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Thanks to the lure of dealmaking, both Gene McBurney (right) and Kevin Sullivan (centre) stepped back from leadership roles at GMP. Harris Fricker (left) took up the CEO mantle in 2010 (Clay Stang )
Thanks to the lure of dealmaking, both Gene McBurney (right) and Kevin Sullivan (centre) stepped back from leadership roles at GMP. Harris Fricker (left) took up the CEO mantle in 2010 (Clay Stang )

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Griffiths and McBurney knew whom they wanted to build their trading desk—a youngster named Michael Wekerle, who was making a name for himself as a go-to trader at First Marathon Securities, another independent power. McBurney bet that Wekerle wouldn’t be able to resist the prospect of stock in a new start-up. And the same went for Kevin Sullivan, also at First Marathon. Sullivan, working on the sales desk, was on track for a leadership role at the firm, but, like Wekerle, was frustrated that he had no ownership stake in the company nor a say in how it was run.

When Wekerle and Griffiths met, “it was like Thelma meeting Louise,” says McBurney. “They were so magical together in terms of the ideas they threw around. I could see Wek getting increasingly more and more intrigued.”

Still, it took a few months for Wekerle to come around after the firm opened for business in March, 1995. Sullivan joined too. GMP was off to the races, with McBurney and Griffiths drumming up deals for clients that wanted to raise money through stock sales, while Wekerle and Sullivan made the sales happen.

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GMP was soon the hottest small brokerage on the Street—and not just figuratively. From a sweltering office in an old building in the shadow of the big bank towers, the firm cranked out deals. Unlike the brokerages at the big banks—like RBC Dominion Securities and Bank of Montreal’s Nesbitt Burns—GMP couldn’t lend. It also didn’t have a long-standing brand or decades’ worth of client relationships. It could only compete by being aggressive, by leveraging its guts and ideas.

One day in 1996, the partners gathered to weigh whether to go ahead with a pivotal deal. Sherritt International , a mining company, wanted to raise money. The banks wouldn’t bite because the company operated in Cuba, Sullivan says.

The deal, at $675 million, would be a big reach for GMP. It was to be a “bought deal,” a type of transaction pioneered at Gordon in the 1980s. Rather than selling securities to individual buyers, the bankers purchased them themselves and bet they could resell them. In this case, GMP would lead a group of independent firms that took on the transaction. It was, as Sullivan says, a “bet-the-firm deal.” If the securities didn’t sell, GMP would be stuck with them. It might not be able to shoulder the weight.

The partners debated whether to go ahead. “One of the partners said, ‘What if it doesn’t sell?’” Sullivan recalls. A colleague’s advice was to practise this line: “Would you like fries with your burger?”

But GMP’s feel for the market paid off: There were more than $1 billion in orders in three hours. The firm was on its way, enriching its bankers, traders and share owners, with bought deals defining its success. “The firm grew at an astonishing pace, because of the ability to bring together really good, energetic, honest, creative people,” says Brooke Wade, an entrepreneur who was one of GMP’s big early clients, as he built and sold chemical companies.

Despite the success, or maybe because of it, the original foursome lasted only a few years as a partnership. The first to go, in 1999, was Griffiths, for whom GMP was simply growing too fast. He had no appetite for ever-expanding administrative needs. “Brad would have preferred to keep it the way it was from the very beginning, just a small group of guys doing investment banking deals and trading stocks,” says Sullivan, who succeeded Griffiths as CEO. “The rest of us wanted to grow it. We wanted to build a business.”

There was another factor too, what McBurney calls Griffiths’s “demons.” The man loved a party, and struggled with alcohol during his time on Bay Street. “He was quite a man who enjoyed the social aspect of living life,” says Rodney Clark, the proprietor of Rodney’s, who remembers driving Griffiths home often. “I would pick him up when I’d see him, sort of like the farmer’s dog who was too far away from the barn.”

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