H. Russell Fraser, a leader in the municipal bond insurance and credit rating industries for more than 40 years, died on Wednesday at his home in Littleton, Colorado. He was 71.
Perhaps best known for his innovation, if not his distinct Western attire, Fraser has been credited with establishing the municipal bond insurance industry and turning the struggling Fitch Investors Service, now known as Fitch Ratings, into a success.
He is also widely remembered for his leadership and high ethical standards. During his years in the industry, Fraser resisted the entry of financial guaranty insurers into the business of writing guarantees for structured financial products, a practice that led to disaster for the bond insurers when the financial crisis erupted.
“Fraser is considered an icon in the muni bond market,” said former colleague Jennifer Lerch, director of business and cooperative programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“He was truly the most endearing, high integrity, calm character you could ever come across.”
Fraser worked at Standard & Poor’s and Paine Webber & Co. before he was recruited to run the American Municipal Bond Assurance Corporation. He served as president and chief executive officer from 1980 until 1989, and was instrumental in building the company into a multi-billion dollar enterprise before it was sold to Citibank in 1985.
After AMBAC, Fraser went to Fitch, when it was a small, struggling bond rating agency, where he reinvented the company as a credible third player in the rating business.
In 1997, Fraser left Fitch to focus on serving the needs of an underserved segment of the municipal bond industry. He founded American Capital Access, the first A-rated financial guaranty company, to provide credit enhancement to issuers with little or no access to the capital markets.
“[Fraser] was a slight man who looked like a cowboy,” recalled Lerch, who joined ACA as a director in early 1998. “He never changed his character or his thoughts or his work style, and people just loved him,” she said, describing his ten-gallon hat, scuffed up cowboy boots, and leather vest he wore over a patterned shirt.
Every day at 9 a.m. Fraser would come into his office, which was decorated with cow-hide furniture and a desk made out of timber, and he would leave around 10 or 11 p.m. He had one refrigerator filled with Diet Coke, and the other filled with black and white cookies. On the weekends, he would commute back to his ranch in Wyoming.
“If you wanted to sit or spend time with [Fraser], his door was always open,” Lerch said. “You would have working meetings that would start at 7 p.m. and everybody would drink Diet Coke and eat black and white cookies and literally talk about how to get more access to capital for the underdogs.”
In early 2001, Fraser resigned as chairman at ACA, and later formed HRF Associates, a consulting services firm for the financial services industry, where he served as president and CEO.
Fraser is survived by his wife Patsy; his daughters Amy and Suzanne; his son Christopher; and nine grandchildren.
Funeral services information will be announced shortly. In lieu of flowers, the family has requested a donation be made to the National Jewish Medical and Research Center, 1400 Jackson Street, Denver, Colorado 80206, Attention: Susan Latimer.