When news of Chief Executive JamesTyree's death spread through the 12 floors of Mesirow Financial late on March 16, several dozen employees converged on President
's office to console each other.
"There seemed to be a magnetic pull to Richard's office," Dennis Black, Mesirow's general counsel, recalled. "Richard pulled out a bottle of vodka that a client had given him, and we passed it around the crowd as though we were sitting around a campfire."
Initially, it was a hushed scene. Then, stories about Tyree, a charismatic leader in Chicago's business community, began to flow, along with tears.
"Richard encouraged the sharing, and everyone who stopped in left knowing that we were all going to be all right," Black said.
For Price, the loss was deeply personal. Tyree was his best friend as well as his boss.
Two days later, the 64-year-old Price was named CEO, charged with helping guide the staff through the mourning process while also keeping the Chicago-based diversified financial services company on track.
Professional services firms are people businesses, and when a larger-than-life leader like Tyree is lost, missteps can be difficult, sometimes impossible, to repair.
"Emotionally, it has been a challenge for us," Price said, noting that some employees are still "overwhelmed" by the loss of Tyree, who had led the company for two decades.
Tyree, 53, had been seriously ill with
, but his death was unexpected. The Cook County medical examiner ruled it an accident, due closely with Tyree. If the employee's insurance doesn't cover counseling, Mesirow picks up the cost.
"I'm encouraging them to seek help when they need it, and, for people who don't believe they need it, I'm encouraging them to do it anyway."
Price has followed his own advice. He has seen a counselor to help him better cope with his grief.
The differences between the two men's styles also have meant Price has had to make adjustments at Mesirow, which has $55 billion under management, more than doubling since 2007
In contrast with the about-town Tyree, who served on numerous boards and relished being in the spotlight, Price was the consummate Mr. Inside at the firm where he has worked for 39 years.
Named president in 2006, Price was Tyree's right-hand man, the behind-thescenes operations guy with a sharp pencil and a focus on profits. Insiders also say he is a strategic thinker, collaborator and delegator.
Tyree networked at scores of business group meetings and at civic events. To try to fill that void, Price has asked a dozen Mesirow executives to step up their community involvement, including speaking engagements, writing articles and serving on charity and civic boards.
"All the things that Jim was doing -- no one person can do that," Price said. "I'm not even sure three people can do it."
A firm doesn't need just one public face, said Price, who also plans on becoming more visible. The important thing is to "personalize a firm," whether it's through one or a dozen people, "and not institutionalize it."
He specifically mentioned four people he wants to become better known: private equity chief Marc Sacks, hedge fund leader Marty Kaplan, currency manager Gary Klopfenstein and institutional trading director Dominick Mondi.
"These people have built sensational businesses here, but I'm not sure the business community easily identifies them as being Mesirow Financial," Price said.
Internally, Price is reducing the number of direct reports to the CEO's office to 25 or 30 from 55. The firm this month named a 10-member management committee, consisting of eight business heads and two infrastructure managers. They will meet regularly to discuss business opportunities and synergies between units. "I want to formalize the process,'' he said.
His heir apparent will almost certainly emerge from the committee, said Price, who added that he hopes to be CEO for a long time.
"We're not an organization that easily picks someone from the outside to lead this company," Price said. "We've attempted it once or twice many years ago, and it didn't go well."
The changes reflect Price's management style. Tyree was "autocratic," while Price is "more democratic," said Norm Bobins, the former
chief executive now with PrivateBank.
Leo Melamed, chairman emeritus of CME Group, said Tyree was often quick with an opinion, while Price is more likely to think things through before expressing one, he said.
to the improper removal of a catheter during a routine procedure at the
were listed as secondary causes.
"I'm checking with them every day to make sure they're OK," Price said of the 20 people who worked company can have before it must disclose certain information to the Securities and Exchange Commission. Companies currently are capped at 499 shareholders.
Price said he's concerned the cap could become problematic as the firm grows.
Vice presidents and above who have been with Mesirow at least a year are eligible to buy shares; Mesirow expects to add 20 shareholders this year. Mesirow is committed to remaining private and employee-owned, Price said.
Mesirow lays out its rationale in its annual report: "As a private, independent firm, we're not distracted by a quarterly earnings mindset or a need to meet analyst expectations. Employee ownership of the firm gives talented professionals a personal stake in the success of our business, leading to low rates of turnover and long-term client relationships."
Tyree was Mesirow's biggest shareholder, owning about 15 percent. The company bought back his stake from his family. Now, the largest owner has 6 percent, and a number of employees own between 4 percent and 6 percent stakes. Price is the second-biggest shareholder. He declined to identify the largest, though Richard Mesirow, son of founder Norman Mesirow, is a vice chairman.
About 950 employees work in Chicago.
Mesirow also has offices in 12 states,
, Puerto Rico and London. It also has a joint venture in Abu Dhabi, and this fall will open a Hong Kong office.
From an operations standpoint, the past three months have "been seamless," Price said during a nearly hourlong interview at Mesirow headquarters at 353 N. Clark St.
As evidence, he pointed to an annual employee stock offering, now in its early stages. Interest in purchasing shares, he said, has been "phenomenal." The company expects to post its second consecutive record year.
Mesirow sold $23.6 million in its last stock offering. The company expects this year's offering to be close to or exceed last year's.
Mesirow's four businesses, including investment management and insurance, are hiring.
Consulting is expanding its litigation support practice. And "global markets has been hiring a lot of people," namely traders and sales people in fixed-income products, Price said.
Its investment management business, in particular, is looking for acquisitions. No divestitures are planned.
Al Friedman, CEO of Friedman Properties, said his Chicago-based real estate company used to review its insurance broker annually but for the past 10 years has stuck with Mesirow.
"Richard is the most thorough and competent business person I've ever dealt with," said Friedman, whose company manages more than 4 million feet of retail and office space in the Chicago area.
"It's sad that he's taking over a company in this fashion, after losing Jim, but he's extremely well-qualified for the job," Friedman said.
Two inches of vodka remain in the bottle that was passed around the day of Tyree's death. Price has it in his office with the inscription: JCT March 16, 2011.