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When Christopher Viehbacher began looking for acquisitions to bolster the product pipeline and revive growth at Sanofi-Aventis two years ago, he didn’t immediately turn to the French pharmaceuticals company’s traditional investment banks, such as BNP Paribas and Merrill Lynch & Co., the tandem that had worked on the big 2004 merger that created Sanofi-Aventis. Instead, he relied on the advice of François Maisonrouge, a veteran pharma expert and senior managing director at New York–based boutique bank Evercore Partners. Maisonrouge identified Genzyme Corp. as a target, asserting that the Boston-based biotechnology company’s high-priced drugs for treating rare diseases like enzyme deficiencies were less vulnerable to competition from generics than many of Sanofi-Aventis’s medicines were. In May 2010, Maisonrouge made an initial overture to Genzyme CEO Henri Termeer on Viehbacher’s behalf. When Genzyme rejected the approach, Maisonrouge advised Sanofi on making a hostile bid, working alongside J.P. Morgan, which helped arrange financing. After a bruising six-month battle, Sanofi-Aventis agreed in February to acquire Genzyme for an upwardly revised price of $74 a share, or $20.1 billion.

More companies are getting back on the takeover trail as the economic recovery continues and business confidence improves. The volume of announced mergers and acquisitions jumped 28 percent in the first quarter from the same period a year earlier, to $809 billion globally, according to data provider Dealogic. As they step up their activity, corporations are increasingly turning for advice to boutique firms rather than relying solely on the services of big investment banks. The top 25 boutiques advised on 17 percent of announced transactions in the first quarter, down from 21 percent a year earlier but way up from 2001, when boutiques’ market share was just 6 percent.

Notably, the smaller firms are winning advisory roles on some of the largest and most high-profile deals. The boutique with the hottest hand, Evercore, is advising AT&T on its $39 billion offering for T-Mobile USA, the biggest bid so far this year. Evercore is working alongside another boutique, Greenhill & Co., and J.P. Morgan on the deal. Perella Weinberg Partners, whose 2006 founding signaled the recent revival of boutique banking, is one of four banks advising NYSE Euronext on an agreed-upon $11 billion offer from Deutsche Börse. That mandate puts the firm into direct competition with Evercore, which is one of five banks working with Nasdaq OMX Group and IntercontinentalExchange on their rival $12 billion bid for NYSE Euronext. Moelis & Co., a boutique founded four years ago by former UBS rainmaker Kenneth Moelis, advised Australia’s Centro Properties Group on the $9.4 billion sale of its U.S. strip mall properties to Blackstone Group in February — one of the largest leveraged buyouts since the financial crisis.