Harris Fricker is a scholar.
Ask him how he came to be the investment banker who sold a good chunk of Canada’s steel industry, and the onetime Rhodes Scholar will take you on a long rhetorical tour touching on geopolitics, philosophy and economics.
The smarts come in handy in a job like running . Ever since the big banks took over the brokerage business on Bay Street, there’s not been much room for the independents—even for a top shop. In the era of Big Five dominance, the most successful independents have been risk-friendly, hard to manage—and short-lived. So, smarts, while important, may not be enough, especially now that GMP is going through the biggest change of its short life.
“When you’re in a world where people will eat their young at the drop of a hat, you also have got to be tough as nails,” says a senior Bay Streeter who knows GMP well. “A lot of guys who are smart, aren’t tough. A lot of guys who are tough, aren’t smart. At this stage of transition and succession, you need someone who is very smart, and very tough.”
When you look at Fricker, who is 47, this is what you see: the neck of a bull, closely cropped hair, a blocky physique that an expensive suit can’t quite disguise—all told, things that suggest a love of the gym and martial arts. The guy doesn’t stride into a room so much as barge.
Harris Fricker is a scrapper.
And now, using both sides of his personality, he needs to put his stamp on a firm—originally Griffiths McBurney Partners—that doesn’t bear his name. Lowering the curtain definitively on the firm’s first era, Brad Griffiths died in a boating accident last summer. Co-founder Gene McBurney, 63, while still on the board, long ago stepped back from most management roles to concentrate on dealmaking. GMP’s legendary trader, Mike Wekerle, left last summer, and Kevin Sullivan, 52, handed over the CEO keys to Fricker in late 2010.
What Fricker must do is turn a business built on the talents of a few highly visible stars into one that can endure for the long haul. A place that started with a handful of people now boasts a 950-strong head count around the world. GMP and Canaccord Financial stand alone as the only independent brokerages that have achieved the kind of scale in Canada to compete with the big banks on many deals. And Fricker, that student of the big picture, knows the Street is watching to see if GMP, having burned brightly, will flame out like the top independents that came before it.
Rodney’s Oyster House, as of 1994, was a tiny subterranean watering hole just far enough from Bay Street to make it a favourite of the crowd at Gordon Capital, Brad Griffiths among them. “Back in those days, there was nobody better to have lunch with when you knew you weren’t coming back than Brad Griffiths,” Gene McBurney says.
Griffiths was an investment banker at Gordon, which had been the predominant independent brokerage on Bay Street in the 1980s but by now was past its peak. He did a lot of work with McBurney, a corporate lawyer.
Both men had news when they met at Rodney’s for lunch one day in November. McBurney went first. He told Griffiths his plan—to leave law and join Griffiths as a banker at Gordon.
Griffiths saw a problem with that. He was leaving Gordon. But he too had a plan. “I’m going to start a new firm,” he told McBurney. “And I’m going to start it with you or without you.” That afternoon they sketched out a business plan on a napkin. They started the firm with $100,000. Griffiths advanced McBurney his half.
McBurney and Griffiths knew how to do deals, advising companies on how to raise money or buy rivals. But they needed someone who could trade stocks to really make the business go.
Bankers without traders are operating in the dark. A banker looking to raise money for a company needs to understand the appetite in the market for the company’s stock. A good trader, working the ebb and flow of the market, knows who will buy any stock, at what price, and how much. A really good trader will have a loyal following of clients, built up over years of helping them out when they needed to buy hard-to-find securities or sell ones nobody else wanted.