Alumni Spotlight: James Walsh
James Walsh (MSIA 1992) stepped out of his comfort zone on his way to the Tepper School of Business — and never stopped as he rose to the heights of investment banking.
After a short stint as an analyst, Walsh had been eager to widen his horizons and augment his Brown University liberal arts education with a more “operational” MBA. “GSIA was a very highly ranked school,” said Walsh, “and it offered a diverse kind of learning experience that I felt would help me figure out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.”
He finished his first year at the Tepper School and snagged a marketing internship with Heinz. By the end of the summer, Heinz asked him to stay on and finish his degree at night. Walsh agreed, grateful for the school’s flexibility in helping him manage the transition and complete his MBA.
A few years later, though happy for the experience, Walsh decided that marketing and “corporate life” weren’t for him. The Pittsburgh native returned to his old firm Dean Witter as an investment banking associate, just as the industry was ramping up.
At Dean Witter, he started specializing in the food service industry, in which the firm had a strong practice. The office was located in the World Trade Center, and Walsh was there for the first bombing in 1993. “To get out I had to walk down 66 floors in the pitch dark,” he recalled grimly. “And when I was fortunate to exit the building, it looked like Armageddon.”
Suddenly displaced, office life became chaotic and Oppenheimer wooed him to join their consumer investment banking team. Walsh accepted and helped build a very successful food service banking practice, culminating in another move to Wachovia (then First Union) where he would become a managing director. Unlike Walsh’s prior organizations, Wachovia had no real food service banking business.
“At Wachovia, I utilized the playbook taught to me by Professor Jeff Williams at the Tepper School — to build a great practice you first need to build your team and support from the inside. Only then can you find success outside,” Walsh explained. “So, I worked hard to get some of the best people at the firm to be my partners as we built the business. Over a couple of years, we became a powerhouse in food service investment banking. After building the food service business, I next wanted to build and run a consumer team of my own.”
This led to his being recruited by Jefferies (a top 10 global investment banking firm) where he was offered the opportunity to run and build their consumer group. Walsh jumped at the chance. It was 2007, and the financial crisis was looming. “It was a good time to have a couple-year contract,” he laughed, “but a bad time to start a consumer group.”
True to form, Walsh got creative. “It was an interesting time,” he recalled. “We could all have been sitting on our hands, but we found ways to help the firm’s clients and build new relationships. We created a nice business of moving clients from bank and term loans with restrictive covenants to bonds where they had more flexibility, giving them a chance to get through the downturn.”
I think my liberal arts education combined with Carnegie Mellon’s more technical education has helped me develop into the person that I am. It gave me skill sets that I’ve been able to utilize to get to a higher level within my profession.”
When the economy eventually turned and IPOs picked up, the relationships Walsh and his team nurtured during the tough times were the ones taking their companies public and giving Jefferies lead positions. This meant a great deal of business for the consumer group and it became one of the most productive in the organization.
Following his success in the consumer group, Walsh was tasked with spearheading the restructuring of Jefferies’ leveraged finance group, piloting it to a leading position in the U.S. Without missing a beat, he then returned to the consumer group to enlarge it. Now with more than 100 employees, Walsh notes it is in the top five in nearly every product category. “I’ve been fortunate and thankful Jefferies has given me numerous opportunities and challenges to have a very rewarding career,” he said.
In looking back, Walsh remarked, “My career has been pretty interesting and great fun.” Some of his more recognizable deals have included the Manchester United’s IPO and helping Tillman Fertitta build his restaurant and gaming businesses and buying the Houston Rockets. The Rockets deal was hailed as one of the most creative that year by numerous finance publications.
Today, Walsh is Vice Chairman for Jefferies and continues to lead the consumer group along with real estate, gaming, and leisure. And in looking forward to continuing with the recruiting relationship Jefferies maintains with the Tepper School, Walsh comments on his gratitude to his alma mater.
“The Tepper School opened up my eyes to more of the operational aspects of things and that’s helped me along the way,” said Walsh. “I’m known in everything that we do for making difficult transactions and getting them done in an efficient manner. I think my liberal arts education combined with Carnegie Mellon’s more technical education has helped me develop into the person that I am. It gave me skill sets that I’ve been able to utilize to get to a higher level within my profession.”