Wiley Griffiths had a life-changing revelation while poring over the books of Teekay Shipping in the late 1990s as an auditor for Ernst & Young.
It did not come in the numbers. It came through watching the investment bankers who helped Teekay's chief financial officer, at the time Anthony Gurnee, reorganise its finances and proceed to acquire Norway’s Bona Shipping.
A light bulb flicked on. “I realised the banking side was a lot more interesting than the auditing side,” Griffiths says.
“I mean no disrespect to my former colleagues. But the bankers were reshaping the company’s future. I decided to rebrand.”
Nearly 20 years later, Griffiths is one of shipping’s most influential investment bankers in his role with bulge-bracket firm Morgan Stanley.
No, capital markets activity has not been great within the industry in the last several years — especially on for initial public offerings.
But where there has been activity, there is a good chance Griffiths has been in the middle of it.
He became one of those bankers helping owners like Teekay, Scorpio, Nordic American Tankers, Costamare and Ardmore Shipping — led by the very same Tony Gurnee.
Indeed it was Griffiths and Morgan Stanley who led Gurnee and Ardmore public in 2013 as a New York-listed owner of product tankers.
“Wiley is a great guy,” Gurnee says. “He’s very level headed, always a gentleman, stays calm under pressure and always offers sound, balanced advice.”
For Griffiths, the rebranding was not solely the change of profession. He spent his first 30 years in Vancouver amid the bounty of natural resources that drove its economy, including shipping.
Griffiths left the region and began his studies at the University of Pennsylvania’s prestigious Wharton School of Business — miles away from his native British Columbia both literally and figuratively.
“What Wiley, I’m sure, is too humble to point out is that he made partner at Ernst & Young at a very young age — at 27 — which was kind of shocking,” Gurnee recalls.
“When he left to go to business school, his family was upset — his mother was in tears — and he was going into debt with a very uncertain future.”
But before long, he was interning at Morgan Stanley in New York and it soon became evident that any worries were misplaced.
Griffiths’ role models then were men like Gurnee, Goldman Sachs investment banker Reginald Jones and Fortress Investments partner Joseph Adams.
“They taught me what it’s like to be an investment banker,” Griffths says. “I could tell it was a stressful and analytical and fast-paced environment.”
It was the height of the technology boom and many aspiring bankers wanted to enter that. But Griffiths was agnostic about industry focus — “I just wanted to learn investment banking and I didn’t care what group I went into.”
That attitude just happened to land him in the relatively unsexy and short-staffed transportation group, and would bring his shipping experience into play.
Although he was the low man on the totem pole as a summer associate, Griffiths recalls that he “got lucky” when Teekay’s senior management team at the time — chief executive Bjorn Moller and chief financial officer Peter Anturri — came through Manhattan for a meeting with his boss.
“Because I had been the audit lead on their account, they knew me and literally greeted me with a hug,” Griffiths says. “The meeting turned into a great dialogue and my senior managing director said, ‘I think you’re going to be good at client coverage.’
“It was kind of rare that a summer associate could bring that sort of relationship to bear — again, I got really lucky — and the firm thought I was mature enough to go out on business.”
Griffiths says now that he learned investing banking “through osmosis”, but he already knew shipping from his auditing days and the market was about to get healthier.
He recalls his first big deal as a $150m convertible bond for Teekay in 2003, executed in tandem with Salomon Smith Barney banker Loli Wu, who also had a strong relationship with the Vancouver owner.
Deals were still tough to do at the time, but an unprecedented wave of IPOs would begin to take shape for shipping in late 2004 and explode through 2005. Many were in dry bulk, fuelled by the “China story” of unprecedented demand from the world’s new growth engine.
While there are now more than 40 public companies listed in New York, Griffiths and Morgan Stanley are back to a time when deals are tough.
There has not been a mainstream shipping IPO since Gener8 Maritime managed to get public — just barely — in June 2015.
Yet Morgan Stanley has stayed active on follow-on deals, mergers and acquisitions and other advisory work. Where there is business, Griffiths and Morgan Stanley often are doing it.
GoodBulk leads the way, having unveiled a preliminary prospectus targeting the Nasdaq exchange on 1 June. Navios says it has made an early-stage confidential filing in New York. Oslo’s Hunter Group and its growing VLCC fleet may be yet another outfit to watch.
When the market was busier, before 2010, it had about a 30% share of bookrunner roles, a top underwriting category, on IPOs and follow-on deals.
In the slower market since, it has been bookrunner on 60% of the IPOs and 80% of follow-on deals.
It took the lead on Teekay Corp’s follow-on and convertible notes deal in January, and on Scorpio Tankers’ $200m equity issue in May 2017 to finance its acquisition of Navig8 Products Tankers.
“Spending time in the industry when things are pretty lousy — people appreciate that, I think,” Griffiths says. “It’s been pretty quiet since the world economic collapse, but I’m hoping we’re coming into a healthier IPO environment over the next 24 months.”