After a failed attempt last March to hire away BankAmerica Corp.'s loan syndications chief, Keith Barnish, Societe Generale faced a difficult choice.
Should it roll the dice and bring in a relative unknown to lead its nascent loan group?
Or should it again try to snare a competitor's current syndications leader, risking yet another public humiliation if it failed?
The Paris-based bank deftly dodged both horns of the dilemma last month by appointing Robert E. Woods managing director and head of syndications for the Americas. Mr. Woods, 49, had been a managing director in charge of syndications at Citicorp from 1985 until 1989.
Through those years, Citicorp dominated the syndicated lending market, topping industry league tables and holding a commanding market share. After the collapse of the high-yield bond market in 1989, a bruised Citicorp moved away from syndications, and Mr. Woods moved to head Citicorp's real estate capital markets group, where he remained until this year.
Returning to a market whose development he helped shape, Mr. Woods is already carrying out his plans for Societe Generale, less than a week into his new job.
"I've got to get Societe Generale to the next level," said Mr. Woods in an interview. "We have to be perceived by issuers and investors alike as a Top 10 competency player."
To get there, Societe Generale must build up its distribution prowess and build a sales desk similar to those found at the big bond houses. Mr. Woods said he is on the lookout for salespeople to add to the bank's syndicate desk.
Societe Generale's lenders already have an established flow of deals coming in from the bank's project finance, lodging and gaming, media and telecommunications, and Latin American finance groups, said Mr. Woods. "Those are going to be the big engines," he said.
Indeed, the bank finished the first half of the year as the 13th-largest agent-only lender to Latin America, according to Loan Pricing Corp. In 1996, it was ranked 12th among lenders to media and communications companies.
The challenge for Mr. Woods is to develop the bank's relations with the financial sponsor community-the dealmakers whose leveraged buyouts and other activities drive most leveraged lending activity.
"I'm going to be spending a lot of my time with the high-yield department to get going with the sponsor business," he said.
Despite his absence from the syndication scene for several years, Mr. Woods said, little in the development of that market has surprised him.
"I actually haven't seen an enormous amount that's been that different," he said.
Structural elements of loans, such as tying pricing to a performance- based grid, or the use of bond-rating pricing, were introduced by Citicorp during his tenure, he said. And the convergence of the bond and bank-loan markets also had its start in the mid-1980s, when Mr. Woods' predecessor at Citicorp joined Drexel Burnham Lambert Inc. to start a lending group.
"That which was innovative is now everywhere," he said.
One notable change in the market is its transparency and the availability of information.
"Today, everybody has a lot of information on pricing and deal structure," Mr. Woods said. "It doesn't come out once a week, it comes out every day, and it's no more than 24 hours old. That's a far more efficient market than where I used to have that information within, maybe, 48 hours and I'd have a one-month head start over everybody else."