Harris Williams, Known for Keeping its Senior Bankers, Sees 7 MDs Leave Since 2009

Are the golden handcuffs off at Harris Williams?

The investment bank, known for advising on sell side, middle market deals, has seen seven MDs leave since 2009, four sources say.

Bankers move around all the time and, at first blush, this may not seem very newsy. But this is Harris Williams, the Richmond, Va. firm known as the IB where bankers don’t leave.

“Harris Williams has had virtually zero turnover in 20 years,” one person says. “But a bunch of folks were getting further along in their careers.”

H. Hiter Harris and Chris Williams, who both hail from Bowles Hollowell, founded Harris Williams in 1991 to focus on middle market M&A. In late 2005, PNC bought Harris Williams for an undisclosed amount. (In an aside, Bowles Hollowell has left an interesting legacy. The IB was acquired by First Union, which then morphed into Wachovia Corp., which was then acquired by Wells Fargo. Got it?)

Harris Williams bankers were highly incentivized to stay after the PNC takeover, sources have told me. In fact, by 2006, only one senior banker had ever left the firm (that came in 2004, I’m told). Harris Williams currently has about 180 employees spread through seven offices. About 22 are MDs. PE firms account for 66% of Harris Williams clients, according to the firm’s web site.

The seven MDs left Harris Williams for various reasons, one PE exec says. “Some made enough money, some were pushed and some wanted to do their own shop,” the source says.

The reviving economy is also spurring MDs to move out on their own, the first source says. All but one of the seven MDs has started their own firm.

For instance, Pat Crocker spent nine years at Harris Williams and managed the firm’s San Francisco office for five. He left last August and launched MidSpan Partners, of San Francisco, a month later. Two other Harris Williams alums, Craig Lawson and Tara Smith, joined him, according to the firm’s web site. (Lawson and Smith were not MDs at Harris Williams and are not counted in the seven departures).

David Joncas, Harris Williams’s co-head of technology investment banking, departed in August to co-found Aeris Partners, an M&A tech advisory firm in Cambridge, Mass.

Similarly, Peter Bowles left Harris Williams in 2009 and co-founded Blue Edge Capital, a separate account manager, in October 2010. He was joined by Giles Tucker, co-head of Harris Williams’s energy and power group, who left the IB in December 2009.

One of the bigger departures from Harris Williams occurred recently. Dena Frith Moore, Harris Williams’s chief operating officer, left in the last few months, sources say.

Edward “Ned” Valentine, a Harris Williams MD, confirms that Moore’s departure occurred within the last month. Valentine also confirmed the departures of the other Harris Williams MDs.

Of the seven bankers, four are doing something completely different from M&A advisory, Valentine says. Harris Williams is very proud that the execs were able to gain skills at Harris Williams to launch their own firms, he says. The MDs that have left were each with the firm for an average of 10 years, Valentine says.

“What we’re really proud of is that we have had, and continue to have, extremely low turnover…We wish them nothing but success, each and every one of them,” he says.