David and Goliath: The Boutique and The Bulge Bracket

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Mod Note (Andy) - #TBT Throwback Thursday - this was originally posted on 10/11/13 and is great information for those thinking about which types of banks to apply to for FT and SA positions.

Autumn has arrived. For those seniors fresh off their summer analyst stint or juniors gearing up for recruiting, October means something more: you need to decide where you want to work. The easiest way to categorize banks is either as a "bulge bracket" or "boutique."

We all know the bulge bracket firms, so historically, "boutique" referred to any firm that was listed literally outside the bracket. Regardless of boom or bust, pre-crisis or post-crisis, inevitably the biggest rainmakers in the business are always tempted to jump (a sinking) ship and hang their own shingle.

Schwarzman and Peterson in 1985, Moelis in 2007, Altman in 1996, Zukin in 1972, Aryeh Bourkoff just last year, or Dean + Bradley + Osborne last year as well ... if they feel they don't get enough control or compensation at their current firm, the big boys will take their ball and leave. This has given us firms like Blackstone, Moelis, Evercore, Houlihan Lokey, LionTree, DBO, Greenhill, Centerview, and the like.

Most of these names are on front-page deals, going out and competing with giants like GS, MS, and JPM for the top advisory mandates. They're winning, too. Whereas the giants used to dominate the advisory landscape, they often sell their financing capabilities most heavily now. The boutiques operate on a pure-play advisory model, getting paid for their expertise rather than an ability to offer staple financing.

In recent years, however, most of the boutiques listed above have grown so large that 'boutique' is no longer an applicable term. Evercore, for instance, now has over 950 employees. Blackstone launched its LBO arm two years after opening as an advisory boutique, and today grosses nearly 90% of its revenue from businesses other than advisory. Moelis has over a dozen offices globally and 600 employees.

In response, WSO seems to have coined the acronym "EB," short for 'elite boutique.' I'm not a huge fan and much prefer what I heard one of the group heads at Evercore say: "independent advisory firm." This is a great way to delineate firms of this caliber from the true boutique, a small shop with anywhere from 10-100 employees and much lower quality and volume of dealflow.

Semantics aside, it's clear that there are really three buckets a firm can fall into:

  • bulge bracket (the nine established firms we know)
  • elite boutique
  • boutique

In recruiting, people always gravitate towards the best-known firms. It seems to me that most people take a fairly scattershot approach. They want to get paid a lot now and a lot in the future, and the way to achieve that is to get a top banking job, leading to a great exit, leading to great business school chances, leading to overall greatness. It's a lamentably short-sighted and linear mindset.

In terms of exits, people know who the heavy-hitters are. GS TMT, MS M&A, GS FIG, Blackstone M&A and Restructuring ... these groups and a dozen others always pop up in any discussion of top groups and exit opportunities. Few people, however, seem to put real thought into whether a boutique or a bulge bracket firm is better for them, and to me, that's a tremendous shame.

As an analyst, here are the things that matter to you:

  • Work-life balance: this refers to how many hours of the 168 in each week you spend in the office
  • Culture: often (wrongly) used interchangeably with the above, this refers to how people treat each other, the 'work environment'
  • Placement: how well the group recruits for buy-side positions
  • Pay: salary is very standardized at the junior levels (some outliers exist), but bonus varies between firms (and groups occasionally)

The importance of each of those elements may vary from person to person. The guy who thinks of himself as a career banker is going to care more about culture and pay than the guy who only envisions himself enduring banking for two years before taking a job with twice the pay and an entirely different working environment. Let's go through each of these elements individually.

Pay

In general, a bulge bracket is going to compensate you less than a top boutique. Let's talk numbers. Centerview, for instance, has numbers right now like $80k base, $50k signing, and $100k+ bonus. Moelis pays similar base, $20k signing (may be corrected on this), and bonus matching or exceeding salary as well. Evercore is $75k base, $25k signing, and bonus at or near salary also.

Bulge brackets have very standardized compensation schemes. Analyst base is $70k. Signing bonus is $15k. Bonuses don't match salary like they do at the boutiques.

Again, examples. I have friends at JPM who were grousing over $35k and $45k (different groups) during bonus season. Same at MS. And let's not forget the classic 'GS discount' where they know you'll stick around for the brand and can afford to pay you less. Summers at GS don't get overtime. Signing bonuses are still low.

Work-life balance / Culture

I will explain these two together, because as you will see, they are intertwined (though not the same). There is a stigma that boutiques are sweatshops. While this may be accurate for certain firms, I do not think it holds true in aggregate.

Bulge brackets are big, bureaucratic, stodgy, inefficient machines. Pre-crisis, MS had 60,000 employees globally. GS had 30,000.

Boutiques have smaller analyst classes. That is both good and bad. You may wind up with a stronger analyst experience: more closed deals, better client exposure, and better exposure to your seniors leads to better placement. The downside, however, is that you can be worked harder.

That doesn't mean you won't get worked hard at a top group at a bulge bracket. An inefficient staffer or poor process management by the seniors on your deals can mean you have a far worse time than your friend at a boutique who simply has fewer analysts to share the workload with.

Banking is banking. Seniors have packed schedules. Calls, meetings, conferences, speaking engagements, travel between cities, recruiting initiatives, internal talent development initiatives, and the like are all demands on their time. All of this means that you as an analyst are forced to spend a lot of time waiting for them to give you your work.

As always, an example (again, firsthand).

You receive a new staffing. The associate emails everyone on the team to schedule a late morning meeting. A VP leads that meeting, filling you and the associate in on what the MD shared with him before flying out to the West Coast for the next couple days. The VP sketches out a few directions for the slides and walks out the door. The associate spends 10 minutes with you going over it in greater detail, and you mentally dedicate 3 hours of your day to this task.
.

Back at your desk, your inbox is pretty full and you spend 90 minutes on small things before getting started on your new work. You send the associate your slides at 4pm. He replies with minor comments (if you're lucky) at 4:45. You make the changes immediately, but he doesn't see the email until 5:45. Since he is jammed, he passes them up to your VP without looking.

Your VP responds at 8:30 with comments exactly the opposite of your associate's, so you copy slides from your earlier version and send them back. At 10:15, you see your VP walking out of the office with his bag. You glance at your inbox and see an email where he's passed the deck up to the MD.

Your MD doesn't respond until 4am Eastern. His comments are extensive, and the email reply is "Pls fix as directed, huge meeting 1st thing at 8AM, need this rdy to go. Thx." You finish making the changes at 7am (you're tired and slow, you only got 4 hours of sleep the night before) and head home to pass out.

Your work phone and personal cell start violently screaming at 9:45; your MD woke up at 6:15 Pacific, had a new idea for one of the appendix slides, and wants it changed before the meeting. You flip open your laptop, make the tiny change, submit the deck to your West Coast office's production team before 10am (knowing they'll curse your existence for giving them only an hour before the meeting), and pass back out.

Your phones start screaming again. You glance at your clock and it says 10:30am. There's a fire drill for another one of your projects; 40 minutes later you are back in the office in front of your screens, and you can't remember showering, shaving, or the cab ride in between.

This is why culture is so critical. The nature of this job is unavoidable. At a shop with a healthy culture, however, people notice when this happens and proactively minimize the pain wherever they can. Communication is crisper, directions provided are more thorough and clear, useless series of back and forth revisions are minimized, and analysts who are getting crushed get positive recognition for their contribution and given a break to recuperate.

This is where the boutiques win. Every bank loves to preach about their "flat hierarchy" and "open-door policy," but in reality, that is rare. You're more likely to find it at the boutiques. Specific groups within bulge brackets may be like this, but given how impossible it is to control your placement, it really does not make sense to roll the dice hoping you get the one group with a healthy culture out of twelve at that firm.

Placement

People here love to refer to 10xleverage's thread on his experience at MS M&A and KKR. That is a phenomenal resource in terms of insight on his responsibilities and career advancement, but let me highlight how dated it is.

I can tell you firsthand that GS TMT's placement (though strong) is not as godly as people on this forum make it out to be. From the summer 2012 class, I can say for a fact only 7 of the 12 summers who received offers returned. One left for a startup, one went to McKinsey, two went to Blackstone (different areas), and I'm not privy to what the final one did.

Within GS, FIG and CRG have arguably outdone it in the past two cycles. CRG takes fewer analysts, roughly 12 a year, so them putting 3-4 analysts in MFs each year is noteworthy. The FIG analyst class is north of 20 each year. Exits from FIG are more to HF than those from TMT.

BX R&R and M&A place lights-out. I happily refer to this thread and can confirm that placement as well.

Lazard as a whole gets great headhunter love and buy-side placement; Restructuring especially so. Evercore places analysts into MFs routinely. Greenhill has put a few analysts into MFs in recent years and places into excellent MM firms routinely. Moelis recruits extraordinarily well (especially into HF) out of both the LA and NYC offices. A huge selling point with them is that seniors will go strongly to bat for you, calling people they know at your target firms.

In short, I'd argue that we're seeing a real trend where the top candidates elect for the top boutiques. In this post-crisis world, you are going to get paid better, treated better, see better deals (in some cases), and enjoy better exits from the strongest boutiques than the strongest groups at the bulge brackets. Couple that with the fact that you can't guarantee placement into those strongest groups at the big banks, and it's easy to see why the best guys go for BX, Moelis, Lazard, and Evercore where they know they don't have to worry about getting into M&A (MS), TMT or FIG (GS), or M&A or Sponsors (JPM and CS).

Takeaway

Have an idea of where you'd like to be in the future, then make your present selection based on that information.

Now, as a reality check, realize that getting a job at any of these groups is a tremendous feat. The amount of entitlement on these forums either nauseates me or makes me laugh and shake my head depending on my mood. You'll be in the top 1% of all college graduates in terms of earnings and set for a career where it only gets better.

Obviously, human nature is to always want more and thus we continually strive for the next thing better on our imaginary little checklist, but some perspective is definitely in order. I hope we can all step back to take a moment to reflect on how privileged we are for the seats we have.

The arbitrary lists and static rankings people continually make on this site grow very stale and tiresome. Most are clearly derived from some (admittedly studious) trolling of countless WSO threads, but that's exactly the problem. CS Sponsors hasn't been "good" in 5 years, but there are a dozen threads from 2006-09 talking about how strong it is and how great the exits are, so it features prominently in most people's lists.

The MS M&A/KKR guy's post is also dated, and doubly so. For one, it's from years ago, and secondly, his perspective is also dated because he was 2-4 years out from his analyst experience when he wrote it.

The people who talk in terms of 'bucketing' have it right, and even then, it's still arbitrary. I've met people at funds everyone here would give their left arm to work at who came recently from (the horror!) Jefferies, BAML, UBS, and other firms that continually get dumped on here.

In this industry, people care about your intelligence and competence. The firm you start at is certainly a good indicator of those traits, but they really are determined in an interview.

In summary, if you have the chance to work at any of these firms, congrats. You're on the path. If you're a junior and looking for a summer job, you have months to make all these determinations for yourself. If you're facing final deadlines as a senior and choosing between them, I'd recommend putting some actual energy into reaching out and getting in front of or on the phone with people who currently work at or recently left the places you're considering.

They'll be able to provide you real, concrete, actual info on placement, pay, and culture ... and that's remarkably more useful than coming on here to hear the same drivel regurgitated by people whose only impressions are formed by what they themselves have read here.

This is my first entry as a contributing author. I know it is quite lengthy, but I hope it is equally helpful. Please give me feedback, either privately or as a public reply. I intend to put out 1-3 pieces weekly in the future.