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Chicago-Based Banker Starred as a Deal Maker

Chicago-Based Banker Starred as a Deal Maker


Chicago-Based Banker Starred as a Deal Maker

J. Ira Harris, who has died at age 83, endured 32 rejections before getting his first Wall Street job.J. Ira Harris worked at several firms in his long career, including Salomon Brothers and Lazard.

From WSJ By James R. Hagerty
March 3, 2022 10:00 am ET

After graduating with a business degree from the University of Michigan in 1959, J. Ira Harris returned to his hometown of New York to look for a job in the securities industry.

He collected 32 letters of rejection before a friend’s father helped him get a job at Jacques Coe & Co. One of his early assignments was to sell mutual funds door to door. Starting at the top floor of an apartment building, he worked his way down, collecting more experience in dealing with rejection.

Mr. Harris learned to cope with slammed doors, hone his sales pitch and move on to the next prospect. Soon he was promoted to dealing with institutional clients, who appreciated the research reports he wrote. In 1964, Blair & Co., Granbery, Marache sent him to Chicago to revitalize its office there. Salomon Brothers poached Mr. Harris and made him a Chicago-based partner five years later.

In the 1970s, he became one of the early stars of mergers and acquisitions work as it turned into a big money spinner for Wall Street. In 1981, he helped a Denver oilman, Marvin Davis, acquire 20th Century-Fox Film Corp. He advised on Esmark Inc.’s 1975 purchase of Playtex, a maker of bras and girdles.

Mr. Harris died of a heart attack on Feb. 21 at his home in Palm Beach, Fla. He was 83.

In an era when people kept their contacts on a Rolodex, his was bulging. “He used to call daily, more than once,” Jay Pritzker, a leader of a family business empire including the Hyatt hotel chain, told the New York Times in 1977. “Not just me, everybody. He’d say ‘hello’ and then, ‘I gotta go, got another call,’ and hang up.”

He always had a new business idea, and clients tended to like them.

“People trusted him,” said Henry Kaufman, who served on Salomon’s executive committee with Mr. Harris. “If he could do you a favor, he would rush out to do it.”

To celebrate the birthday of his Iowa-born wife, Nicki Harris, he once rented space at the Palmer House hotel and put on a replica of a county fair, featuring barnyard animals. For one of his birthdays, she rented a movie theater and showed a newsreel of the 1929 stock-market crash.

He was born as Ira Jay Horowitz on April 13, 1938, and grew up in the Bronx. (At age 20, he changed his name to J. Ira Harris.) His father was a traveling salesman of sewing supplies. Young Ira had a job selling newspapers by age 8.

“My parents pounded that work ethic into me,” he later told the Horatio Alger Association.

When he was in high school, his mother was dying of breast cancer and longed to see him enrolled in college. To please her, he raced through Dewitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, graduated at 16 and enrolled at the University of Michigan. She died near the end of his first semester there.

During his college years, his jobs included writing about sports, waiting on tables in a sorority, running a laundry service and scooping ice cream.

In New York, he met Nicki Shadur while dating her roommate. Ms. Shadur was a fashion student and worked at Henri Bendel, a women’s accessories store. They married in 1964, and she joined him in Chicago, where he spent most of his career.

They raised three children and lived in a 14th-floor apartment in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood. In July 1965, the Chicago Tribune published a photo of Mr. Harris placing a stock order by telephone over a new Western Union “hot line” service eliminating the need to dial.

Phibro Corp.’s 1981 acquisition of Salomon Brothers enriched Mr. Harris and other partners. In 1988, he left Salomon to join Lazard Frères & Co. Mr. Kaufman said Mr. Harris and others at Salomon were unhappy with the company’s reliance on high-risk trading.

After a decade at Lazard, he set up his own financial consulting firm and became vice chairman of the Pritzker Organization. With his son Jon Harris, he co-founded Alternative Investment Management LLC.

For much of his life, Mr. Harris struggled with his weight. He funded an obesity-prevention program at NYU Langone Medical Center. He also served as a life trustee at Northwestern University and Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. He made major gifts to the University of Michigan athletic program.

Mr. Harris is survived by his wife of 57 years, three children and six grandchildren.

Having been born on April 13, Mr. Harris considered 13 his lucky number. He used it on license plates and once billed a client for $1,313,313.13.

Write to James R. Hagerty at bob.hagerty@wsj.com

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