Fresh from the blockbuster deal that puts him in charge of one the world’s most important media companies, David Zaslav, the CEO of Discovery, is waxing poetic about an investment banker, of all things. And not a banker from Allen & Co. or JPMorgan Chase, which represented Discovery in its deal with AT&T for WarnerMedia. He’s talking about Aryeh Bourkoff, one of AT&T’s bankers.
Zaslav remembers how one night, pre-pandemic, he invited Bourkoff to join him to see a James Taylor concert at The Apollo Theater in Harlem. Bourkoff showed up late, catching only the final three songs. “Where were you?” Zaslav asked. It turned out that earlier in the evening, Bourkoff had drinks with Randall Stephenson, then the CEO of AT&T, and dinner with Shari Redstone, the controlling shareholder of ViacomCBS.
Then there was the time Zaslav was at the finals of the French Open in Paris. Just before Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer took the stage, he received a text: “Look up and look across. I love you, buddy.” It was from Bourkoff, sitting on the other side of the court. “What the hell is he doing here?” Zaslav wondered. “By the way, he was there for a day and then he was flying back. It’s that energy — that’s his secret weapon.”
You may have never heard of Bourkoff, but, at 48, he’s the hottest banker in Hollywood, and maybe on all of Wall Street. Bourkoff is the founder of LionTree LLC, one of a successful breed of small, specialized M&A advisory boutiques that have emerged since the turn of the century. In a world of old-line investment banking titans, such as Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley and Bank of America, LionTree has managed to hold its own, especially in its specialty advising on — and occasionally investing in — telecommunications, media and technology (TMT) companies.
LionTree has about 100 employees worldwide, with offices in New York, San Francisco, London and Paris. According to financial data and technology company Refinitiv, LionTree is punching way above its weight: It’s the 13th biggest M&A adviser by deal volume and, according to the firm, in the top five advisers on TMT deals.
In addition to advising AT&T on the divestiture of WarnerMedia, Bourkoff advised MGM on its $8.45 billion sale to Amazon and represented Apollo Global Management, the big buyout firm, on its nearly $5 billion acquisition of Yahoo from Verizon in May. He also advised Richard Branson in 2019 on the merger of Virgin Galactic into a special purpose acquisition company sponsored by venture capitalist Chamath Palihapitiya. Since 2012, when Bourkoff and his LionTree co-founder, Ehren Stenzler, abruptly left UBS — the big Swiss bank where Bourkoff had risen to become one of the co-heads of investment banking — LionTree has had a hand in some of the most transformative media deals, including Charter Communications’ $90 billion acquisition of Time Warner Cable and Bright House; Pandora’s $3.5 billion sale to SiriusXM; and the agonizing $20 billion recombination of Viacom and CBS. Bourkoff also represented ViacomCBS in its pending $2.18 billion sale of Simon & Schuster, the book-publishing division, to Penguin Random House, a part of Bertelsmann, proving that his courting of Redstone continues to pay off for him. M&A bankers’ fees are highly negotiated on a deal-by-deal basis — but can easily be in the many millions of dollars, especially for big deals. We may never know how much LionTree is paid for its work for AT&T on the WarnerMedia deal, but if precedent means anything, it’s not crazy to think that Aryeh & Co. will walk off with more than $25 million for its advice.
Zaslav thinks Bourkoff has succeeded where few others dare to even tread because he is fearless. “He’d call John Stankey [the current AT&T CEO] or he’ll call Randall [Stephenson], he’ll call Brian Roberts [the CEO of Comcast] and say, ‘I’ve got some ideas. I want to sit down and talk to you,’ or, ‘I’m concerned about something that you’re doing …’ Everyone says the same thing, ‘All right, come on in.’ He always gets a yes, and when he gets in the room, he’s done the work and he’s personally engaging. He’s not a phone guy. He’s not a text guy. He’s a face-to-face guy. He gets that this business is about connection. It’s about people.” (In fact, in March 2020, while I was initially reporting this profile, Bourkoff was the last non-family member I saw in person before the pandemic hit New York City; after proclaiming he was sick of Zoom, he insisted that our second visit together, more than a year later, also be in person, at a fancy restaurant on Manhattan’s East Side. But only our first interview was on the record.)
Another way Bourkoff gets to know the titans of media is through MediaSlopes, his annual and very exclusive gathering of around 200 “global influencers and disrupters” at the Deer Valley Resort, in Utah. It’s so exclusive that, although Bourkoff has been holding the conference for 10 years and I’ve been either an M&A banker or reporting on Wall Street for the past 34 years, I’d never even heard of it. He last held it in early March 2020, just before things started shutting down. Among the attendees were Al Gore, Maria Sharapova and Hans Vestberg, the CEO of Verizon. LionTree has also made confidential equity investments, as a principal, in more than 30 companies, including Square, Gimlet and Oscar, the health care company run by Josh Kushner, Jared’s brother. (He advised the Kushner brothers on their failed bid to buy the Los Angeles Dodgers and remains close to them.)
Bourkoff was born in Palo Alto, California, “before it was cool or hot,” he says. His family moved to Baltimore when he was a kid. His father was a professor at Johns Hopkins; his mother ran a campus library. His first memory of being an adviser was one Saturday afternoon when his parents asked him if they should have a third child. He thought about the question for a few minutes and said no, “We’re cool.” Two weeks later, his brother was born. “I realized sometimes when people asked me for advice, they don’t really want advice,” he says. “They actually already know. And they are telling, not asking you.”
His parents were academics, and pretty indifferent about wealth. He explains: “There was a mug in my parents’ house saying, ‘I have a BA, a BS, a J.D., an MBA and a Ph.D. Now all I need is a J-O-B.’ ” After his parents divorced unexpectedly when he was 17, Bourkoff went for free to John Muir College, at the University of California, San Diego. He studied econometrics and U.S. history. But he had, as he says, “no definable skills” and no idea what he wanted to do. Realizing he needed some expertise, he decided to try to break into banking, on Wall Street, specifically as a research analyst. He would get up well before dawn in San Diego and start calling Wall Street firms in New York City to see if he could get an interview. “I remember that mug,” he says. “Why don’t I just skip all that other stuff and just go right to the J-O-B?” He put his résumé under the windshield wipers of cars in New York City.
Eventually he landed a job at Smith Barney, as a junior analyst working for the head of high-yield research. He started covering TMT companies. Early on, he met the industry entrepreneurs, such as Rupert Murdoch, Comcast’s Brian Roberts, Dish founder Charlie Ergen and Liberty Media’s John Malone, who are now rock stars. Many of them remain his clients. From Smith Barney, he joined the Argosy Group, and then UBS, where part of his new job was to analyze potential deals and advise the bankers on whether they made sense. In that role, he rejected 40 out of 45 potential deals, including for PSI Net and Winstar, two so-called emerging telecom companies. That didn’t make the bankers happy, but when all 40 companies later went bankrupt, the higher-ups at UBS realized Bourkoff had saved the bank hundreds of millions of dollars. He became the “goalkeeper” protecting the UBS balance sheet. “If that didn’t happen,” he says, “I’d have a whole different career.”
Eventually, he tired of research. He realized it was more fun climbing the hill than defending it. He became the vice chairman of TMT investment banking at UBS, covering 35 large companies. But he had to learn a new skill set — listening. As a research analyst, investors looked to him for definitive answers about trading stocks and bonds. Bankers had to give advice to corporate execs about their own companies. They “know infinitely more than you do about the things they are asking about,” he was told by a fellow banker.
Early on, he got an abject lesson in negotiating an M&A fee. He had been hired to sell the Sundance Channel, which was owned jointly by NBC, CBS and Robert Redford. Joe Ianniello, then a CBS executive who would later become acting CEO in the wake of Les Moonves’ departure, was running the deal. Bourkoff sold Sundance to Cablevision for $5 billion, an unheard-of price for a stand-alone cable channel. A veteran banker in upper management told him, “A great banker not only does a great deal, but he also negotiates great fees for the firm.” Bourkoff went to see Ianniello about UBS’ fee. (Usually these are negotiated in advance, so his rookie mistake was failing to do that.) Ianniello brought out a deck of cards and suggested that whichever card Bourkoff picked would be UBS’ fee on the Sundance deal. If, for instance, he picked a 10 or a face card, he’d get $10 million. “This is awesome,” he thought. He picked a three. Ianniello could sense Bourkoff’s disappointment and let him pick again. Another three. Another pick, another three. “He set the whole thing up,” Bourkoff says with a laugh. “I go, ‘Are you telling me my fee is $3 million?’ He goes, ‘That’s what I’m telling you.’ “
Another big break came in 2009 when Comcast hired him and UBS to represent it in its acquisition of NBC Universal from GE. The night before Comcast was set to announce the deal, Brian Roberts called up Bourkoff and asked for his help in preparing for the call with Comcast’s equity investors. He told Roberts the first question would be about what the NBC Universal deal says about Comcast’s devotion to the cable business. Roberts’ planned response was, “We see more opportunities now on the content side and we are going to go that route.” Wrong answer, Bourkoff told him. That answer would drive down Comcast’s stock 20 percent immediately. “You don’t have any content investors yet,” Bourkoff told the Comcast CEO. “Everyone on the call are cable investors. You say: ‘We love cable today the same way we did yesterday, the same as we do tomorrow.’ Lock your base.” Roberts took his advice. “He was perfect,” Bourkoff said. Comcast’s stock traded up.
His clients seem to love him. Mike Fries, the CEO of Liberty Global, has hired Bourkoff on nine deals, totaling some $85 billion, including its 2013 $23 billion acquisition of Virgin Media, which he credits Bourkoff with conceptualizing and driving home. “He’s highly strategic,” Fries tells me. “He’s not generally coming to meetings asking me what I’m working on and how he can be helpful — he comes to meetings with suggestions about what I should be working on and how he can help me do that. It’s a big difference.” Even one of the bankers he competes with sings Bourkoff’s praises. “He can light up a room,” he says, “[and] obviously [has] deep industry knowledge with his research background. He’s a really good networker, connecting dots with people. That’s probably his single greatest gift.”
Still, some of Bourkoff’s competitors find him to be too self-promotional, to put it kindly. “He’s not really a banker,” one says. “He’s more of a yenta. He doesn’t know how to do any of the M&A shit. But he’s very effective at socializing. And he’s very effective at getting his name in the New York Post. And a lot of clients don’t like that. But that’s it. He’s built a business.”
And he has kept right on building it. After the financial crisis in 2008, UBS asked Bourkoff to run investment banking in the Americas. He had 1,500 people reporting to him. In his town halls, he says, he could feel how he inspired the bankers. When they came to talk to him about their annual bonuses, they always wanted to be paid more than their peers. He says bankers “are paid to inflate themselves” and so he asked them, “What is your edge?” They didn’t understand. He told them, “In a meeting, if I brought you, why is the meeting better? In banking, it’s very easy. There are three ways you have an edge: unique idea, unique capital, unique relationships. Think about which one you have, come back to me tomorrow.” He raised the bar on everybody. But he began having second thoughts in the years after the 2008 financial crisis. He felt like he was asking people to push themselves, but he could not deliver on their bonus expectations. He had ideas about how to get UBS to move up the investment banking ranks, but senior management wasn’t interested.
In March 2012, after receiving his bonus for 2011, he walked out of UBS and never went back. “My knees buckled,” he says. A month later, he had opened LionTree. The name of the firm is an amalgam of the Hebrew meaning of both his and his wife’s first names. (When I first met Bourkoff, he was wearing cuff links that said “Buy, Sell and Hold” on them — a gift from his wife, Elana, who was trained as a lawyer but now runs the Bourkoffs’ domestic life. They have been married for 21 years and have four children.) By November 2012, he had closed two deals: as an adviser to Malone and Liberty Global on its $585 million acquisition of OneLink Communications and the $6.6 billion sale of Suddenlink Communications to BC Partners and the Canada Pension Plan. Since then, LionTree has done some 210 deals, worth more than $700 billion. LionTree has no debt and a healthy amount of cash, although just how much, Bourkoff won’t say. “We’re private,” he says. “I don’t have to say.”
His sensitivity to the criticism about being a publicity seeker seems to be the driving force behind his decision to make our most recent conversation on background only. Bourkoff declines to talk about the specifics of the WarnerMedia deal or how he came to be hired by Stankey. Instead, he talks about how he kept everyone at LionTree focused on their clients during the pandemic, reassuring employees that there would be no layoffs (there weren’t) and sending each a bottle of Oban single-malt Scotch.
What he will talk about, in general terms, is how he thinks about companies like AT&T. He says one of the biggest blunders telephone companies made was giving up control of their customers to the tech companies, like Apple and Google, that make their phones.
In Bourkoff’s view, AT&T’s Great Unwind of WarnerMedia is an example of a company being flexible enough to initiate an industrywide “transformation” by recognizing that the entertainment assets would perform better in the hands of a new leader, instead of those of Stankey, who ran WarnerMedia before becoming CEO of AT&T in July 2020, or in the hands of Jason Kilar, who succeeded Stankey at WarnerMedia and is now holding on for dear life.
Bourkoff’s thinking is that Stankey should be rewarded for having the guts to ditch the media assets and deserves a spot among the greatest pivoters, men like Reed Hastings, who started the streaming revolution. Would you prefer, his thinking continues, that Stankey & Co. put its collective head in the sand and continue to run its media assets poorly? Far better to have other managers run those companies and use the cash proceeds from the sales to pay down debt and focus on the one thing you do well, or well enough: providing wireless telephone service to hundreds of millions of people. Stankey should be applauded, Bourkoff’s logic goes, for recognizing the need for the Big Pivot and executing on it. (So far, the market is not cheering; AT&T stock is down 11 percent since word of the deal started leaking on May 16.)
It’s clear that the pandemic has made Bourkoff a little more modest than he was in March 2020. He thinks I am giving him too much credit for his important roles in the AT&T and MGM deals. The bankers, he says, are merely following in the wake of their clients. He tells me that the conversations he has in the context of an M&A deal are special because they are built on a foundation of trust. As they used to say about Goldman Sachs, he is long-term greedy, and he and LionTree are just getting started. CEOs across the globe are now seeking him out for a shred of insight into why AT&T ditched WarnerMedia after just three years or what Amazon’s plans for MGM will be. He’s going to save those nuggets for paying customers, or for those who might pay him one day. He’s not going to violate the trust he’s so painstakingly built with his clients to share them with me.
This story first appeared in the June 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.