Michael Kramer: The Dealmaker

Portrait of alumnus Michael Kramer.

Michael Kramer ’90 (Finance) is a founding partner and CEO of Ducera Partners. Photo by Lee Choo.

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA native Michael Kramer ’90 (Finance) first set foot on Wall Street in 1994, and he was shocked to see that it was nothing like the soaring, imposing skyscraper temple he’d seen in movies and TV. The fabled street in the oldest settled section of Manhattan is a narrow, dark alley.

In 1993 Kramer, while at L.A.-based investment bank Houlihan Lokey, jumped at the chance to take a temporary assignment in the firm’s New York office — which turned out to be in Midtown Manhattan, like most massive “Wall Street” banks and financial firms. The incessant pace of the city, being away from home, the subways, the winter weather — they were all daunting to the San Fernando Valley native, who’d never really traveled outside his sunny home state. But Kramer went all in, pouring his trademark work ethic — 80- to 100- hour weeks, a never-say- die attitude toward closing deals — into his work in Houlihan’s restructuring practice. He was in New York to stay.

Kramer, a multigenerational Matador, has made an impact on Wall Street that few other men and women can claim: A longtime leader in “boutique” investment banking firms. Now founding partner and CEO of Ducera Partners, Kramer has helped forge some of the largest deals in modern financial history, including 2018’s $70-billion sale of agricultural giant Monsanto to Bayer A.G. He represented the federal government, through the FDIC, in helping shore up the U.S. financial system during the 2007-08 economic crisis. More recently, he is involved in the re- structuring of Puerto Rico’s financial system. In a much lighter arena, he’s a sports nut who has been the architect of sales of professional franchises including the Texas Rangers, the New Jersey Devils and the Dallas Stars.

Both of his parents, his aunt and his niece are also CSUN alumni, and he visits family regularly in the Valley. But it was a deal, of course — the bankruptcy and restructuring of utility behemoth Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) — that brought Kramer back to California in March, when he took the opportunity to visit his alma mater and meet current students in the CSUN Nazarian College.

The affable Kramer, who now lives in Connecti- cut, spoke about his time at CSUN, his career trajectory and the current landscape of investment banking and global deals.

“I’m fortunate to have been at the forefront,” Kramer said. “I get a lot of credit for the deals people have read about, but I have seven partners at Ducera — I have a strong team that has been with me most of their careers. My success is all of ours.

“Early on, I learned that that team is really import- ant,” he said. “You can be the best analyst or investment banker, but unless people want to work with you, it doesn’t matter.”

At the age of 26, Kramer became the youngest partner in Houlihan Lokey’s history. Following his tenure there, Kramer became a partner at Greenhill & Company and Perella Weinberg before founding Ducera Partners in 2015.

He has led restructurings/sales of iHeart Radio ($20 billion), Nieman Marcus ($5 billion) and advised clients including GE Corporation. When asked about his favorite or most memorable deal, he recounted his work with struggling Hostess Brands in 2012.

“It’s the great American icon, the Twinkie. We can’t live without our Twinkies,” Kramer said, smiling. “Seven years ago, I was called by the board of Hostess. They said, ‘We’re having a lot of financial trouble, we’re running out of money — we don’t know how we’re going to continue. Can you come in and help us think through this?’

“When I, or any investment banker, gets involved in these transactions, it is usually a multi-year process. It’s not two or three weeks,” he said. “In that situation, we had to figure out how to restructure the company.” Eventually, Kramer was forced to temporarily shutter the company. “That was me. I’m the guy who took away Twinkies for a few months,” he said. “About six months later, we sold the company for approximately $1 billion.”

In addition to traditional investment banking activities, Ducera and Kramer focus on supporting companies and entrepreneurs, building and funding innovation, technology, growth equity and venture capital activities.

On any given day as a generalist, Kramer said, he has the opportunity to work with a utility company, an internet startup and an established commercial venture.

“I’m absolutely fortunate in my career, and in my personal life,” he said. “I’m thrilled with where I’m at today.”

Kramer’s father, Stanley ’73 (Business Administration), and mother, Paula ’86 (Criminology and Corrections) — who went back to school while Michael was growing up to complete her degree — both earned their bachelor’s degrees at what was then San Fernando Valley State College, and then CSUN. When Michael graduated from Simi Valley High School in 1986 and prepared to go off to college, his dad said, “‘You’re going to CSUN and that’s that,’” he said. The affordability and ease of living at home made it an obvious choice, he said. (His younger sister, Michelle [Kramer] Reckleff ’92 [Health Administration], is also a Matador.)

At 50, Kramer said, he hopes that he is still mid-career. Clearly, he still has the hunger and ambition that drove him in his first career steps.

“The biggest career challenge I’ve faced is some- thing that I face, still today — which is how to continue to build my career, build my firm and create relevancy for my firm,” he said. “I’m not sure I’ve overcome that. It continues to sit in front of me today. I joke that every morning, I get up scared out of my mind, ‘What am I going to do today? How am I going to add value?’ At the end of the day when I go home, I’m pretty upset half the time that I didn’t get enough done.”