Chris Hamel, who built RBC Capital Markets into a top municipal bond underwriter in a 35-year career, said he will retire Feb. 1 and may focus more on public policy issues.
“I am well into my 60s, and that is a time when you start to reflect deeply about what else one wishes to do with this life,” Hamel said in an exclusive chat with The Bond Buyer. “It is personally a good time to begin the third act of my life and pursue a number of interests that had been set aside by the demands of this profession.”
Hamel, an advocate of hybrid public-private partnerships to direct capital to infrastructure, is shifting focus as the muni market awaits details on President Trump's promised plan to revitalize the nation's infrastructure. Hamel said he may devote more time to public policy and community involvement.
“Municipal finance has, in part, facilitated that interest of mine but I plan for it to return in a more active way to this side of my life.”
Bob Spangler and Jim Tricolli will jointly assume Hamel’s responsibilities as co-heads of municipal finance, reporting to Blair Fleming, Head of U.S. Capital Markets.
"Bob and Jim have been great partners," Hamel said. "Without speaking for them, I believe their vision and theme going forward is business as usual. During my time here, we have lived by the belief that you need to evolve in order to survive and prosper. RBC is a major component of municipal and infrastructure finance and they advance that presence even more so in the future."
Under Hamel's leadership, RBC has expanded its muni finance platform in revenue, ranking, and reputation. The firm is a consistent top-five municipal bond underwriter, a top-3 tax credit syndicator, and enjoys a strong reputation in the industry, according to colleagues.
“Working with Chris over the past 19 years, one of the things that sticks out to me was his thoughtful leadership and strategic thinking,” Tricolli said. "Chris plowed and built the roads for our muni finance group, connecting the vast resources of RBC with our department, and now our job is to keep it maintenance free. Chris is honest, open, transparent and trustworthy, always going the extra mile and it was great to learn from him over the years.”
Spangler joined the firm in 1998 and Tricolli came on the next year. Together, with Mark Maroney (head of municipal sales and trading), they have played key roles in building RBC’s platform in large and middle markets, as well as tax credit syndication and direct investment.
“We will provide a continuation of what Chris started and has been doing,” said Spangler. “He built up our businesses and as far as the rest of our staff and the market is concerned, it will be a smooth and seamless transition. Chris is leaving us in a tremendous spot, coming off our highest negotiated ranking. We have a lot of momentum and are excited and optimistic as we continue to lead and build the department and take another step forward.”
Tricolli and Spangler will be responsible for running the banking side of RBC’s municipal finance business; the sales and trading component will continue to be led by Maroney.
“RBC used to have no access to a balance sheet, didn’t have a direct purchase program and now we have a huge muni presence and DPP is a very significant part of who we are as an organization,” Spangler said. “RBC has authentic leadership and across the system, a high percentage of folks have been 20-plus year and it’s a testament to leadership.”
Hamel has served as the chair of the SIFMA Municipal Executive Committee since 2008, is currently the Chair of its Infrastructure Finance Policy Committee. In 2013 he was added to its Honor Role of municipal leaders.
He is an acknowledged voice on U.S. infrastructure policy, including the integration of the public-private partnership model into the municipal one. Away from his business management responsibilities, he has been a leader in the the community's diversity efforts as a member on the Diversity Leadership Council, serves as Chair of the U.S. RBC Foundation, and has been an active member of the RBC Political Action Committee.
“Chris is a tremendous industry leader. He is so well respected, and his views and opinions are taken seriously across the industry," said Michael Decker, managing director and co-head of munis for SIFMA. "When he served as Municipal Division Chair at SIFMA, he led us through the auction rates security crisis with wisdom and energy.
"He is also passionate about infrastructure finance," Decker said. "It’s a personal issue for him, and he has been committed to helping advance the debate. Our industry has been fortunate to have his leadership on this issue. I expect him to remain active in the policy debate over infrastructure finance policy. We’ll all benefit from his continued involvement in the discussion. He has been a great asset not only for RBC but also for SIFMA and the industry in general.”
David Brownstein, managing director of the municipal securities division and head of public finance at Citi, first met Hamel when they were both young analysts getting starting in the industry.
"We have always been competitors but also very good friends, finding ways to work together when we could," Brownstein said. "When Chris was SIFMA chair (back in 2005-2006), he did something that was and still is essential for the industry, which was bringing everyone together. He started the process for all of us as a group, got us thinking how we can make our infrastructure better.
"He also got key industry organizations involved as well, such as GFOA - all for the benefit for issuers. He will be missed as a market participant but I think we will still see him from time to time, since one of his passions is driving how US infrastructure is built and funded," Brownstein said.
"We are in the middle of an exciting time to be in the public finance business," said Hamel, "and I am confident that firm under new leadership will meaningfully contribute to the underfunding-of-infrastructure debate and capture what opportunities comes from those policy discussions over the next year."
Spangler noted that advance refundings accounted for a good chunk of the market, so the industry is already starting 2018 with a hurdle after the financing tool was eliminated in the new tax law.
“We are better positioned to deal with that uncertainty, with a diverse of client base, personal and expertize across our whole platform, we can cover whatever comes up," said Spangler.
Upon hearing of Hamel's retirement, members of the buyside community reflected on the accomplishments of their colleague and described his role in the industry as important and precedent-setting.
"Chris is a true leader in the municipal market," George Friedlander, managing partner at Court Street Group Research, who has over 40 years of experience in the municipal bond market, said on Thursday afternoon.
"He was one of a very limited number of municipal investment bankers who best approached the sector as a science -- applying knowledge of government finance subjects and issues and awareness of changing conditions to generate growth of the RBC footprint -- and to fight legislative challenges as they arose. He has always been a pleasure to work with," Friedlander added. "He will be missed."
Hamel's career began when he joined a precessor firm, Rausher Pierce Refsnes, 35 years ago and he started managing the Municipal Banking department at RBC Capital Markets 15 years ago. Hamel is credited by market participants for leadership during a period of consolidation and the expansion of RBC that followed.
"He really grew the business, after the digestion of Dain Bosworth, and Rauscher Pierce Refsnes, and really moved up the firm into national ranks," said John Mousseau, director of fixed income at Cumberland Advisors, who has over 30 years of experience in the industry. "That’s not always easy when you are combining essentially regional firms -- but he did it."
Hamel said that aside from public policy, he looks forward to traveling more both, domestically and globally, and that he also plans on honing his writing skills by taking classes at NYU.
"I have lived by the adage that 'you play the cards you are dealt' and I feel like I had a four of a kind here at RBC," he said. "I was lucky to be a part of a world class financial institution, where the team applies those vast resources to help craft solutions for our clients’ problems."
Christine Albano contributed to this report.