As a boy, Michel David-Weill survived the Nazi occupation of France. He would go on to make his name as the leader of Lazard, his family’s venerable Franco-American boutique bank. The financier became known for skilfully steering the firm through its 1980s heyday, and later, begrudgingly, towards the modern finance era.
Lazard has never been bankrupted, bailed out or otherwise subsumed by a financial supermarket like once-flashier rivals. Rather, copycat firms have attempted to replicate its simple approach, seemingly in tribute to a bygone era of finance that David-Weill, who has died at the age of 89, embodied.
His tight rule and reluctance to embrace Wall Street fads at times frustrated colleagues, who worried that David-Weill’s risk aversion would render Lazard an anachronism in the 21st century. Yet today loyalists note that Lazard has stayed independent, with a multibillion-dollar valuation. Its core business remains advising captains of industry and governments on their thorniest challenges.
In 2001, David-Weill lured the Wall Street legend Bruce Wasserstein to the firm. Wasserstein pulled off a public listing of Lazard in 2005, a deal that crystallised a billion-dollar fortune for David-Weill. But David-Weill saw the IPO as antithetical to his conception of the firm as a tight-knit partnership. He left over the disagreement, marking the first time in its 150-year history that Lazard no longer employed a member of its founding family.
Michel David-Weill was born in Paris in 1932. His great-grandfather Alexandre Weill had turned Lazard, originally a New Orleans dry goods business founded in 1848, into a bank with operations in the US, London and Paris.
When the second world war broke out, David-Weill’s mother had him baptised as Catholic to avoid detection as a Jew. He moved to New York after the war and, after apprenticeships at other firms, joined Lazard in 1956. He returned to France to replace his father as head of Lazard Paris when the latter died in 1975. Just a few years later, he moved back to New York to take charge of the office there, succeeding the imposing André Meyer.
In his 25-year run, David-Weill made crucial strategic decisions. These included growing an asset management unit that would eventually generate half the firm’s profit, buying out a Lazard stake previously owned by British conglomerate Pearson, and most significantly, formally merging the Lazard “houses” of Paris, London and New York which previously operated as a loose confederation.
But his greatest talent was in spotting particular types of bankers, and his curation of a creative space in which these men could pursue their craft.
“There is an immense diversity of backgrounds inside the Lazard firms,” David-Weill told Euromoney in 1993. “But they share one thing: the excitement of individually being able to make a difference through what they contribute intellectually.”
James Kempner, hired in the 1980s as a junior associate and later promoted to partner, compared David-Weill to the New York Yankees owner who was obsessive about fielding championship baseball teams. “Like George Steinbrenner, Michel had a way of bringing in incredible superstars,” he said.
Antonio Weiss, another longtime Lazard hand, explained that David-Weill was singularly able to maintain cohesion among the distinctive personalities on either side of the Atlantic.
“We stayed because of a personal relationship with Michel. He had an individual approach to each partner. You’d get called to his office and, whether the discussion lasted ten minutes or two hours, you always learned something new from him.”
Eventually, these bonds would fray. By the late 1990s, high finance had become institutionalised. Sprawling complexes like Citigroup were smashed together. Goldman Sachs, itself a storied partnership, sold its shares to the public. Vast riches were being created in technology start-ups, venture capital, private equity and hedge funds. Lazard’s legacy owners soaked so much of its profits that there was not enough to pay the producers.
David-Weill, by then in his 60s, was accused of entrenching himself atop Lazard. He and his wife Hélène had four daughters, none of whom joined the firm. A son-in-law was tapped as a possible heir, but exited after disappointing his seniors during a stint at Lazard. Others departed when it became evident they had fallen out of favour with the chairman.
Even after he was no longer officially affiliated with Lazard, David-Weill’s contemporaries frequently made the pilgrimage to his Fifth Avenue apartment to continue their long conversations. “In life there are sometimes pleasant surprises”, he said in 2019. “And one of them is that Lazard is still Lazard in my eyes”.