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Lazard's Border Crossing Guard

Lazard’s Antonio Weiss brings a diplomatic touch to contested international M&As.

Antonio Weiss has an innate understanding of how to use diplomacy to bridge cultural divides. The son of a musicology professor from Trieste, Italy, and his American wife, a music teacher, Weiss grew up in New York City, spent his childhood summers in Italy and learned how to be at home on two continents. That trait is crucial for the Paris-based banker, who was named global head of M&A at Lazard in March after leading the bank in one of its biggest deals ever.

A longtime adviser to InBev CEO Carlos Brito, Weiss, 42, helped the Belgian brewer pull off its $52 billion acquisition of St. Louis–based Anheuser-Busch Cos. last year. The deal was hardly a foregone conclusion. Anheuser-Busch is an American icon that controls more than half of the U.S. beer market, and chairman and CEO August Busch IV had vowed to preserve the independence of the company founded by his family in 1852.Weiss and Brito spent more than nine months preparing tactics before InBev launched its bid in June 2008. The $65-a-share offer represented a healthy 24 percent premium over Anheuser-Busch’s share price before takeover speculation first arose. Then the men sought to weaken their target’s resistance, praising Anheuser-Busch’s management and workers while simultaneously threatening to unseat the brewer’s board in a proxy battle if directors opposed the offer. As investors shifted to InBev’s side, the company upped its price to an unrefusable $70 a share and won Busch’s acquiescence — ending the battle in just five weeks’ time.

The deal was the biggest takeover of 2008 and the largest-ever unsolicited purchase of a U.S. company by a foreign buyer. "Ideally, you want to put together a deal that has an aura of inevitability," Weiss explains. "InBev succeeded in doing that." Brito gives plenty of credit to Weiss, whom he has hired to work on a variety of transactions since 1995, when Weiss advised the Belgian brewer on its acquisition of Canada’s Labatt’s. "Antonio always takes the high road," Brito tells Institutional Investor . "He’s also particularly good at bringing up risks and what-ifs and finding effective ways to cover them."

Weiss followed an unusual path to banking. In 1988 he earned a bachelor’s degree in comparative literature from Yale University, where he edited the campus literary magazine, then was hired as a senior editor at New York–based Paris Review by the magazine’s late founder, journalist and adventurer George Plimpton. "I was smart enough to know there was no hope of my becoming George Plimpton, so I quickly went and did something else," notes Weiss.

Intrigued by tales of swashbuckling Wall Street, Weiss did a two-year-long investment banking training program at Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette in 1990, then went to Harvard Business School for an MBA before joining Lazard in 1994 as an associate banker. He hasn’t forgotten his first passion, though, remaining a contributor and adviser at Paris Review and becoming its publisher last year.

In 1997, as one of the Lazard bankers advising ITT Corp. on a hostile takeover offer from Hilton Hotels Corp., Weiss was reminded of the value of diplomacy. ITT ended up spinning off its auto-parts business and selling its Sheraton Hotel unit to white knight Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide for $10.5 billion in shares and cash rather than accept an all-cash bid from Hilton, whose then-CEO, Stephen Bollenbach, had alienated ITT by calling its then-CEO, Rand Araskog, a "superweenie."

Lazard sent Weiss to its Paris office in 2002 to help expand the firm’s operations in continental Europe. Weiss broadened the franchise beyond Lazard’s French stronghold by picking up corporate takeover mandates from companies such as Italian automaker Fiat, Swiss food producer Nestlé and German engineering group Siemens. In 2006 the bank named him one of three vice chairmen of European investment banking.

Weiss, who is currently advising Amsterdam-listed KKR Private Equity Investors on a buyout offer from its New York–based parent, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co., sees plenty of work ahead in global transactions, notwithstanding the recent slump in M&A. "I will be focusing even more on cross-border deals," he says.

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