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Sell Side

Mr. Muni Marks 50 Years

At some point, everyone in munis reports to someone who doesn’t know anything about munis. Or so the saying goes. But at Roosevelt & Cross, the buck stops at chief executive Dominick Antonelli, who as of Monday can boast 50 years of municipal underwriting experience.

New York-based Roosevelt & Cross, one of the largest public finance underwriters for the Northeast, was established in 1946 by Archibald “Archie” Roosevelt — son of the 26th president — and Edwin Cross, an underwriting specialist.

When the 19-year old Antonelli joined the firm as an office boy in 1961, the one-office firm was made up of just 12 employees led by its two namesakes and three other founders.

Antonelli said the public finance market was so much smaller back then that all the major players were easily accessible — sometimes by accident.

A few months into his job at 40 Wall Street, the young Antonelli stepped into an elevator alongside former New York Gov. Tom Dewey — then a lawyer at Dewey Ballantine LLP — and Archie Roosevelt.

“I was standing next to Mr. Roosevelt and he said, 'Dominick, you know Mr. Dewey, right?’ And I said, 'Oh sure, we have lunch at least twice a week,’ ” Antonelli recounted with a chuckle on Monday.

Today, headquartered from One Exchange Plaza in Manhattan, the firm has close to 80 employees spread across six offices in New York, New Jersey, and New England. When Antonelli recalls the firm’s history, the key themes are stability and maintaining focus on the founders’ original vision.

Roosevelt & Cross is one of few Wall Street firms to have maintained its partnership structure, and today it remains entirely owned by its employees. The New York office is adorned with portraits and a bust of Theodore Roosevelt. And 65 years into its history, the heart of its practice continues to be public finance underwriting in the Northeast.

Antonelli said his firm has bid on every competitive bond issue in New York since 1946, and a similar strategy guides the company through its efforts in New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania.

“We’re very careful about doing anything too quickly — we move very slowly,” he said. “In the last 50 years, I bet you there are firms that have grown 10 times the size, but there are probably 500 that don’t exist anymore.”

Roosevelt & Cross works on bond issues of all sizes. Last year, it was senior manager on 356 small issues — worth $10 million or less — ranking it fourth nationally for such issues with $1.31 billion of underwritings, according to Thomson Reuters.

When asked what deals stick out from his 50 years of underwriting, Antonelli has a hard time confining himself to naming just one or two. Instead he picks a sector, like education or health care, and rattles off names as if reading the Yellow Pages.

“We’ve financed probably 75% of schools in New York State,” he added. “I could give you a book of how many deals we’ve done.”

Herman Charbonneau, senior vice president and manager of public finance, estimates that the average deal size the team works on is $15 million. It has no problem leading deals in the $500 million range, he added, but it won’t reject offers to help finance a $300,000 fire truck, either.

“It’s part of Roosevelt & Cross’ cachet that we’re there for everybody when you need it, no matter the size,” Charbonneau said.

The firm led 443 deals of all sizes in the Northeast totaling $3.12 billion last year, ranking it the ninth largest regional underwriter. In 2000, the firm was also ranked ninth for the 249 deals it led worth $1.27 billion.

Much of that growth and consistency is owed to Antonelli. He has overseen the firm since becoming president in 1990, and a few years later he also adopted roles as chief executive and chairman of the eight-member board of directors.

Charbonneau — who at 76 describes himself as “just a kid” given that he’s been with Roosevelt & Cross a mere 18 years — said Antonelli has worked to build up the firm from a relatively small regional player into a significant presence in the market.

“Dominick has been here throughout that process,” Charbonneau said. “We really are the dominant player in local finance.”

People at the firm work hard, but it’s common to kick back and enjoy a long lunch too, according to Paul Lamas, a senior vice president who arrived at the firm 24 years ago.

“Dominick really sets that tone from the top,” Lamas said. “It’s an unusual place — we don’t have budgets the way most businesses do. Dominick’s philosophy has always been to say, 'Tell me which way interest rates are going and I’ll tell you what my budget is.’ ”

Antonelli said the firm prides itself for adding liquidity to the muni market no matter what is going on.

During New York City’s financial crisis in the mid-1970s, for instance, Roosevelt & Cross continued bidding on all the city’s bonds in the secondary market, shoring up confidence despite the turmoil.

Today, amid increased headline risk about municipal credit that he regards as “shock value” with little substance, Antonelli remains convinced the market will remain healthy. In this tough climate the firm tries to retain the clear focus of its mission. That includes encouraging its clients to remain calm despite the noise and continuing to bid on New York paper as it always has.

“We just sell one product. You think it would be easy, but you’d be surprised how many different tentacles of the business are involved,” Antonelli said. “I’ve been doing this 50 years, I’m still learning the municipal business every day.”

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