October 2011

FTI’s New Co-Leaders of Corporate Finance & Restructuring: For a Couple of ‘Client Service Guys’ Optimism and Opportunity Abound

This summer, ABF Journal readers learned that Robert (Bob) Duffy and Kevin Lavin had been appointed to co-lead FTI’s Corporate Finance/Restructuring practice thereby joining the executive committee comprised of practice leaders of the firm’s five key business segments. While many would fret at what lies ahead in this relatively slow period for traditional restructurings, these self-admitted “client service guys” only see advantages and opportunities.

But stepping back a bit, it’s important to mention how this all came about. In August 2002, FTI Consulting announced it would acquire PricewaterhouseCoopers Business Recovery Services division. The transaction came as little surprise given the financial upheaval and subsequent regulatory reform brought about by the failure of Enron and other mega-bankruptcies at the time. With the passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley bill, corporate restructuring practices within major accounting firms suddenly found themselves conflicted out of many potential engagements by the audit side of their business.

Bob Duffy recalls, “We were in a post-Enron world, though our firm had nothing to do with that situation. Sarbanes-Oxley drastically changed what types of non-audit work would be proscribed for public accounting firms. We had great opportunities that we were trying to pitch and, while we were the best people for the job and had the credentials our clients wanted, we couldn’t take work in certain situations because of these perceived conflicts.” The conflicts arose most notably for Duffy in three areas: the ability to assume interim management roles, the ability to provide financial projections for clients that maintained both audit and consultancy relationships and the ability to render advice to financial institutions on troubled loans in instances where the accounting firm was also the auditor to that same financial institution.

Similarly, for Kevin Lavin, the news of the acquisition heralded a new era of possibilities. He explains, “The possibilities we saw at PwC combined with the entrepreneurial spirit at FTI were more than exciting … and it’s been terrific to be a part of this culture.” While both speak highly of their time at PwC, Lavin notes, “At PwC, it was a bit difficult to navigate around the geographic boundaries. At FTI, we’ve cultivated close working relationships with many of our colleagues around the globe, so if we need someone in Shanghai or Tokyo, we personally know the appropriate professionals to call and get with the right people quickly — largely because we all speak the same business language. And after you spend a week or two with them on a project, it actually helps in the delivery of services to our clients.”

Duffy agrees: “PwC was a wonderful firm; it’s just that we were a small group among all the different client services that PwC provided. By comparison, our corporate finance practice at FTI is a much larger component of the firm’s total business and our practice has been a key driver of FTI’s recent growth. This growth has allowed FTI to be incredibly receptive when we’ve had opportunities elsewhere, such as Asia, where we have over 100 corporate finance professionals, or in Europe or other areas of the world where we’ve expanded our practice. FTI has been very open to making significant investments that allow us to develop the opportunities that we’ve identified. We’ve been very fortunate.”

But that’s not where the story officially begins for these two. Their careers intersected in 1995 while they were both working for PwC’s Business Recovery Services Division. Lavin, who began his career as an auditor at Deloitte, Haskins + Sells in 1983, was later courted by Zolfo Cooper after seven years. His time there proved to be a period of tremendous personal and professional growth. “Back then, it was a culture that stressed being constantly open to coaching and feedback, forcing you to confront how you comport yourself on an personal basis, how you communicate and how effective you are as a professional.” From Zolfo Cooper, Lavin joined Price Waterhouse to work with Dom DiNapoli in the firm’s restructuring group, then left to launch a dot-com company (who didn’t?) and returned to PwC’s restructuring group.

Duffy, who grew up in the Boston area, began his career as an analyst in the high tech industry and moved to Chicago to attend business school in 1988. Shortly thereafter, he too joined Price Waterhouse in Chicago, finished his master’s degree and relocated back to the Boston office in 1992. “My background is somewhat similar to Kevin’s in that much of what I’ve done is company-side representation where I’ve been the lead financial advisor to boards of directors and CEOs of under-performing businesses or companies in transition. Sometimes it’s been in an interim management role, sometimes I’ve been an advisor to the C-suite and other times my roles have involved non-restructuring situations where I have advised on performance improvement and business carve-outs. In terms of industries, I’ve done work in manufacturing, financial services, real estate and technology-related sectors, to name a few. But I think I’m best known for my retail experience. I’ve led FTI’s retail practice since we joined the firm nearly ten years ago, and since then we’ve been involved in the majority of significant retail assignments that have been restructured in some way, shape or form.”

Perhaps as a result of these similar career paths, both men share an intense passion for what they do and their commitment to clients. At the time of this interview, Duffy and Lavin had been co-leading FTI’s CF&R group for some 75 days. Of the first few months on the post, Lavin says, “It’s been better than I could have ever imagined. Bob and I have worked together for 15 years and you would think that you know someone well after all that time. But all of a sudden, we are speaking two or three times a day … then you really get to know someone. We have similar views on most business issues, and it makes things easier. It’s as simple as that.”

Duffy adds, “Working closely with other leaders in our practice, Kevin and I have been able to make fast progress and find some situations that are exciting in a very short period of time. I didn’t think it would happen that quickly. But what we both share is an incredible commitment to the business, as we’re very passionate about FTI and what we do here. We love what we do and at heart we are both dedicated client service guys. Today, both of us spend at least half of each day with clients, advising them on issues that are critical to their business … that’s what we love to do. Kevin and I are able to work closely together and when an issue comes up, we often view it similarly. We also benefit greatly from the insights of other senior people in the firm and integrate that input with our own thoughts to find solutions and new opportunities for our clients and the firm.”

And while world events turned decidedly negative this past summer amid a constant barrage of bad news, ranging from the U.S. deficit ceiling showdown and credit downgrade, political gridlock and fiscal tremors within the European Union, both remain cautiously optimistic on the global business environment and decidedly positive about FTI’s business prospects.

Lavin explains, “I think the business media is painting an understandably grim picture given where consumer sentiment is and the daunting challenges to grow our economy in a sustainable and more inclusive way. But corporate earnings are very healthy and they are projected to continue doing well for the rest of this year and into 2012. So, absent a credit shock, as long as there is available capital for these companies — especially for middle-market borrowers since it’s usually harder for those guys to get money — we are a bit more optimistic about the corporate outlook than some of our peers. But if there is a shock event then, of course, all bets are off. I think financial markets are struggling with the likelihood of such an event occurring in the near-term.”

Duffy adds, “Companies have done a great job in getting religion and improving their operations and balance sheets since the recession. If you look at where outstanding loan balances are as a percentage of commitments, it’s way down and should provide runway if market or business conditions worsen. If you focus, as Kevin said, on the availability of capital, the cost of that capital and its impact on corporate liquidity, as well as developments that will affect energy and commodity prices and, subsequently, product costs and end-user demand, those are the key variables that we think will determine how things go in 2012 and the pick-up in restructuring activity over the next 12-15 months.”

In the meantime, Lavin and Duffy will look for new ways to push the envelope and create novel opportunities for their clients. As for the availability of capital? In today’s environment, they note that lenders are actively seeking opportunities to put capital to work. Duffy explains, “CEOs and CFOs at our clients are being aggressively approached by the ABL market and the cash-flow side of financial institutions with low pricing and deal structures that often more attractive than current credit agreements”

He tells of a recent client call that both Lavin and Duffy had with a potential ABL borrower with a unique collection of assets. Duffy says, “The CEO called us and described these assets to us and after listening to him, we had our teams go in and structure a borrowing base using these unconventional assets, which would not ordinarily be included in a traditional ABL deal. After making a few phone calls, Kevin and I found out there was a warm reception in the financing market to lend against these assets. We’re excited because while we frequently conduct pre-loan due diligence for financial institutions, this was a situation where we used the expertise and relationships of the pre-loan due diligence teams to provide a CEO with the ability to borrow against unique assets in a company-side assignment. We recognized that opportunity for him and, in the meantime, went to a number of asset-based lenders and provided them with a deal that they otherwise didn’t know about.”

“If you think about it, this was truly a “win-win” outcome. We found an opportunity for a client that, in turn, ended up with increased capital and availability from a liquidity standpoint that they didn’t realize they had. For some of our close lenders that work with us on referrals all of the time, we made them happy because we could bring a deal to them — a really strong credit where they’ll earn a nice return.”

And the two are seeing new opportunities on the lender side as well. Lavin states, “One point I like to emphasize is that today we’re much more engaged in non-distressed situations than we have been historically and these activities have been well-received by financial institutions. So much so that we have many of them coming to us saying, ‘We have this borrower that really isn’t distressed but we’d like you to go in and see if you can help them.’ Our successes are paving the way for us to get more of these chances. Many of these situations are with private equity-backed companies and they are thrilled that we’re able to do this. We get to work with the CEOs, CFOs and the rest of the senior management team to tackle really challenging issues, like growing sales or improving operating results in a less than stellar business environment.”

He adds, “In the end, it’s a great opportunity to work in all facets of the organization … we get to showcase our operational skills as well. Many people know us for our financial acumen but we’ve got operational expertise from supply chain management to revenue enhancement. If you name a function or skill set, we’ve got the talent.”

For these client service guys, it’s all in a day’s work.

Stuart P. Papavassiliou is senior editor of ABF Journal.