For all the books and movies that have chronicled what it’s like to work in banking after the financial crisis of 2008, most tend to focus on Wall Street rather than smaller firms around the country.
Brad Eichler is the head of investment banking at Stephens Inc., a family-owned firm in Little Rock, Arkansas, and has worked in finance for 25 years. For The Atlantic’s series of interviews with American workers, I spoke with Eichler about his high-stress job, traveling more than 100 days a year, and how his family-owned firm differs from investment banking on Wall Street. The interview that follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Adrienne Green: How did you get started in investment banking?
Brad Eichler: When I was in college, I was originally studying medicine. I had paid for all of my college education without taking out any loans, and I realized pretty quickly that I probably wasn’t up for the path to medical school. I started taking some finance classes and really had an aptitude for it. I really fell in love with finance and wanted to get into the investment banking arena. At the time, I thought research would probably be my best bet and I always admired the Stephens firm. It was a family-owned firm with an impeccable reputation. When I was nearing graduation, I had an opportunity to go work for Merrill Lynch Capital Markets, which I did for about three years before I went to work at Stephens as a junior research analyst.
Eichler: The company’s business is actually very simple. We provide advice to clients to help them buy and sell businesses, raise capital, or facilitate an acquisition of another company. We have two types of bankers in our group, an industry banker and a product banker. Industry bankers have a lot of expertise in a particular area, such as healthcare. Product bankers have particular expertise around a transaction type, like an equity offering, an underwriting, taking a company public, or someone who’s a mergers-and-acquisition specialist.
Green: What does your job as the head of the investment-banking department entail?
Eichler: We have about 200 bankers in our group that work in nine offices in the U.S. and two offices in Europe. I travel a considerable amount, but if I’m in the office I usually get there around 7:30 a.m., seldom take lunches, and spend a very good part of my day on the phone either working directly with clients or working with our banking groups to try to resolve some potential issue. If I’m on the road—which I am about 125 days a year on average—I’m typically out seeing clients and talking to them about Stephens and about our capabilities. The other thing that's really cool about it is my job is spending time around C-level executives. On those 125 or 100 days when I’m out seeing clients, I’m sitting down with the CEO or CFO of the company and talking about strategy and execution. That’s inspiring, to be around people that are so intelligent and that have done so well.
Green: What is it like being responsible for so much capital?
Eichler: Giving somebody advice about their business is a tremendous responsibility. There are really two schools of thought in the marketplace: One says, an investment bank is a utility and at the end of the day it’s the client that needs to make the decision about everything. The other school of thought is that an investment bank needs to be a partner for the client and really give advice as if it was their own business or their own money that they were advising. Our approach has always been much more of the latter. We try to put ourselves in our client’s shoes and say, “Hey. If this were my business, this is a deal that I would do,” or even more importantly, “This is a deal that I would not do.”
I think one of the things that clients appreciate over time is when you’re able to tell them when there’s a deal that you would not do. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the client has to agree with you, but they like the fact that you’re objective enough to be able to walk away from a fee on a transaction to tell them what you think is right.
Eichler: It is definitely a high-pressure job. I always tell the young folks coming in that our job is like a fireman. You come in with the best intention every day of getting certain tasks completed, and then when the day starts, all of a sudden you have a five alarm blaze that you’ve got to go tend to and drop everything. I think one of the things that’s most exciting about the business is the fact that you have this constant changing environment that’s very dynamic and nothing is really set in stone.
Green: How have you handled the negativity about the finance industry post-2008 and the financial crisis?
Eichler: I experience the negativity more on a personal level than I do with my clients. There are a variety of shades of what could be considered an investment banker. I described what Stephens does: We’re primarily an advisory shop on the M&A side and then we’ll help people raise capital. Stephens has an unbelievable balance sheet but we don’t lend it like a lot of big investment banks do, so really when you compare the business that we're in with somebody like Goldman Sachs it’s just a different business. They’re using their balance sheet to try to affect their role in the transaction and that's not a business that we’re in. We're trying to use our brains every day to add value to a client.
Clearly, when you look back and you look at what happened in the financial meltdown, there was obviously a lot of greed in that process, a lot of it centered around the mortgage environment. It’s not directly applicable, but I do think that often investment bankers and Wall Street get lumped into a group. It’s like saying, “All Americans would fall into this category.” There’s a few bad apples in every bunch, but that's probably not a really good way to describe the industry as I see it.
Green: Do you feel that working in investment banking at a family-owned firm is different than working at a larger firm such as Goldman Sachs?
Eichler: One of the tenets for Stephens is, “Always be in business the next day.” That sounds like an elementary business goal, but it makes a tremendous amount of sense. When you think about that and apply that back the decline of 2008, there were many investment banks that are no longer here that had their balance sheet leveraged extensively. When everything from a liquidity perspective dried up, it became an issue for our competition. It did not become an issue for us.
At the time, we had about 50 employees in our investment-banking group and Warren Stephens came to us and he said, “Look, this is going to be a real opportunity for us to grow. People are going to be attracted to the stability of our platform. This is an opportunity to capitalize, not on somebody else’s misfortune, but the fact that there’s going to be some fundamental changes in our business,” and he was right. We've gone from 50 bankers to several hundred bankers over the last 10 years and one of the reasons that we’ve had so much success in that process was our goal of being in business the next day. We didn't wager somebody else’s money on an outcome that potentially could be devastating for a business. There's a big difference between our own money and other people's money. One of the things that I really admire about the Stephens family is that when they think about risks or opportunities, they’re thinking about it in that context as opposed to saying the money’s not theirs.
Eichler: We have several offices that are in the south, in Atlanta, Little Rock, and Dallas, but also urban offices with Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, and New York. There is definitely a cultural difference in the way that people approach their business, and I wouldn’t say that there’s an advantage or disadvantage to being in an urban location or being in a more off-the-beaten-path location like Little Rock. I think when you stop and look back on your career and you think about the satisfaction you’ve had with your career, in a big city like New York, there’s a tremendous amount of temptation to jump from one job to another to another. The satisfaction that comes along with that might be great monetarily, but it's not from a professional and personal perspective.
I’ve been at Stephens for 25 years, but we’ve got several folks in the department that have been there significantly longer. It allows you to stay in one place for an extended period of time and really build a great career that is very rewarding on multiple aspects. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I think that the cultural aspects of the South are unique. I’m somebody that grew up in Chicago and I love the pace, but with the amount of travel that all of us do, I get plenty of big city along the way.
Green: How has working in a white-collar job, admittedly one that is high-pressure, changed the way you look at what it means to work hard?
Eichler: I’m somebody that was not raised with a silver spoon in my mouth. I paid for all my college education waiting tables and working other jobs. I have a tremendous respect for work ethic, period. It doesn’t really matter if it's work ethic in a white-collar environment or if it’s in a factory environment. When I think about defining a man's character, and about defining somebody's successes, I don’t really think about it in terms of white collar versus blue collar. I think about it just in terms of someone’s effort and willingness to roll up their sleeves and get a job done.
Green: How is your work tied into your identity?
Eichler: My identity largely is a function of the career that I’ve pursued. I work so much; I’m on call 24 hours a day. From a work perspective, when I think back over the last 25 years, that has really dominated and dictated my schedule on a day-to-day basis. I love it, but it has definitely defined who I am. Sure there are a lot of things over the years that I didn’t have an opportunity to do, but when I think about all the things that I have, I’d make the exact same trade today.