Fox launches investment banking firm

The sluggish mergers and acquisition market of 2009 and early 2010 has given a well-known Milwaukee investment banker the time and opportunity to launch her own firm in order to capitalize on the resurgent market of the second half of this year and in 2011.

Eisen Fox & Co. LLC was founded by Victoria Fox, who previously worked at Milwaukee-based Emory & Co. and Pewaukee-based Mertz Associates Inc. In October, Fox was joined by Cynthia Steffes, who previously served as a vice president at Robert W. Baird & Co. She was previously a director of financial services for American Appraisal Associates, where she managed solvency opinions and business valuations for highly leveraged transactions.

Fox and Steffes are managing directors in the firm. They have been joined by Justin Haney, who works as an analyst with the firm.

While few deals were getting done during the recession, it became an opportune moment to start a new firm, Fox said.

“In the past year, there have been a number of spinoffs from established investment banking firms across the country with experienced professionals forming smaller teams and splitting off, but generally serving a similar target market,” she said. “Eisen Fox is part of this national trend.”

Eisen Fox is already finding traction within the financial services sector, largely because of the many connections that Fox and Steffes have within the industry.

“Our clients typically come from referrals and we have already gotten many referrals from other M&A firms in town and other advisors who have close relationships with their clients,” Fox said. “I have known these professionals for many years and they know we will provide a high level of service while bringing significant middle-market experience and resources to our clients. We have also referred to other M&A firms many opportunities that are just not the right fit for us.”

Fox and Steffes each have near 20-year careers in the mergers and acquisitions and financial services industries. Each has experience with transactions in the manufacturing and industrial, business services, staffing, distribution, printing, health care and food sectors. Both Fox and Steffes say Eisen Fox is not a specialized firm, and aims to work with a wide range of clients in the middle market.

The new firm is now working with clients that are looking to buy or sell middle market companies or product lines in the Midwest that have $10 million to $100 million in annual revenue. Eisen Fox works from a small office in the 735 North Water Street building in downtown Milwaukee.

Eisen Fox has one client under letter of intent to purchase a company, who has asked Fox and Steffes to find additional buy targets. The firm has also been retained by a company that has been approached by a strategic buyer, Fox said.

“We have also talked with several potential sellers who are considering their options to possibly begin a sale process early next year,” she said. “Our timing is good and Eisen Fox is well positioned to help our clients successfully buy and sell businesses in the next few years.”

Fox believes the mergers and acquisition market is poised for significant gains in 2011 and 2012, largely because of the large pools of private equity funds that need to be deployed and the continuing improvement in the financial sector.

“Many strategic buyers have strong balance sheets and need to show growth, and banks are more active in lending for transactions,” she said. “With company performance improving, owners are starting to consider selling profitable businesses.”

Most of Fox’s career has been spent working with clients in the middle market. While at Baird, Steffes worked with both large and middle-market firms, which gives Eisen Fox a deeper level of experience for its clients.

“I have experience with large clients, but I like working on smaller (middle market) deals,” Steffes said. “I worked with both at Baird. For me, it’s very rewarding to help a management team through the whole process of buying or selling a business.”

Steffes and Fox have known each other for several years and were talking this summer about the new firm Fox had started. Steffes had taken a step back from her career at Baird a few years earlier to spend time with her young children and was looking to get back into the mergers and acquisition industry.

“When Vicki and I were talking this summer, it felt great,” Steffes said. “We both have similar ideals – we believe in hard work and great service, with integrity being key.”

The flexibility of being in a small investment banking firm also attracted her.

“There’s more flexibility in a small business, where you feel like an entrepreneur,” Steffes said. “I think I’m at a point in my life where I want to have that control over my life and my work.”

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