BRADENTON, Fla. — Though Rob Baird developed an early interest in politics, most of his career was spent climbing the ladder at Memphis-based Morgan Keegan & Co.

Starting as the firm’s first public finance banker, Baird rose through the ranks over 32 years to leadership positions as the head of fixed income and investment banking.

Now he’s leading public finance and debt investment banking at the new fixed-income division of the recently merged Raymond James | Morgan Keegan, which remains in downtown Memphis.

“It’s actually been great,” said Baird, 60, referring to the work merging the firms and once again dealing with municipal clients and public finance bankers.

“It’s been exhausting but I’m back doing what I really enjoy doing,” he said. “I couldn’t be more enthused and feel fortunate to have this position.”

Since the merger with St. Petersburg, Fla.-headquartered Raymond James closed on April 2, Baird said his focus has been combining the legacy platforms of both firms.

The company has more than 200 public finance professionals in some 30 locations.

Several hundred employees from both firms were let go as a part of the merger, and several public finance bankers from Raymond James have since left, with some reportedly dissatisfied with corporate communications.

“We worked very hard from announcing the sale to the day of closing to communicate as well and as often as we could, and I’m sure at times some employees felt communications could have been better, but it was not for lack of effort,” Baird said.

“Unfortunately, we lost bankers on both the Raymond James and Morgan Keegan platforms, which is something no one likes to see.”

Baird said the combined firm is now more than regional in scope.

He has heard the new firm called the country’s largest wealth management and investment banking firm not headquartered on Wall Street.

Some people have called it a super-regional firm.

“All of our bankers feel very good about having a larger platform than we had individually,” Baird said.

While the core of the public finance business at Raymond James and Morgan Keegan emanated from the Southeast, both began concerted growth efforts several years ago that will continue, according to Baird.

“We now have a national focus and a national public finance practice,” he said. “We have public finance bankers now from Boston and New York to San Francisco and to Miami.”

The firm will continue to grow market share in core states, and gradually expand into other markets not served or where additional bankers are needed, according to Baird.

“The other focus will be on industry groups,” he said. “We have a strong housing, health care and excellent airport practice, and we’re going to continue to invest in different sectors that we are not currently in or need to invest in further.”

Baird called the power of the combined platform “amazing” in terms of banking expertise, distribution and capital to support issuers’ bonds.

“That puts us in the same league as other top-10 underwriters; we’re going to continue to grow our business and aspire to be in an even better position in the league tables going forward,” he said.

“It’s a huge opportunity for us and our clients,” he added.

Baird continues to work under John Carson, former chief executive officer of Morgan Keegan.

Carson now heads up the combined fixed-income and public finance divisions, and is president of Raymond James Financial.

Mississippi Delta Roots

Though he was born and raised in Memphis as Robert A. Baird 4th, his family line hails from the Mississippi Delta region.

Baird graduated from the University of Tennessee.

In the mid-1970s, when he was an assistant to the mayor of Memphis, a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors changed his life.

It happened while Baird sat in on a session about public finance led by Sam Katz, who spent 20 years as co-CEO of Public Financial Management helping the independent financial advisory firm grow from two employees to 200.

“The light basically came on and I said, 'That’s what I want to do for a living,’ ” Baird said.

After being inspired by Katz to work in public finance, Baird landed his first job in the field with Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith Inc. in New York.

After a short stint at Merrill, he and wife Vicki moved back to Memphis in 1979 where he became Morgan Keegan’s first public finance banker.

The couple has been married 33 years. They have two children.

Like many professionals in public finance, Baird often works 12-hour days or more and spends a great deal of time on airplanes.

The schedule doesn’t permit much use of social media — professionally, that is.

Personally, though, he regularly follows his 25-year-old namesake, Rob Baird 5th, who is an up-and-coming singer and songwriter in Austin.

“I’ll very proudly say he’s my son, who I’ve encouraged to use social media, and who I follow regularly on Twitter,” Baird said. “It’s been a lot of fun to watch him grow. His label will release a second new album in May.”

Elizabeth, his daughter, is an architect who also lives in Austin.

Good and Bad Years

While there were many good years in investment banking, Morgan Keegan struggled through the credit crisis with very public headlines about its failed investment funds, and being required to buy back auction-rate securities like many other firms.

It was not easy, Baird said.

“We feel like we came through the credit crisis extremely well and really did not have a serious issue from a liquidity standpoint,” he said.

Though times have changed since the recession and some issuers are still struggling to regain revenues, Baird said Raymond James | Morgan Keegan is poised to help existing and new clients.

“We think that our municipal clients and not-for-profit clients are going to continue to have significant capital needs and need creative investment banking services,” he said. “We’re optimistic that we can grow our business and attract talented bankers.”

Over his career, Baird has been involved with different industry organizations.

Currently, he’s a member of the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association’s municipal executive committee.

Baird is also involved in local government and community organizations, and currently serves on the boards of a children’s hospital foundation and a health care group.

Though some people confuse him with Robert W. Baird & Co., the middle initials are different.

“I’ve had a lot fun with that over the years, and yes, issuers have asked me about it and fellow bankers have asked me about it,” he said. “It is a well-respected firm, but there’s no connection between my family and the Robert W. Baird family.”

While the job requires a lot of time on the road coaching the bankers and calling on issuers, Baird enjoys spending free time with family and friends.

“We’re a close-knit group here in Memphis,” he said. “I feel very fortunate to have the career that I’ve had, and I plan to work many more years.”

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