* Arab culture, smaller M&A size favour boutiques
* Clients want direct relations with senior advisers
* Number of boutiques growing in Mideast
* Aim to leverage relationships with Gulf families
* Still too niche for billion-dollar cross-border trades
By David French
DUBAI, Aug 24 (Reuters) - Wealthy Gulf Arabs’ love of boutiques doesn’t just apply to fashion, but increasingly to their choice of financial advisers as well.
Boutique advisory firms seem tailor-made for a region where personal ties are key, and where most mergers and acquisitions aren’t billion-dollar glamour deals for sovereign wealth funds but in the $50 million to $150 million bracket - territory ignored by the investment banks who dominate league tables.
The question in the brand-sensitive Gulf, where supercars abound and Versace interiors are the ultimate in home decor, is whether boutiques can compete with globally recognised investment banks.
“Would you rather go to the boutique restaurant around the corner or would you rather go to McDonalds?” asks Ziad Awad, a former managing director at Bank of America-Merrill Lynch who set up his own boutique firm, Awad Capital, two years ago.
“And what is the right comparison - which one is the Prada?” he adds, acknowledging that while a number of clients still prefer to stick with brands, many are opting for specialist advice.
The number of such firms in the Middle East is growing, centred on the free zones in Dubai, the region’s finance hub.
According to figures from the Dubai International Financial Centre, the emirate’s main banking hub, six advisory firms have set up in 2015, versus seven in 2013 and 2014 and four in 2012.
One of those is Trussbridge Advisory Limited, run by Samer Katerji and Rody Yared, former senior investment bankers at Citigroup and JP Morgan, respectively.
They point to a changing banking landscape, which is making the kind of personalised relationships that Middle Eastern clients want increasingly difficult.
“The client demands a direct relationship with every part of the deal and doesn’t want to be dealing with the head of M&A, head of corporate finance and a host of juniors,” said Yared.
“It’s not the fault of individuals but the model of banks pushed down on them. The talent might be there but the model which the industry is moving towards ... doesn’t allow for a real relationship business.”
Strong relationships with family businesses can lead to deals. Trussbridge, for example, advised Jordan’s family-owned Nuqul Group on selling a minority stake in FINE, one of the Middle East’s largest tissue brands, to a Standard Chartered Private Equity-led consortium for $175 million.
“Clients may like you and trust you but they are not going to give you business if you aren’t qualified. These are generational businesses and they can’t risk it,” said Katerji.
While its size might pale in comparison to transactions which propelled boutiques to the forefront in the West - such as Alcatel Lucent picking Zaoui & Co as sole advisor for its 15.6 billion euro ($18 billion) sale to Nokia - FINE was a significant deal in a region where transaction values are still small by global standards.
Many deals are so small no outside advisers are needed.
That is why most Gulf boutiques stretch their skill-sets into other areas of corporate advisory, helping pay the bills but also building the relationships for future deals.
Other revenue streams, be it retainer fees for advisory services or wealthy shareholders backing the boutique, are important as Middle Eastern M&A is notoriously slow to complete and prone to failure - often a consequence of sellers’ unrealistically high asset valuations.
Another challenge boutiques face is competition, at the smaller end from the “big four” accountancy firms who can also leverage other corporate work to supplement M&A business, while big-ticket M&A is still the preserve of the investment banks.
“When it comes to large deals in the Middle East, I don’t think the region is ready to give those big deals to boutiques yet,” said Omar Iqtidar, head of Middle East investment banking at Citigroup, pointing to the range of services big banks offer to alleviate the complexities of cross-border deals.
Such grand transactions aren’t boutiques’ targets yet, Iqtidar notes, but cross-border capabilities are still important for advisers as Gulf families are increasingly seeking M&A outside the region, while international private equity has been flowing in like never before.
Awad said his firm has developed relationships with boutiques in other parts of the world to help facilitate cross-border business - drawing on the growth of boutiques globally.
And with many investment banks still retrenching in terms of products and geography, opening the way for those with the experience and relationships, Middle Eastern boutiques could in the years to come become as fashionable as the clothing brands adorning their clients. ($1 = 0.8579 euros) (Editing by Susan Fenton)