bourkoff has steadily expanded the firm’s reach, opening offices in San Francisco, London and Paris. And he has begun to poach brand-name talent: Last year, LionTree hired Jake Donavan, who led European industry coverage for JPMorgan Chase’s investment bank, as president of its European division.

“The pitch was, ‘help me build something fun and exciting,'” Donavan said in an interview. Referring to how Wall Street refers to tech, media and telecom, he added, “It’s a unique time in the TMT ecosystem.”

LionTree remains a relative minnow in the world of deal making. The 60-person firm has cracked the top 25 advisers on worldwide tech, media and telecom takeovers three times since its founding, according to Thomson Reuters. Its advisory business’s best year was in 2015, when it ranked eighth, outpacing every other independent bank. Last year, it ranked 24th, behind firms like Evercore and Raine Group. (LionTree did not have a role in the Disney deal, even though other boutique banks were involved.)

But the company, whose offices reflect a sort of sleekly modernized “Mad Men” décor, match Bourkoff’s vision for what his bank should look like.

Few in the firm have formal titles, in what is meant to create a “flat” organization in which young bankers can feel free to propose transaction ideas. Much effort has been spent on data analysis and reaching out to young tech startups run by millennial founders.

LionTree has worked to grow its investment management business, which uses outside client money to invest in transactions, often alongside advisory clients. This year, the firm backed a new investment company, Ocelot, that will use the $425 million that it raised from public-market investors, including Malone, to buy a privately held business.

And Bourkoff has also hired a number of advisers to serve as “entrepreneurs in residence,” including Ursula Burns, former chief executive of Xerox, and Betsy Morgan, former chief executive of Glenn Beck’s The Blaze, who are meant to both bring in business opportunities and come up with new initiatives. (It was Morgan, for instance, who helped come up with the idea of the firm’s KindredCast podcast, which has featured the likes of Moonves of CBS and talent manager Scooter Braun.)

Yet at the center of LionTree remains Bourkoff. Malone — who controls the Liberty constellation of companies — called him the “honeybee” of the TMT world, flying from flower to flower cross-pollinating ideas.

Bourkoff began his career as an analyst, first covering the debt of companies, and then their stocks. He then made the leap into investment banking at UBS, where he eventually became the Swiss bank’s head of investment banking for the Americas. He resigned in 2012 to co-found LionTree.

“The streets are littered with research analysts who tried to make the transition to investment banking, who thought they could leverage their relationships,” Rob Wiesenthal, once the chief financial officer of Sony Music and now the chief of Blade, the helicopter-ride startup, said. “Aryeh is one of the only ones who has successfully done that.”

Ken Lerer, a co-founder of HuffPost and now a Viacom board member, credited Bourkoff with helping to resolve an impasse over the makeup of Viacom’s board involving Shari Redstone, the daughter of its chairman.

“It was a deal that wasn’t getting done otherwise,” Lerer said.

Among LionTree’s most prized clients is Liberty and Malone, who have retained the firm on numerous assignments.

“When people ask me, ‘Who should I use,’ he’s sort of the top of my list as an adviser,” Malone said in an interview.

But changing the perception that LionTree centers solely around Bourkoff may be difficult. “This is the Aryeh show,” Wiesenthal said. “This is not the LionTree show.”

Bourkoff is working to alter that view. He argued that his Rolodex belongs to the firm, because he cannot meet every client, come up with every idea and execute every deal. “It’s less important to have a branded banker than it is to have a system,” he said.

Young bankers are encouraged to pass along their business ideas to senior executives and to speak more to clients like Lerer and Charter’s management team. It is, in Bourkoff’s view, an extension of the networking that he practices constantly.

The challenge now is to grow the firm while not losing sight of what is happening in the tech, media and telecom worlds now, according to Bourkoff.

“We expect a frenetic year ahead,” he wrote in a letter to clients this weekend.