A Private Equity Boardroom Coup

Jean-Charles Decaux, Eurazeo's chairman.
Jean-Charles Decaux, Eurazeo's chairman. Photo: Eric Piermont/AFP via Getty Images
William D. Cohan
February 8, 2023

Shortly after September 11, 2001, the late investment banker Michel David-Weill finally concluded a deal to bring Bruce Wasserstein to Lazard, then still a private partnership under Michel’s control. The courtship between David-Weill, the patrician fourth-generation scion of the firm’s founding family, which dates to New Orleans in 1848, and the grand investment banker Wasserstein, a Brooklyn ribbon manufacturer’s son who later bought New York magazine, was some 15 years in the making. One former Lazard partner told me that the deal Michel cut with Bruce was one “of desperation.” 

By that time, Michel was deeply concerned about the future of Lazard. He had tried unsuccessfully, and somewhat half-heartedly, to sell the firm to Lehman (that would have been a disaster), and to Credit Agricole, and to Merrill Lynch (another disaster in the making). He had tried a series of successive leaders for the firm, including Steve Rattner, Bill Loomis, and even his own son-in-law Éduoard Stern, who was later murdered by his mistress in Geneva. None of them had worked out to Michel’s satisfaction, mostly because Michel wouldn’t fully share day-to-day management of the firm to them. 

But after watching the Twin Towers collapse from his 62nd floor office at 30 Rockefeller Center, Michel was determined to finally land Bruce, then 53 years old, to keep Lazard both viable and the repository of Great Men who advised important companies on their significant M&A deals. So, of course, Bruce cut a deal that still amazes people more than 20 years later. Michel agreed to give up the day-to-day management of Lazard to Bruce, giving him total authority on hiring, firing, pay and promotions, the life blood of Wall Street and a responsibility that had previously resided almost entirely with Michel. He also agreed to pay Bruce a sliding scale of millions of dollars per year in compensation, depending on the profitability of the firm under his management. And he agreed to allow Bruce to buy 1 percent of Lazard for $30 million, which valued the firm at a relatively full $3 billion. (Today, Lazard is publicly traded and is valued at $4.3 billion.) Most importantly, however, he agreed to give Bruce another 7 percent of the firm for free.