Lazard reeling from founder's death

May 13, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

NEW YORK -- One of the few minority-owned businesses to make a name for itself on Wall Street was reeling yesterday following the death of its founder and chairman, Wardell Lazard.

Mr. Lazard, chairman of the investment bank W. H. Lazard & Co., was found dead Wednesday afternoon in a Pittsburgh hotel room, his naked body face down on the bed, Pittsburgh Police Sgt. Mark Ninehouser said. By his side was a tray containing a "white powdery substance," and an empty vodka bottle was at the foot of the bed, Sergeant Ninehouser said.

An autopsy was performed yesterday morning, but the cause of death will not be known until toxicology tests are completed. But there was "no sign of trauma, no sign of heart disease or anything else that would cause death," the officer said.

"There was nothing to indicate it was suicide or homicide," he added. "We are tending to believe it was an accidental overdose."

A spokesman for the company, Roy Bumstead, characterized the reaction there as "complete and total shock and surprise." Few of his friends or associates apparently suspected that Mr. Lazard might have a drug or alcohol problem.

"There are people in this business who are associated with that, and he was not one of them," said an executive at a competing company.

Mr. Lazard's death stunned the small community of black financiers and could threaten W. H. Lazard, which specializes in municipal bond underwriting and pension fund management.

"He was a visionary in our industry -- he did more with limited resources than anyone in Wall Street history," said Napolean Brandford III, vice chairman of Grigsby & Brandford, a minority-owned investment bank based in San Francisco.

"His ability to get major Wall Street firms to invest [in his business] became a model for others after him."

Mr. Lazard launched the company in 1985 with a $250,000 loan from Salomon Bros. and quickly profited by underwriting bonds for cities. Many big cities had taken steps to increase the participation of minority-owned businesses in city finance, and Mr. Lazard counted politicians ranging from former Washington Mayor Marion Barry to former New York City Mayor David Dinkins among his friends.

He quickly sought to turn the company into the nation's first full-service, minority-owned investment bank. But a string of acquisitions -- financed in part with loans from now-defunct Drexel Burnham Lambert -- proved to be too much too soon, and the firm was near bankruptcy in 1989 and 1990.

But the company recovered, in part by renegotiating the Drexel loans, and it ranked as the largest minority-owned underwriter in the country in the first quarter of this year. Its money-management unit has $2.7 billion under management.

Yesterday, W. H. Lazard moved quickly to control the damage, naming Melvin Eubanks, vice chairman of one of the company's key subsidiaries, as acting chairman and chief executive. The company also outlined a strategy to refocus on a few core markets.

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