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Some equity research analysts veer off Wall Street


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Some equity research analysts veer off Wall Street

When BB&T Securities LLC shut down its equity research, it opened the door to a new opportunity for Thomas Albrecht.

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Former BB&T research analyst Thomas Albrecht
Source: Thomas Albrecht

Albrecht, a BB&T analyst covering surface transportation, said the closure, announced in July, gave him a chance to leave behind his 28-year Wall Street career and start a transportation consulting company. With his consultancy, Albrecht hopes to leverage the network he developed as an analyst and work with companies to answer growth questions, study the viability of certain markets and understand industry trends.

"I really wanted to be more directly involved in the transportation industry, as opposed to being on Wall Street where the secular pressures are not only not going away, but they are going to get worse," he said.

For years, the equities industry has dealt with expanding compliance and regulation which increases costs for firms and restricts the work and creativity of analysts. The industry is also facing revenue headwinds from lower trading volumes, declining commissions and passive investment strategies taking share from active managers, a target audience for research analysts and core clients of many trading desks.

For some, the pressure became too much in 2016. While BB&T shut down equity research and others made cutbacks, firms such as Sterne Agee CRT, Topeka Capital Markets Inc. and Portales Partners LLC closed completely. The disruption has left many analysts at a crossroads, contemplating whether to continue their careers or find something different.

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A common career change for analysts is to work in investors relations, or in another capacity for a company they previously covered. Others, such as Albrecht, are making more drastic shifts by starting businesses or distancing themselves from the industry.

Albrecht said he always enjoyed studying stocks, companies and industries. But that became a smaller part of his workday, and marketing took up more time.

"The idea of just having a network of relationships and holistically understanding the industry became devalued," he said.

Other former analysts have also left the industry to pursue positions they found more appealing. John Hervey worked in the business for more than 20 years, including stints as director of research at Guggenheim Securities LLC, Lazard Capital Markets LLC and Credit Suisse First Boston Corp. As an analyst, he covered oil, technology and healthcare.

But in May, Hervey became president of COTA Inc., which analyzes medical records data to help determine optimal treatments for cancer patients. Hervey's research career helped him land a seat on the company's board after a mutual friend introduced him to oncologist Andrew Pecora, who founded COTA in 2011.

"He thought my experience in finance would be a piece that the board lacked because it was almost all medical and clinical at the time," Hervey said.

He spent about three years on the board before joining the company full-time. Hervey said working in research is still a great job, and he does not expect to see a drove of analysts leaving Wall Street. But the industry's challenges could motivate more analysts to pursue different endeavors.

"Equity research spawns people who are intellectually curious and challenged by analytic problems," he said. "I think it will always be a great breeding ground for people who move into other parts of the market."

Darren Kimball left equity research after 15 years. He led U.S. automotive equity research at Lehman Brothers Inc. in 2008 and then moved to the buy side before purchasing and becoming CEO of The Five O'Clock Club, which works with companies conducting layoffs and provides career coaching to employees being let go.

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The Five O'Clock Club CEO Darren Kimball
Source: The Five O'Clock Club

Kimball's desire to run a business was partly born from his analyst days. Analysts critique companies to let investors know if management teams are delivering on promises, he said.

"Something deep inside of me wanted to prove to myself that I could … build a business and not just be a critic," he said.

He said his business is doing well, but it has been quite a shift to becoming an owner after previously being an employee. "There's a lot I've had to learn," he said.

Kimball still has contacts on Wall Street, and while some are doing well, others are struggling. He understands some analysts might want to leave equity research, and his advice for those looking to start a business is to make sure their funding plan is sound.

"You don't want to have a great idea, get pretty far along and realize that it can't be sustained," he said.

Roger Freeman knows that all too well. Freeman, a veteran analyst who covered financial services, took a severance package from Barclays Capital Inc. in January 2014 and set out to start a self-financed drone company, FreeBird Flight LLC.

The analyst in Freeman understood the business opportunity with drones. In the market, he saw no major U.S. manufacturer and a product line filled with toys, drones that failed in inclement weather and spinning blades that cut like knives. Freeman aimed to build safer, stronger drones that could withstand rain, wind and snow.

He soon realized that producing parts from a 3D printer was the most efficient way to create a drone, but he had none of the necessary skills.

"I had to teach myself 3D CAD modeling, 3D printing, the mechanical engineering," he said.

Freeman figured it out and his latest version has enclosed blades, can fly for around 45 minutes, withstand the elements and carry 20 pounds. "It's a great product," he said.

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Former equity analyst Roger Freeman started a drone company and builds the units out of parts produced by a 3D printer.
Source: FreeBird Flight LLC

But sales are sluggish. Freeman has had some interesting leads, including an insurance company that wants to use drones to survey damage after natural disasters. But new regulation has slowed commercial adoption of drones, he said.

With a family to consider, Freeman needs income. He has started to look for work and may sell his drone patent. "I think that's the prudent thing to do," he said.

Freeman is considering a return to Wall Street and maybe, if he could find the right opening, working as an analyst. But he is also open to other options, such as joining a company that wants to use drones or even moving to financial technology.

Freeman retains hope that FreeBird Flight could still take off. And whatever happens, his experience away from equity research has opened a world of opportunities.

"The last couple of years have taught me that I could do just about anything I put my mind to," he said. "If I could figure this stuff out, I could figure just about anything out."