David Preiser

The Fixer

Houlihan Lokey Senior Managing Director David Preiser ’82 analyzes crisis scenarios and financial disasters with the calm, confident demeanor of a natural problem solver

By Peter Kiefer

Fall 2011

Anyone who doubts that the frequency of financial calamities has accelerated in recent decades should take a moment to speak with David Preiser ’82. He has worked to remedy almost all of them. As senior managing director of the international, advisory-focused investment bank Houlihan Lokey, Preiser has been privy to some of the largest global transactions, bailouts, and restructurings that have taken place since the early 1990s.

But what makes Preiser’s story both more gripping and unnerving—at least for the rest of us—is that his business is booming.

“Our activity is a direct function of the growth of debt in the world economy,” Preiser says from behind the desk in his Park Avenue corner office. “And if you chart the last 20 years, you will see a hyperbolic increase in worldwide debt. So our activity is directly correlated to that. It is also directly correlated to complexity and globalization. The world keeps getting more interwoven, and so the future is bright for what we do.”

Preiser had just returned from a quick trip to Athens, where he was consulting on Greece’s debt restructuring negotiations in June. Listening to him reflect on some of the boom/bust cycles he has witnessed throughout his career leads directly to a certain foreboding sense of how far the distressed markets have evolved, and to a realization about the levels of debt to which we as global citizens are now accustomed. (The current U.S. national debt is $14.7 trillion.) With the cool insouciance of someone who has seen it all, he describes the real estate recession of the late 1980s as a “pimple,” the savings and loan crisis as “an amusing footnote,” and the technology boom and bust in the early 2000s as “kind of quaint.”

Preiser is, in some ways, the Zelig of corporate and sovereign debt restructuring and international financial crises, and demand for his expertise has never been greater. But Preiser breaks with the anticipated stereotype of someone whose nerves have been brought to the precipice one too many times. He projects an air of consideration, fortitude, and guile.

“He is very calm in the face of the pressure of distress and crisis,” says Jeffrey Werbalowsky ’82, senior managing director at Houlihan, and Preiser’s roommate at Columbia Law School. “When you are faced with insurmountable problems, you look to the person who is calm and has clear vision as to what to do, and to someone who is an action-taker, not a talker. David is very good at formulating plans in complicated, stressful situations.”

After practicing law for a few years and then working for Toll Brothers, the luxury home building and real estate development company, Preiser joined Houlihan Lokey in the early 1990s. There, he was tasked with building the company’s high-yield corporate restructuring business from scratch. In those early days, he admits, no one could chart where the global economy was headed. He now toggles back and forth between New York and a handful of mainly European capitals, sometimes heading overseas several times a month. Preiser credits his Columbia Law School education for providing him with the intellectual tools to grapple with the challenges and complexities of international restructuring.

Despite the high stakes of his trade, Preiser—an avid golfer, biker, and father of three, including Jessica Preiser, Class of 2013—is far from a doomsayer. He states that one of the great strengths of such a complex financial system is its ability to evolve, succeed, fail, and adapt—oftentimes in no particular order. “The American way, the global way, has been to fund [all types of businesses] and then clean up the messes later,” he says. “You can’t avoid restructuring. You can’t avoid financial problems, and stress, and bad business decisions. They are a function of the success of the world economy, not its failure.”

Peter Kiefer has written for the Rome bureau of The New York Times, among other publications.