The following Q&A originally appeared in the Summer 2012 issue of the Harvard Law Bulletin.
In 2007, Joseph “Jody” LaNasa ’94 launched Serengeti Asset Management, an opportunistic hedge fund that focuses on value investments in the debt and equity of public and private companies. In the nine years prior, LaNasa was at Goldman Sachs, where he was elected a managing director in 2002 and a partner in 2004. There, he headed the Multi-Strategy Investing Business that focused on a broad range of opportunistic and fundamental value investments, primarily in equity and debt securities, including distressed debt. A member of the Dean’s Advisory Board and a generous supporter of the Environmental Law Program at HLS, LaNasa lives in Greenwich, Conn., with his wife, Stephanie, and their children, Ajax, 3, and Maxima, 1.
Why did you choose HLS?
I loved that it prepared its students for more than just being lawyers and that it had a proven track record of producing some of the world’s most respected business leaders. Did you know HLS has produced more Fortune 500 CEOs than any school except HBS?
Describe your trajectory at Goldman Sachs.
I started at Goldman Sachs in 1997 as a first-year associate in distressed bank debt. By the end of 2000, I was promoted to head of research and co-portfolio manager on that desk. During that time, I got to play a transformative role investing in and restructuring the long-term care industry after many of the companies involved filed for bankruptcy. I joined the board of Genesis Health Ventures when it exited from bankruptcy with Goldman Sachs as its largest post-reorganization investor, which allowed me to combine investing with my HLS and legal training in restructurings, negotiations and good corporate governance. At the end of 2002, I took over managing a proprietary investment business inside of Goldman Sachs called Multi-Strategy Investing that became part of the Special Situations Group. Over the next four years, we grew the business from $300 million to over $4 billion of capital while building and developing an amazing team of investment professionals with whom I remain great friends and partners.
Why did you decide to launch Serengeti?
I wanted to build an opportunistic value-driven investment firm that generates attractive returns through a relatively concentrated portfolio of catalyst-driven debt and equity investments that built on my experiences at Goldman Sachs.
What sets Serengeti apart from other investment firms?
One, we have a proven history of capitalizing on dislocations. Dislocations, such as those caused by Lehman Brothers’ filing for bankruptcy in the fall of 2008, often create great investment opportunities. The second point of differentiation is our investment team—we have been together investing successfully for a long time. My business partner Vivian Lau (Harvard College ’00), who is also a significant supporter of HLS’s Environmental Law Program, and who worked closely with me at Goldman Sachs, reunited with me in 2008. And the senior members of our investment team have worked with us on average seven years. Given our investment focus on opportunities created by complex dislocations and significantly undervalued, complex or misunderstood situations, our history of working together and investing the same way is incredibly valuable. Finally, as a firm with $1 billion of assets under management, we have the ability to apply our skill set and experience to smaller, niche opportunities that are below the radar screen of our larger competitors and make them meaningful positions for our funds.
Why did you name the firm Serengeti?
We named the firm after the Serengeti because I love leopards. They are beautiful, elegant animals who hunt by themselves while always being fearful of other larger, more powerful animals like lions and hyenas stealing their kill. This represents how we think about investing: working hard by ourselves to identify uniquely interesting investment opportunities and then seeking to capitalize on them before others discover them.
What in your education at HLS has been useful to you in this new enterprise?
Most important, it taught me how to analyze a situation (originally through the study of cases) by first breaking it into smaller pieces, analyzing each piece from all angles to develop an initial view, building up those points into a thesis, and then continually reassessing and questioning each part leading up to the conclusion to make sure it is still correct.
Tell us about your involvement with the HLS student group focused on law and business.
Through the Dean’s Advisory Board, I became involved with the Harvard Association for Law and Business, a relatively new organization that recruits a great group of speakers and sponsors an annual symposium focused on cutting-edge issues in the overlap of law and business, such as investing in commercial real estate, pressing issues facing the bankruptcy bar and distressed debt investors, and the challenges of finding a solution to America’s residential mortgage crisis.
You and your wife, Stephanie, donate to the Environmental Law Program at HLS. What is it about the program that engenders your support?
Jody Freeman, who heads the program, is such an amazing professor and has done so much to advance the study and practice of environmental law. She has built a world-class program including an amazing clinic [the Emmett Environmental Law and Policy Clinic] run by Wendy Jacobs that the students love and adore. And last year, Professor Richard Lazarus, a leading expert in environmental resources law, joined the faculty and the program. The study of environmental law advances two goals that we care deeply about: making sure that our children have a world as beautiful to live in as we do, and ensuring that students are taught how to analyze and understand regulations—an incredibly important skill as governments expand their reach to touch more parts of everyone’s lives.