Monday, October 14, 2013

Bowles, Hollowell and Conner reunite and reminisce

Back before Bowles Hollowell Conner & Co. was nationally known, it was a fledgling investment bank just trying to make payroll, the three co-founders remembered Monday.

Charlotte businessmen Erskine Bowles, Tom Hollowell and Charles Conner shared a stage at the Westin Hotel uptown to receive a lifetime achievement award from the Association for Corporate Growth for their contributions to the city's financial community outside its big banks. Their eponymous firm was one of the first investment banks to cater specifically to the middle market, or deals ranging roughly from $5 million to $250 million.

After spending time at Morgan Stanley, Bowles said he saw an opportunity in that middle-market space. Since the deals were were relatively small, large firms were farming them out to their most junior and inexperienced staff. A bank dedicated solely to that market could do a much more quality job, he decided.

Still, at the start, it could be a challenge to convince companies to employ the upstart bank for their most important transactions. The co-founders would regularly inflate the number of deals they had done in the past year as they made their pitch to potential clients, Bowles and Hollowell related Monday. Bowles remembered a business trip to Germany with only $28 in their pockets. And more than a decade after its 1975 founding, their company was still at about a dozen employees.

It wasn't until later, as it began a string of more than two dozen deals with private equity firm Forstmann Little and another dozen with industrial company Textron, that Bowles Hollowell Conner became a magnet for talent from across the country.

Bowles Hollowell Conner never opened other offices around the country or branched out into other lines of business. But by the mid-1990s, it was completing more than $3 billion in deals annually. The bank sold in 1998 to First Union, the Charlotte bank that would later become part of Wachovia and later Wells Fargo.

The awards dinner was hosted by the Association for Corporate Growth. Continuing the theme, private equity firms from around the country will traverse uptown to meet with the cluster of boutique investment banks that call Charlotte home. Nearly all of them have alumni of Bowles Hollowell Conner in their leadership ranks.

More than 100 of the bank's alumni packed the Halcyon Restaurant on Monday night for a first-of-its-kind reunion.

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