BankAmerica Corp. is zeroing in on a buyer for its Robertson Stephens investment banking unit, sources said Thursday.

A deal could be announced as early as next week, one source said. The unit-which BankAmerica bought in October for $540 million-could fetch as much as $800 million.

The most likely buyers include BankBoston Corp., Germany's Dresdner Bank, and Credit Suisse First Boston, sources said. These companies declined to comment.

PaineWebber Inc. has also been mentioned as a possible buyer. But at its annual meeting last week, its president, Joseph J. Grano, said the firm was not interested.

Robertson Stephens executives began looking for a buyer in April after its parent, BankAmerica, struck a deal to merge with NationsBank Corp. NationsBank has its own investment banking unit, Montgomery Securities, which it bought in October for $1.2 billion.

Most observers predicted that Robertson Stephens, the smaller player, would lose more jobs than Montgomery when the two banks merged. Robertson and Montgomery, which are both based in San Francisco, compete in many of the same sectors.

BankAmerica, which is also in San Francisco, gave Robertson Stephens permission to find a new home one month ago. Though the investment bank has been highly sought-after, it has been slow to strike a deal because it is insisting on remaining intact.

A Robertson Stephens spokeswoman, Cheryl Popp, said yesterday that keeping the firm together is "a very strong criteria in the negotiating process." She declined to comment on potential buyers.

The $800 million price tag would not only allow BankAmerica to recoup its investment in Robertson Stephens, but provide a large retention fund for the investment bank's top executives, sources said. BankAmerica set up a similar fund when it bought Robertson Stephens seven months ago.

"The top people at Robertson Stephens would be doing a little double dipping," one person close to the unit said.

BankAmerica has rolled most of Robertson Stephens & Co. into its section 20 unit, which it renamed BancAmerica Robertson Stephens. It is only looking to sell the firm's equities business.

The bank plans to keep Robertson Stephens mutual fund business, which had $4 billion of assets under management last fall.

In an interview last month, Robertson Stephens' president said he was looking for a deep-pocketed buyer.

"We've embarked on a strategy that requires a large parent," said Michael McCaffrey, Robertson Stephens' president and chief executive. "But merging with a large bank is only one way of doing that."

BankAmerica has been an uncommonly supportive parent. It has provided Robertson Stephens with a generous infusion of cash for expansion while allowing it a good deal of autonomy.

Under BankAmerica, Robertson Stephens has broadened its platform, which had existed of mostly high tech and health care initial public offerings. The unit has hired four new industry research analysts in the last month, after a 25% leap in staffing between October and March.

As a result, the Robertson unit lost $40 million in the fourth quarter and between $25 and $30 million in the first quarter, BankAmerica executives have told analysts.

Sources at Robertson Stephens say business has picked up since the planned divestiture was announced. Just this week, Robertson Stephens said it was co-leading an $81 million equities deal for Redwood City, Calif.- based Excite Inc., which owns several popular web browsers.

As for the unit's potential buyers, BankBoston received permission to underwrite equities from the Federal Reserve last fall, but has yet to put these powers to use. A spokesperson for BankBoston said in an interview last winter that bank executives were debating whether it should build or buy an equities capability.

Dresdner was mentioned by a Robertson insider a month ago as one of the most likely buyers. The bank was one of Montgomery Securities Inc.'s suitors before NationsBank bought that firm last fall, the insider said.

The German bank purchased London-based investment bank Kleinwort Benson in 1995 but has yet to purchase a U.S. securities firm. It has built a small equities group in the United States, focused on serving the needs of cross-border European companies rather than American companies.

Credit Suisse First Boston has apparently been talking to any number of potential securities acquisitions, according to a market observer.

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