UBS AG's Warburg Dillon Read unit, widely thought to be on the selling block, has surprised some bankers with a recent hiring spree in which it has targeted some of the biggest names on the Street.

But it was the hiring this week of Lehman Brothers star lender Chris Ryan that may have sent the strongest message yet about the Swiss banking company's commitment to Warburg. Mr. Ryan, who had been at Lehman since 1991, was considered by many to be one of the loan industry's rising players. As head of loan sales and trading, he won a reputation as being a savvy, persuasive salesman with a talent for relationship-building, bankers say.

They further credit him with helping Lehman become one of the most successful investment banks in the traditionally commercial bank business of syndicated lending. As one executive recruiter summed it up: "It's a great hire for UBS and a killer for Lehman. I'm amazed they got him." The capture of Mr. Ryan is especially noteworthy since Warburg has for so long been a second-tier lender; it led only 14 deals last year to Lehman's 46.

In an interview Thursday, Mr. Ryan cited several factors that influenced his decision to jump: He is taking on more responsibility than he had at Lehman by adding oversight of loan origination. He also reports directly to John Costas, global head of fixed-income and treasury products.

"It's exciting to me to think I'll have the resources at the second largest bank in the world behind me," Mr. Ryan said Thursday. And "unlike Lehman, the bulk of the firm's business is outside of the Americas."

Mr. Ryan also joins Art Penn, Warburg's co-head of leveraged finance, who recently left Deutsche Bank. Mr. Penn was a colleague of Mr. Ryan's at Lehman in the early 1990s.

Paired with Lehman's loan origination, chief Bill Gates, an executive with a laid-back reputation - a classic Mr. Inside - Mr. Ryan took eagerly to the role of Mr. Outside, distinguishing himself as the chief contact for bankers working with Lehman on deals. Together, the duo put together arguably the most formidable syndicated lending shop run by an investment bank.

"He built the loan business at Lehman along with Bill," said Neil Bryson, head of loan trading at Merrill Lynch & Co. "Judging by where they are in the league tables, he's got a fairly good reputation just from that."

Lehman's Mr. Gates did not return calls. A streak of deals for Lehman that thrust Mr. Ryan onto the radar of loan bankers began in 1997. First, came a $5.5 billion financing for Starwood Lodging and Resorts Inc. Then, Lehman put together a $725 million loan for Premier Parks Inc. Lehman capped the run with its biggest deal, a $10.9 billion loan it co-led for Texas Utilities Inc.

Those deals helped Lehman to a meteoric rise on the U.S. league tables at the end of 1998. After finishing 27th in 1997, it finished eighth among all lenders last year, when it led 46 loan packages, worth $23.2 billion, according to Thomson Financial Securities Data.

Lehman's success in its specialty, leveraged loans - the most profitable lending business - was even more striking. The investment bank ranked fifth, with 45 deals worth $28.7 billion. Lehman finished above more established players such as J.P. Morgan & Co., according to Loan Pricing Corp.

In January, Mr. Ryan told American Banker that the unit's success in lending came after it won the confidence of bankers running Lehman's core businesses. "I'd say we have as tight an integration of loan and securities business as anyone," he said.

The Premier Parks deal came to symbolize how Lehman used its existing businesses to build lending.

The investment bank not only syndicated company's loan, it led two equity stock offerings and a high-yield bond issue, and served as an M&A adviser.

Lehman lost some steam this year, ranking only 13th through the third quarter in leading leveraged loans. But it had a lead role in the year's biggest deal, a $23 billion loan for Olivetti SpA that Mr. Ryan helped structure.

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