When online jobs-listing company Monster Worldwide Inc. announced plans last month to begin a strategic review, it said it had hired two banks to help it with the process: Bank of America Merrill Lynch and Stone Key Partners LLC.
Stone Key Partners is the Greenwich, Conn.-based advisory shop founded in 2008 by former Bear Stearns Cos. dealmakers Michael Urfirer and Denis Bovin. The firm, which specializes in technology and defense, is one of a handful of boutiques born out of the financial crisis, which spurred bankers displaced from large institutions to set up shops of their own. While not all of these firms have survived, Stone Key appears to be thriving, thanks largely to the longtime relationships of Urfirer and Bovin, Bear's global head of strategic advisory banking and chairman of the global technology, media and telecom group, respectively.
Indeed, the dealmakers' ties to Monster CEO Sal Iannuzzi go back to at least 2007 when Iannuzzi was CEO of Symbol Technologies Inc., which Urfirer and Bovin advised on its sale to Motorola Inc. for about $3.9 billion. Ianuzzi "was among the folks who were supportive of us starting Stone Key," says Urfirer. In 2010, Iannuzzi hired Stone Key alongside BofA Merrill Lynch to advise Monster on its $225 million acquisition of the HotJobs online recruitment business from Yahoo! Inc.
That deal was one of 16 Stone Key has closed since its mid-2008 inception, representing about $13 billion in deal volume. The fees collected on those transactions have been enough for the 20-person firm to be profitable each year from the beginning, Urfirer says, declining to provide specifics. The firm's performance has turned heads. Sixteen deals in 3-1/2 years is "an incredible dealflow number for a [pure advisory] industry group," says Rebecca Glasman, a partner with New York search firm CTPartners Executive Search Inc. "If you close three to five deals in a year, that's a great year."
Urfirer pegs some of Stone Key's success to the environment at Bear Stearns in which bankers, not the bank, owned client relationships. To move from a large bank to a startup boutique, "the individual must have the relationship -- the institution can't own the relationship," Urfirer says. At Bear, he says, he and Bovin "basically ran a firm inside a firm."
As a result, when news of Bear Stearns' imminent collapse began to circulate in March 2008, longtime client DRS Technologies Inc. approached the pair and asked them to advise it on its eventual sale, regardless of where they landed. Two months later, before Stone Key officially announced its launch, the firm represented the Parsippany, N.J.-based military electronics company on its $5.2 billion sale to Italian armsmaker Finmeccanica SpA. The assignment generated about $24 million in fees that were shared between Bear Stearns and Stone Key, which at the time had a staff of six who all worked from home.
"We started off differently than most," says Urfirer, "our first deal being a $5 billion cross-border groundbreaking M&A transaction." The acquisition, he says, was the "first time a foreign non-British acquirer bought anything of that scale and scope that DRS represented in the U.S. defense industry."
Urfirer, 52, first crossed paths with DRS when it took an interest in Librascope Corp., a defense business owned by his client Singer Co. NV. At the time, he was co-head of tech M&A at Lehman Brothers Inc., where he began his career in 1983 after earning an M.B.A. at Stanford Graduate School of Business. He moved to CS First Boston in 1989 as a managing director in M&A and in 1994 joined Bear Stearns to work on aerospace and defense and tech deals with Bovin.
Bovin, 64, began his career at Salomon Brothers Inc. after graduating from Harvard Business School in 1971. He spent two decades at Salomon in various roles, including head of investment banking corporate coverage, capital markets and global technology and chairman of the firm's venture capital fund, before moving to Bear in 1992.
During 14 years together at Bear, Urfirer and Bovin worked on some notable deals, including advising Honeywell International Inc. on its $45 billion attempted sale to General Electric Co. in 2000. A year earlier, they had advised Honeywell on its $14 billion merger with AlliedSignal Inc. They also helped engineer the deal that created defense giant Lockheed Martin Corp., advising Martin Marietta Corp. on its $10 billion merger with Lockheed Corp. in 1995, thanks to a relationship that Urfirer brought with him from Credit Suisse First Boston.
Urfirer and Bovin have held tight to their Lockheed Martin ties, most recently teaming with J.P. Morgan to advise the company on the sale of its Enterprise Integration Group unit to private equity firm Veritas Capital for $815 million in 2010. John Montague, a 25-year veteran of Martin Marietta and Lockheed who ran the companies' M&A efforts, is now a Stone Key partner. Former Bear Stearns lawyer Alan Weingarten is also a partner, while a dozen bankers of various levels of experience, plus a handful of administrative staff, round out the firm.
The entire staff now works out of Stone Key's Greenwich office, which is not only close to Urfirer's home, but affords the boutique the small-business tax advantages offered by Connecticut. The one exception is Bovin, who leases an office within Monster Worldwide's New York headquarters.
Urfirer says he plans to grow the firm slowly to keep costs in check. He hopes to "add a couple of partners" who focus on commercial technology. Recruiting, he says, shouldn't be a problem as Stone Key pays bonuses in all up-front cash, while larger banks defer a substantial portion in stock and staggered cash payouts. The firm is also planning a merchant banking business, Stone Key Capital, which will co-invest, alongside clients, in tech, aerospace and defense companies.
Though still in the very early fundraising stages, Stone Key is in the process of hiring a "well-known CEO in the government [tech] industry" and a top-level "household name" within the commercial technology sector to help run the merchant bank. No doubt the new hires will reflect the longtime relationships Urfirer and Bovin have in the business.