15 October 2001
So Rowe & Maw is doing a Dechert. As The Lawyer revealed last week, the identity of its US sweetheart has yet to become clear as rivals Mayer Brown & Platt and White & Case compete for the prize.
But needless to say, either suitor opens up infinite possibilities for Rowe & Maw's relationships with its client base by boosting both its London finance practice and its European presence. Take, for example, the firm's number one property finance client Nationwide. The building society's property lending operation, driven by head of property finance Steve Willingham, is set to become a top 10 biller for the firm by the end of the financial year.
Coincidentally, Rowe & Maw shares the spot of favoured City adviser with Dechert. Nicholson Graham & Jones gets a significantly smaller slice of the property finance cake, but still more of a look-in than Allen & Overy (A&O), which is also on this semi-formal panel. Clifford Chance is the building society's longstanding corporate counsel. Three regional firms - one of which is Burges Salmon - are also used regularly on property lending and have strong relationships with Nationwide's 25 offices dotted around the country.
Rowe & Maw's relationship goes back to Nationwide's fledgling days in property finance four years ago, when banking partner Stephen Walsh took a call from an old contact who had resurfaced at the building society. Instructions on plain vanilla bilateral loans secured on single properties have been superseded by work on syndicated facilities secured on large portfolios. Rowe & Maw still has a long way to go to grow its property finance practice, but the Nationwide relationship has done much to close what was once seen as a gap in the firm's offering. An identifiable property finance team has been built very much on the back of this one client. The production of standard form documentation for syndicated facilities has further strengthened the bond.
The core Nationwide team now consists of Walsh plus real estate partner Iain Thomas and banking partner Nigel White. The team typically acts on facilities in the £20m-£60m bracket, but recently acted on its most significant yet - a £115m syndicated facility to a subsidiary of Chamarel Associates, advised by none other than Dechert. Rowe & Maw has now advised on around £1bn of facilities for Nationwide. The relationship has also just crossed over into Nationwide's specialist residential investment finance arm with a deal on which former Eversheds partner Simon Pullen led.
Dechert came on board more recently after acting opposite Nationwide in 1999. The panel resource was reviewed early last year and Dechert has since enjoyed an avalanche of work, including instructions on some high-profile bid finance and some of Nationwide's European syndication work, by virtue of its strength outside the UK market. Dechert has clearly made much of the chance to introduce would-be borrowers from its extensive property practice to the building society. Nationwide has decided that its focus lies in Europe rather than in the US, but Dechert is not missing the opportunity to use its US capability to introduce US mezzanine providers, for example.
No doubt Rowe & Maw is eager to follow suit if and when its US marriage plans come to fruition. In particular, the team would like to grow into securitisation work. Friendly competition from Dechert has already prompted Rowe & Maw to up its Nationwide charm offensive.
Willingham is certainly among those clients in support of a merger that would extend Rowe & Maw's European reach. Aside from the obvious requirements for depth of knowledge and a commercial approach, Willingham generally prefers dealing with smaller City firms like Rowe & Maw and Dechert, which offer greater partner contact, than with the giants. Despite the growth of the business (it currently has assets in excess of £5bn), Nationwide is under no illusion that it would push its way to the top of the priority list at, for example, A&O.
What Willingham will be looking for when Rowe & Maw starts selling its merger partner is a meeting of minds similar to that it already enjoys with its favourite City firms.