The recent announcement that Gershon Kekst was selling the firm that bears his name to the French giant Publicis might signal the end of an era, though Kekst himself would surely scoff at the idea.
As the story goes, Kekst got his start in the 1970s when he and legendary attorney Joseph Flom of law firm Skadden hatched a plan to write a letter to the customers - dentists - of a dental-supplies company that was fighting off an unwanted takeover by an Arab group. They reasoned that as many of the dentists were Jewish, a letter warning them of the possible takeover would galvanize them to oppose it. Political correctness aside, they were right.
From that point on, Kekst was the go-to guy on nearly every major corporate takeover. Over the years, he and his colleagues worked on an encyclopedic list of transactions from Philip Morris' acquisition of Kraft foods, to Chrysler's merger with Daimler-Benz, to Northrop's acquisition of Grumman. Even today, nearly 40 years after he started the firm, Kekst continues to top the M&A league table for communications advisers. In the first half of 2008, his firm advised on 67 transactions, more than twice his nearest competitor.
So why did lawyers, bankers, and CEOs put him on their speed dial? They knew that once on their team, he'd put all his energy toward winning. He wasn't just in their corner; he was on the field slugging it out with them.
And what he was offering was not a body of knowledge, such as doctors or lawyers can lean on, but experience and judgment, or, as he once told an interviewer, saykhl, the Yiddish word for street smarts. He wasn't a promoter, hounding the press for coverage, but a thinker who could detect unfolding patterns. In other words, he knew how the play would end before the intermission and his job was to help clients rewrite the second act.
He became known for speaking his mind to his clients, not mincing his words, all with the goal of giving his client an edge. Sometimes he told them to go to the mattresses and other times to lay low. Throughout his career, Kekst shunned the media spotlight and would never write a book that spilled clients' secrets. Kekst's success set an example for others, such as Joele Frank and George Sard. Kekst showed them that they could get a seat at the table and not just hand out press releases.
Perhaps Armand Hammer, the long-time CEO of Occidental Petroleum, paid Kekst the best possible compliment. In one situation, Kekst mounted a ferocious defense against Hammer in a battle that not only eventually blocked the deal, but led Hammer to hire Kekst to work on his side in future transactions.
Even though he has built a solid team around him and says he intends to continue to lead his company, Kekst, now in his 70s, deserves time to sit back and enjoy.
Fred Bratman is the president of Hyde Park Financial Communications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.