Throw another loan on the barbie. The Australians are coming to the syndicated loan market.
National Australia Bank today is launching a U.S. syndication team led by Matthew A. Woolf, former head of syndications for the German merchant bank BHF Capital Corp. and onetime executive of Manufacturers Hanover, a forerunner of Chase Manhattan Corp.
Melbourne-based National Australia, which has assets of $200 billion, is entering the market at an intensely competitive time. Investment banks are waging an aggressive campaign to dislodge banks from their traditional business, and consolidation has created disparity - the top five lenders control 74% of the syndicated loan business, according to Thomson Financial Securities Data.
But National Australia's landing in the United States is not predicated on taking away business from U.S. banks, Mr. Woolf said. Instead, he said, the U.S. team will serve its global clients by providing financing for their endeavors in the Americas.
"I'm not saying this place is going to turn itself into a Chase in terms of market share," Mr. Woolf said.
The company has a strong international presence - especially in Asia and Europe - and is the largest foreign bank in Great Britain. Mr. Woolf said National Australia is hoping to parlay that strength into a profitable U.S. business.
National Australia "has done it in the past, and they've done it well," he said. "They know the markets. They have the clients and relationships."
Among the clients is Vodafone Airtouch PLC, the British telecommunications company that has bid $160 billion to buy the German industrial giant Mannesman AG. National Australia committed $2 billion to a syndicated loan to support the bid.
Mr. Woolf says National Australia has provided substantial banking services to at least 500 more companies like Vodafone. The loan team - expected to consist initially of Mr. Woolf and two others - will focus on media, telecommunications, financial services, and utility companies.
"It's going to surprise a lot of people in the syndications side" of U.S. banks, Mr. Woolf said.
It will surprise them because of Australian banks' track record in the United States. In the late 1980s, Sydney-based Westpac Banking Corp. launched an effort into the U.S. loan market. From 1983 to 1992 the bank's U.S. assets grew from $400 million to $11 billion.
But Westpac's U.S. ambitions were deflated after Anthony J. Walton - who was hired to lead the U.S. initiative - resigned amid a tax scandal. The company suffered heavy writedowns on problem Australian corporate and real estate lending, and a sharp fall in its share price made it vulnerable to takeover at home. Westpac closed its U.S. operations, sold off assets, and slashed its 400-member U.S. workforce.
Mr. Woolf appears to be taking a different tack by starting small and acting as a support to National Australia's global lending operations. He said the United States is the last piece of the company's loan puzzle. "It's just been the least-developed network to date."