Like Sandy Through the Hourglass, Robertson Keeps on Moving

Locked out of the West Coast banking scene by a noncompete pact, the Robertson Stephens founder isn't just watching the tide roll away.
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SAN FRANCISCO -- Sandy Robertson, patriarch of Wall Street's West Coast, has been out of work for seven months, and he's never been busier.

From the 31st floor of the

BankAmerica

(BAC) - Get Report

tower, Robertson's corner office offers such a perfect panorama of San Francisco Bay that there's little need for the antique telescope that faces the window. Despite the marvelous view, on loan from accommodating LBO firm

Weiss Peck & Greer

, Robertson has little time to admire the scenery.

The tireless Robertson, who will turn 68 in May, is the co-founder of

Robertson Stephens

investment bank and the man who many say wrote the book on dealmaking in the emerging-growth sector. The 40-odd Lucite deal tombstones -- this industry's big-game hunter trophies -- are arranged in rows on his windowsill, testaments to the success he's bagged. He's involved with various-stage deals, dabbling in electronic communications networks, venture capital and online investment banks. He spends his days in a series of telephone calls and speeches.

"I thought I'd be twiddling my thumbs," Robertson says. "But my wife says I'm busier than ever." However, while his future is uncertain, it will be anything but sedentary.

He's waiting out a noncompete agreement that has bound him since last September, when he walked out of Robbie Stephens after turning over the reins to new owners

BankBoston

(BKB)

.

BancBoston recently agreed to merge with

Fleet Financial

(FLT) - Get Report

, giving Robbie Stephens five new owners within the past 18 months.

Robertson is well respected, even by those with whom he has competed for business in the past and is likely to bump up against in the future. "You can never count Sandy out," says Frank Quattrone, head of the technology group at

Credit Suisse First Boston

. "I know he wants to compete again."

Robertson's noncompete agreement, which ends Jan. 1, prohibits Robertson from actively being involved in any investment banking venture, either at a traditional bank or an online one. But he is allowed to own up to 5% of an investment bank and has stakes smaller than that in two ventures. One is

E*Offering

, an online investment bank created by Walter Cruttenden, former head of

Cruttenden Roth

, and

E*Trade

(EGRP)

. The other venture is

LimiTrader

, a bond-trading alternative trading system headed by Donald Weeden and financed in part by

SoftBank

. Weeden was one of the early brains behind

Instinet

and

Autex

, two other alternative trading systems. Such systems allow traders to circumvent exchanges and make trades more quickly via the alternate network.

"But these are passive investments," Robertson says. "I can't be a director, and I can't be an adviser." Robertson says he's not sure where he'll land when the noncompete agreement expires. "Probably it will be E*Offering, but I'm getting involved in so many other things, I honestly don't know."

E*Offering's Cruttenden says he expects Robertson to join him at the online firm when the noncompete expires. "We're looking forward to him rolling up his sleeves and working here," Cruttenden says.

Until he decides, Robertson has plenty of irons in the fire. He spends a lot of time on the telephone, introducing entrepreneurial start-ups to established companies or venture capitalists. He gives speeches, one day to the

Harvard Club

, the next to a meeting of partners of a start-up in Monterey. "I got to give the same speech, 'Investing in Tech Stocks.' You get more mileage out of it that way," he says.

He also is investing his own money in some venture capital projects and only would mysteriously refer to the code name of his latest project, Double-Bill. This venture joins Robertson with

U.S. News & World Report

President Eric Gertler. "It's e-commerce," Robertson discloses conspiratorially. "But that's all I can say."

With the clock ticking down on his time in the noncompete penalty box, however, it is Robertson's contract that's on a lot of people's minds, especially his former employers.

His lawyer recently received a letter from BankAmerica accusing Robertson of violating the contract, he says. The letter resulted from E*Offering's hire of a Robertson Stephens senior analyst, Gary Craft, earlier this month. Craft will head up the virtual bank's research department. Just weeks earlier, E*Offering hired a Robbie Stephens investment banker and sales and trading specialist.

Sure, Robertson owns a piece of E*Offering and yep, he knows Craft and the others. "But I didn't do that," laughs Robertson. "I did call the guys to congratulate them, but that was after the fact. BankAmerica can check his phone records if they wish."

The complaint took the circuitous route to Robertson's lawyer because of an odd stipulation in the sale of Robbie Stephens to BankBoston, Robertson explains. In an effort to avoid the kind of defections that followed

Montgomery Securities

founder Thom Weisel's departure from BankAmerica, new owner BankBoston could hit BankAmerica with a penalty of up to $100 million if Robertson grabs any talent from his former firm before his noncompete contract expires, he says. "So BankBoston watches me and complains to BankAmerica." BankAmerica, in turn, complains to Robertson. A BankAmerica spokesman did not wish to comment. A BancBoston spokeswoman denied the firm had contracted BankAmerica about Robertson or Craft.

With this kind of scrutiny even before he starts working, it may seem strange that Robertson would again seek the cardiac course of investment banking. However, the lure of being a player still is strong, he says. The part of the action he says he misses most is the thrill of securing a piece of business for his firm. "But I think that is something I will get to enjoy again," he says. "If you ring a bell for an old fire-horse, he'll champ at the bit."

The bell rings Jan. 1.