A self-described "deal junkie," Bernie Zaia's career as a Los Angeles investment banker spans more than two decades. After graduating from Stanford University in 1986, Zaia went to work as a financial analyst in Dean Witter's L.A. investment banking office. One of the deals was the initial public offering of national cable system operator Falcon Cable TV. Falcon's founder, Marc Nathanson, was so impressed that he hired Zaia, who spent the next seven years raising money there. In 1994, Zaia joined what was then a small L.A. investment bank, Barrington Associates. Working primarily on middle-market transactions, Barrington grew at a fast pace over the next decade and became one of the top-tier middle-market investment banks in the country. Zaia became a partner in 2000 and later became managing director. In 2006, Barrington was acquired by Wells Fargo, in a
transaction that Zaia maintains hasn't changed its culture. Zaia sat down with the Business Journal recently to discuss what drives him as an investment banker, how he copes with his job while raising two small children, and other issues.

Question: What do you enjoy most about investment banking?

Answer: I like the fast-paced nature of the business and the challenges of working with a wide array of entrepreneurs and helping them navigate what is usually the most important transaction of their life. When you get across the finish line and the client achieves his or her goal, there is really no way to describe the sense of accomplishment that we as bankers enjoy. And, of course, the success fees we earn when we close the deal are also pretty enjoyable.

Q: Can you describe the relationship between an investment banker and his client?

A: It can be a very taxing and emotional process for a business owner to sell all or part of his company. So we inevitably develop a very special relationship with the entrepreneur, usually as a trusted adviser, sometimes as a shrink, and always as a guy who is in the foxhole with them during a firefight.

Q: A shrink?

A: Yes, sometimes we play the role of psychologist. Inevitably in a transaction I find myself having a number of heart-to-heart talks with my client, dissuading them from getting caught up in the heat of the battle and refocusing them on their personal goals and why they pursued a transaction in the first place. While there is no couch involved, these conversations can get pretty deep.

Q: Tell us about a successful deal.

A: We recently closed a very challenging transaction that ended in a fantastic result for our client. There were lots of starts and stops and bumps along the way, but we were able to solve each problem that came along and finally get across the goal line.

Q: So what was your client's reaction?

A: When the sale-proceeds wire hit my client's account after the deal closed, my client, who is a big guy, got up from the other side of the conference table, walked over to me and gave me a big bear hug and kept telling me how happy he was over and over again. As far as job satisfaction goes, you just can't get much better than that. Ultimately he let go of me and actually gave me a chance to breathe.

Q: Is there anything you dislike about your job?

A: Probably when an overzealous attorney over-lawyers a deal. It never ceases to amaze me how otherwise very sharp professionals can muck up the works and actually do a disservice to their clients by harping on some small legal point that, as a practical matter, does not amount to a hill of beans, and may in fact cost their client a fortune.

Q: Any really low career moments?

A: There have been two or three situations where a client has elected to not follow my advice for one reason or another, and the client ended up with a very disappointing result. It's particularly frustrating because you know what the right decision is and sometimes you just are not able to get the client to see it. These are always really tough situations, because if you are worth your salt in this business, you take these failures personally, regardless of what caused them.

Q: So business owners aren't easy to work with?

A: I love working with entrepreneurs and have a huge amount of respect for them. At the same time, entrepreneurs are a very strong-minded bunch and sometimes they forget there is this thing called gravity.

Q: What do you mean by gravity?

A: They all have very strong wills and typically lots of creativity, passion and resilience. They really enjoy business and its challenges. Usually they are not the kind of folks who are comfortable reporting to others and often that is why they start their own companies. Most have an unwillingness to take no for an answer and are usually willing to walk through a brick wall to achieve their goals. When others see problems, they see opportunities they are really cut from a different cloth than most of us mortals.

Q: Did you ever think about becoming an entrepreneur yourself?

A: I'm not sure I would have the patience it takes to build a company. I'm a deal junkie. Founding and growing a company like the ones we represent takes a certain personality, one which investment bankers just do not have.

Q: What are the qualities of a successful investment banker?

A: It may sound surprising for a job in the finance industry, but most importantly, you need a strong degree of common sense and street smarts and the ability to be a good salesman.

Q: Salesman?

A: Good investment bankers are sophisticated salespeople who have the analytical tools of a research analyst as well as the ability to effectively communicate with business owners and potential buyers of businesses. In this industry, salesmanship means the ability to understand a company, identify what is good and bad about it, and then present it in a manner that maximizes its attractiveness to a potential buyer. Our trade is both an art and a science.

Q: Why did you and your partners decide to sell to Wells Fargo?

A: When Wells Fargo approached us, we were not even thinking of selling. But the more we got to know the organization, the more intrigued we became about the potential opportunity that one plus one could equal five. The fit with their client base was extraordinary, and we decided they were really an optimal strategic partner for our business.

Q: How has your job changed since Barrington's acquisition by Wells Fargo?

A: Nothing really has changed. Wells Fargo is a strong believer in decentralization and letting its business units operate independently. The only difference is that we have access to more opportunities from the Wells network and an abundance of resources that we didn't have when we were a private firm. And, of course, there is more paperwork related to things like human resources and security.

Q: How has the investment banking industry changed over the course of your career?

A: The middle-market deal arena has evolved meaningfully since I entered the space 14 years ago. With the exponential expansion of the private equity marketplace and the huge sums of capital under their management, transaction activity in the middle-market segment has skyrocketed over the last decade and a half.

Q: How many hours a week do you work on average?

A: Back in the day, I would regularly work 100-hour weeks. Lately I am probably in the range of 70 to 80 hours per week. That's really just part of the drill in investment banking because there is always something you can be doing to serve your clients' interests and push the transactions forward.

Q: How have you managed to cut back?

A: I have become better at delegating certain things and have had to learn to work more efficiently. Also, we really have developed an exceptionally strong team of junior bankers.

Q: But don't you have a young family?

A: I try to be very efficient on both sides and I don't sleep much. It has certainly gotten harder with two young sons. I have a 4-year-old and a second son who is 5 months old.

Q: How do you unwind?

A: I love playing golf and watching golf. I also love going on surfing trips. Some of my friends and I have been surfing the Hollister and Bixby ranches for years, which are north of Santa Barbara. I cannot think of a better way to unwind than spending a day up there out in the water. The only challenge is finding the time to do it these days.

Q: Are you a believer in vacations?

A: I love vacations in theory, but in the deal business, there really is no good time to take one and we usually work right through them. You get used to it over time. My wife schedules our trips and a key criteria for me is that there is cell and BlackBerry coverage wherever we go sad but true.

Q: What's the best advice you've gotten over the years?

A: The best advice I have ever received came from my dad, who was a career CIA man. Among the many pieces of advice he gave me growing up, two really stand out to this day. One, get up early and hit the streets running.

Q: A career CIA man? Can you talk about that?

A: Let's just say he traveled a lot internationally. He really did not tell us what he did specifically at the CIA. The party line was that he worked for "the government."

Q: So have you taken his advice?

A: I like to get up at 5 a.m. every day. There is no substitute for taking advantage of the early hours in the morning before the phone starts ringing.

Q: What time do you go to bed?

A: Pretty much as soon as my two boys go down!

Q: And the other important advice you got from your father?

A: Give back to people who are less fortunate than you are.

Q: Do you practice that?

A: Yes, I am actively involved in Westcoast Sports Associates, a charitable organization that funds sports programs for disadvantaged kids throughout Southern California who otherwise would not have sports opportunities. As passionate as I am about my professional career, I cannot minimize the sense of purpose WSA has provided me when I see the results of our efforts and how we are helping young people in some very challenged areas of our community.

Q: What got you interested in disadvantaged kids?

A: I took a step back and concluded that one of the reasons many kids get into trouble these days, like joining gangs, is that they do not have the sports opportunities like I had when I was growing up.

Q: What do you want to do when you retire?

A: I don't think I ever want to retire. I'm having too much fun and retirement sounds kind of boring. Golf gets old.

Bernie Zaia

Title: Managing Director

Company: Barrington Associates, division of Wells Fargo Securities

Born: 1964; Washington, D.C.

Education: B.A., economics, Stanford University

Career Turning Point: Becoming a partner at Barrington in 2000

Most Influential People: His father; mentor Marc Nathanson, founder-chief executive of Falcon Cable TV; Buddy Burkett, his hard-nosed youth football coach

Hobbies: Surfing, golf, reading, cheering for the Lakers and Redskins, charities benefiting the lives of children

Personal: Lives in Hermosa Beach with his wife, Ramanda; and two sons, Cole and Dane

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