CHICAGO Rating agency veteran Joseph O'Keefe has joined the ranks of public finance investment bankers. Hoping to capitalize on his 25 years covering government credits at Fitch Ratings and Standard & Poor's, he is opening a new Chicago office for the Youngstown, Ohio-based Butler Wick & Co.

O'Keefe, 53, this week started working for the firm as a vice president in investment banking. His hiring comes four months after his position as a senior analyst covering local governmental credits at Fitch was cut as part of company-wide layoffs that stemmed from the agency's declining revenues in its structured finance business.

O'Keefe is a well-known public finance professional in the Midwest among both issuers and bankers. He relocated to Chicago from New York City to open Standard & Poor's office here in 1994. After 15 years with the agency, including time covering international credits and state credits, Fitch recruited him to launch its office here in 1998. Last year, he was named to a four-year term as an advisory member of the Government Finance Officers Association's debt committee.

In his job hunt over the last four months, O'Keefe said he sought to find a position in which he would remain close to governmental decision-makers in either an advisory or banking role. "I wanted to be able to offer something more to governments than just assessing their credit quality," he said in an interview yesterday.

With investment banks grappling with losses amid the collapse of the subprime mortgage market and the ensuing credit crunch, O'Keefe said it was "an unusual time" to look for a job as some firms even ones in strong financial shape were hesitant to act on hiring decisions.

O'Keefe said he considered several options and settled on the chance to open an office for Butler Wick because of the opportunity it provides to establish and build an investment banking presence for what he called a "conservative and well-managed" broker-dealer.

While the Illinois market is competitive and tough for a small local firm to break into, O'Keefe said he believes the current turmoil that has resulted in UBS Securities LLC's exit from municipals and JPMorgan's acquisition of Bear, Stearns & Co. leaves an opening for a small firm to enter the market in Chicago, even one whose name is unfamiliar to many local issuers.

"I think it's a great time for a firm going after smaller deals," he said.

O'Keefe initially will seek co-manager positions and advisory work with the goal of moving into the senior manager's role on deals as high as the low to mid-$100 million range.

The firm's head of public finance bankers, Omar Ganoom, a managing director, said he had long tried to lure O'Keefe. It was his availability more so than the opportunity to expand into the Chicago market that prompted his hiring. Ganoom has known O'Keefe for several decades from his positions at Butler, the former McDonald Investments Inc., and as deputy to the Ohio treasurer.

The firm also saw benefits in seeking work in Illinois. Illinois and Ohio generate the most issuance in the Midwest, with Ohio issuers selling $15.7 billion last year, just slightly behind Illinois at $15.9 billion, according to Thomson Reuters. But Ohio's economy has struggled more and been hit harder by foreclosures.

"It just made good sense to branch out a little further, and Illinois is very close," Ganoom said. "And Joe can step in to the role."

The firm's capital markets group was established in 1990. It is a subsidiary of United Community Financial Corp.The Home Savings and Loan Co. is also a subsidiary. Butler employs about five public finance bankers that work in four Ohio offices. The firm employs another four trading and sales professionals. Most of the firm's municipal professionals worked together at McDonald, which was acquired last year by KeyCorp.

Outside of Ohio, the firm does some work in California and Florida, with a focus on governments, school districts, and health care. The firm primarily works on fixed-rate issuance with a smaller variable-rate book and the capital capacity to serve as sole senior manager on a deal of up to about $135 million. The firm typically ranks in the top 25 of senior managers in Ohio but is not ranked nationally.

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