THE constant refrain from Winnipeg companies about the difficulty in getting the attention of Bay Street-centric Toronto firms to access the capital markets has subsided a little these days.
That's because Laurentian Bank Securities has hired Winnipeg corporate finance veterans Kevin Hooke and Tyler Wirvin to open a Winnipeg investment-banking operation.
Hooke, a founding partner and director of Wellington West Capital, established that company's thriving boutique corporate-finance operation and helped raise hundreds of millions of dollars for Manitoba companies over the years.
Wirvin worked with Hooke for more than 10 years, until their office was shut down last year when National Bank Financial acquired Wellington West and both found themselves out of work.
Ben Vendittelli, head of equities at Laurentian Bank Securities, said because of the availability of Hooke and Wirvin and the attractiveness of the Winnipeg market for the kind of work Laurentian does, opening an office here made a lot of sense.
"Our focus is the small cap market and there is an established market for that niche in Manitoba and Saskatchewan," Vendittelli said. "We feel, given the economic context of those two provinces and their growing markets, we think they will have more needs going forward."
Since Hooke and Wirvin started flying the Laurentian flag earlier this summer, they have already participated in two public offerings for Winnipeg companies. Laurentian was part of a $46-million convertible debenture offering for Temple REIT, the Winnipeg hotel company. The offering closed earlier this month. And with Hooke's and Irvion's help, Laurentian also had the second-largest position in the banking syndicate on Exchange Income Corp.'s $50-million convertible debenture offering announced earlier this week.
Hooke said both he and Wirvin and Laurentian were already familiar with each other and it made for a good fit.
"They specialize in small cap stocks," said Hooke, which was his speciality over the years at Wellington West, where he pioneered micro bond offerings and other smaller offerings for several local companies over the years. "Laurentian provides us with research, sales, trading and capital."
Mike Pyle, the CEO of Exchange Income Corp., said the new Laurentian shop in Winnipeg is good news for the local market.
"We love the idea," Pyle said. "It means Winnipeg regains a local corporate-finance department that it didn't have."
Exchange Income's market capitalization is nearing $500 million and it no longer needs to rely on the good graces of a local investment bank. But Pyle said that was not always the case.
"We wouldn't have gotten to where we are without Wellington West," he said, referring to Hooke and Wirvin's former base of operation.
CIBC Capital Markets is the only other Canadian securities firm with a Winnipeg corporate finance operation. But that business, run by Jason Stephanson, targets much-larger deals than the ones Laurentian handles.
One local corporate executive said, "CIBC is not going to market a company's first $10-million offering. That's too small for them."
Vendittelli said they are still contemplating how to build up the operations in Winnipeg around Hooke and Wirvin.
"We don't have an office lease yet," he said. "We're trying to wrap our head around what comes next."
Laurentian Bank -- the seventh largest bank in the country -- does not have a branch in Winnipeg. Vendittelli said the prospect of opening a retail brokerage office in Winnipeg is something that is being considered.