Sagent in the Crunch

Commercial banks often use cheap loans to woo corporate clients away from investment banks.

Commercial banks often use cheap loans to woo corporate clients away from investment banks. But when it comes to M&A advice, relationships still matter most. Consider the acquisition of health club chain Crunch Fitness, announced last month.

Shortly after Chicago-based Bally Total Fitness hired Blackstone Group to sell Crunch in May, Peter Moore, a 33-year-old vice president at tiny New York investment banking boutique Sagent Advisors, swung into action. Moore called Marc Tascher, a fitness industry entrepreneur who co-founded Town Sports International, the parent of New York Sports Club and its siblings across the U.S. The two knew each other from serving on the board of Fitness Venture Group, a Phoenix-based provider of health club software that Moore co-founded.

Tascher told Moore he was interested in buying Crunch. Before long Moore had teamed him up with another interested party, Angelo, Gordon & Co., a big hedge fund and private equity firm based in New York. The two agreed to be partners in the $45 million acquisition -- and to hire Sagent as their adviser on the deal.

“Angelo Gordon wants to back management teams who are going to be successful, and [Tascher’s] been very successful in the past 30 years,” says Moore, one of about 20 bankers at Sagent. Tascher, who’s currently CEO of health club management company Sports & Fitness Ventures, will fold the eight gyms that company owns in New York and Washington into Crunch Fitness and serve as CEO of the new entity.

The Crunch deal is one of about 20 advisory mandates thus far for Sagent, which was founded in June 2004 by former Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette M&A co-heads Joel Cohen and Hal Ritch. Among the firm’s most notable deals: It advised transportation service provider Yellow Roadway on its $1.4 billion acquisition of USF, announced in February. Sagent is one of a number of boutiques, like Evercore Partners, that are currently making hay on Wall Street by offering only strategic advice within the confines of a private partnership.

Ritch sees Sagent advising on the very biggest deals, not just the relatively modest ones it has helped ink so far. He wouldn’t mind Sagent’s growing the way his old firm did: from M&A revenues of $40 million in 1994 to nearly $900 million in 1999, the year before it was sold to Credit Suisse First Boston. “Just like DLJ, we want it all,” says Ritch. “The whole spectrum.”