As the head of debt capital markets for FleetBoston Financial Corp., Timothy J. Conway has had his people skills tested.
Since the deal to merge Fleet Financial Group and BankBoston Corp. was inked 11 months ago, Mr. Conway, 42, has overseen the integration of capital markets personnel at FleetBoston, including their respective syndicated loan teams.
It hasn't been easy, Mr. Conway said. "We've lost some people, but I think a lot of people will stay because of the potential of the new group."
Gone is BankBoston's cross-trained syndications desk, built by Mary Etta Schneider, now an executive vice president at FleetBoston, which was equally capable of bond and loan structuring and underwriting. In its place are two specialized teams plucked from the banks and transplanted to the BankBoston building.
One team, headed by Fleet's Paul Trefry, leads senior bank debt; the other, headed by Fleet's Mike Browne and Scott Vallar, structures and originates subordinated debt.
"We have the luxury of being specialists," Mr. Conway said.
Under Mr. Conway there will be no push in Europe in the near future except "to serve our existing clients, who need us there ... lending and underwriting to multinationals," he said.
Mr. Conway is emphasizing a focus on middle-market companies. It's a Fleet-driven philosophy - BankBoston had more relationships with blue-chip companies. Fleet's Dan Williams, a former managing director for corporate advisory and M&A, has been named managing director for middle-market investment banking.
Though FleetBoston led such deals as National Amusement's $1.2 billion credit facility and Anthony Crane Rental LLP's $725 million revolver last year, Mr. Conway said its meat and potatoes will remain customers such as the restaurant chain Marie Callendar's and WinsLoew Furniture Inc.; both companies borrowed less than $100 million last year.
Those names also suggest that FleetBoston - a merger criticized for creating a regional rather than national giant - has widened its scope outside of New England. In fact, FleetBoston considers Bank One Corp. and Bank of America Corp. to be its primary competition in the middle market.
"We're not a regionally focused corporate bank," Mr. Conway said. "If you look at our banking presence, we cover our customers by industry - there's nothing regional about that."
Robert Patterson, who headed syndications at Bank One until being named its portfolio manager this month, said the middle market has become the most competitive segment of the syndicated loan business. As a result, while prices in the U.S. loan market as a whole are rising, Middle-market companies are still getting inexpensive deals.
"The big driver for middle-market companies is lowering the cost of capital and getting good service," Mr. Patterson said. "The payoff is that with those companies, there are just two or three banks that serve them. The potential for a relationship is still there."
However, Bank One has encountered more competition from unlikely sources: investment banks and white shoe J.P. Morgan & Co. "The products have become more cost-effective and accessible," Mr. Patterson said.
Mr. Conway said FleetBoston is putting together a team of advisers to middle-market companies in an effort to build fee income and foster longer-lasting relationships. The linchpin to selling middle-market financial advice, he said, will be existing syndicated loan relationships.
On a pro forma basis, FleetBoston ranked seventh in U.S. syndicated lending in 1999, leading 214 deals worth $31.2 billion - a 3% market share. That was up 12% from 1998, when the now merged banks syndicated 239 deals worth $27.7 billion.
The combined banking company ranked third in leveraged lending, with 173 deals worth $22 billion - an average deal size of $127 million, just more than half the industry average of $239 million last year. That growth came despite six months of restructuring the group.
"In the end we may do more deals than anyone in the market, because of our mid-cap focus," Mr. Conway said.
One middle-market lender, speaking on the condition of anonymity, disputed FleetBoston's claim on a national middle-market presence.
"Fleet is in the Northeast. They don't have any market share" in his region, the lender said. "It's very hard to come to a city and pick this up from the indigenous players."
Mr. Conway, who ascended in his banking career after some tough assignments, remains undaunted. After leaving a job at the New Britain, Conn. Herald to attend Fairfield University, he got an MBA from the University of Connecticut. Early on he spurned journalism - and banking - to be an investment director at Aetna Life and Casualty.
In the 1980s he signed on with Citicorp, getting "a big break" in his career from then-syndicated loan chief Robert Woods, now the head of syndicated finance for the Americas at Societe Generale in New York. At the time, Citicorp was the biggest U.S. syndicated lender.
"I learned from Bob Woods that the syndications business is all about distribution and liquidity," Mr. Conway said. "He's a pioneer."
When Mr. Woods finally left Citicorp in the mid-1990s, Mr. Conway was heading the leveraged-buyout sponsors. He joined Fleet in 1996 to lead the capital markets team, and since then has been named to the management, credit policy, and market risk committees.
His swift rise has not come as a surprise to Mr. Woods, who remembers Mr. Conway's "big break" differently:
"He bailed me out," Mr. Woods said. "I put him in with some entrenched, old-guard bankers, and he was able to get that unit on a faster growth track. It was his first management job."
Mr. Conway's success at Citicorp was the result of his "down-to-earth, feet-on-the-ground" attitude, Mr. Woods said. "His strength is his ability to deal with people. I know it sounds trite, but it's true with this guy. He's very professional. He doesn't let tough people bother him."
Speaking for himself, Mr. Conway said he in not fazed by stressful circumstances that others might find daunting. He has three children under the age of four and still plays squash and golf every week.
"You need to play golf to be a banker," he said. "But you don't have to play it as much as I do."
The banker-golfer-father managed to find time for "Cold Mountain," the debut novel by Charles Frazier about a Civil War soldier who walks home to North Carolina. Asked if the book has given him any insights into banking, Mr. Conway quickly replied, "None at all."