New law firm to the world gives Md. boss little Paris time

August 02, 2005|By BILL ATKINSON

AH, THE RUE de la Paix.

Frank Burch can only dream of taking a stroll as he looks out from his office window. "It just couldn't be prettier," he said.

But a walk along one of Paris' most beautiful thoroughfares is not on the agenda.

Burch is logging heavy hours to make certain the mega-merger between Piper Rudnick Gray Cary and DLA of Britain works. Struck seven months ago, the deal formed the world's third-largest law firm, with 2,462 lawyers in 49 offices in 18 countries. Billings are expected to top $1.5 billion next year. (Today, the firm has 2,900 lawyers in 53 offices in 19 countries.)

So far so good, says the Baltimore-based Burch, one of three co-chief executives of the law firm.

"The business case is even stronger than we imagined, just a very, very healthy flow of work across the firm," he said.

He says the firm, now called DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary, is winning deals that he never dreamed of landing when it was a much smaller operation.

It's working with Viacom in France on an acquisition, Burch said. It helped Washington-based Danaher Corp. wrap up a deal to buy a German technology company.

"That is a classic case where we would have not even been in a conversation ...," he said.

Burch used to wake up in the middle of the night years ago frightened that the firm, then called Piper Marbury, would become "irrelevant."

"We concluded that we weren't going to be timid," he said.

Piper, whose Baltimore roots go back to the mid-19th century, merged with Chicago-based Rudnick & Wolfe in 1999, made several other acquisitions and shook the legal industry with the blockbuster DLA merger in December.

All this has meant globetrotting for Burch, who has three grown children from his first marriage and two stepchildren in grade school.

"I average about one night a week at home," he said.

Last week, though, Burch sprang free with his family to his vacation home near Crested Butte, Colo.

It's "un-Aspen," said Burch, 57, who skis, mountain bikes and surfs. "No Gucci, no big hotels and no McDonalds."

He sees retiring in another eight years, but he won't let go completely.

"I'd like to be able to surf or ski for a month and not feel guilty about it," he said.

Who knew two guys named Alfy and Pepe could be movie material?

The flick is called Sugar Kings. It's still in the works, but it'll feature the story of Alfonso Fanjul Jr., better known as "Alfy," and his brother, Jose "Pepe" Fanjul, according to Variety.

The brothers, who fled Castro's Cuba in the 1950s, are politically connected South Florida sugar barons who snapped up Baltimore's Domino Sugar four years ago.

The movie is based on the true story of a lawyer who takes on the Fanjuls. They are accused of treating 20,000 sugar-cane laborers like slaves. It's adapted from Marie Brenner's 2001 Vanity Fair piece "In the Kingdom of Big Sugar." Word is that Jodie Foster will direct the film and may star in it.

Steven Huber is doing his best to help retired state employees forget the Nate Chapman nightmare.

Chapman is the Baltimore money manager who took pension money he was supposed to be managing and funneled it into his troubled brokerage to prop up its stock. He helped usher in a scandal that caused the retirement system to suffer millions in losses.

Huber, who became the state's chief investment officer in late 2003, is putting up solid returns.

The system returned 9.5 percent in the fiscal year that ended June 30, and assets were up about $2 billion to $32.1 billion. A year earlier in a hotter equity market, the system returned 16.2 percent, better than 64 percent of other state pension funds.

Don't expect Huber to do anything daring. He is a conservative operator, the kind of manager the state needs.

"I think we did real well," said Huber.

Bill Atkinson's column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. Contact him at 410-332-6961 or by e-mail at bill.atkinson@balt sun.com.

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