Luminaries in Telecom: "The Finacial Engineer" Richard Lukaj

Written + Edited by:

Kevin Ayerdis + Emily Newman

July 17, 2023

Hello all and welcome back to Luminaries in Telecom!

This month’s featured person is a notable pioneer and potent Wall Street global dealmaker, focused on the Technology, Media, Telecommunications (TMT) / Digital Infrastructure & Services arena.  He, along with his colleagues, has made a material impact across the digital infrastructure arena over the course of the past 30 years, collectively transacting over a half trillion dollars in transactions across the globe.  He is also a steadfast philanthropist and cultural figurehead, working to better communities around him at home and abroad. Leveraging professional connections, he has spearheaded numerous philanthropic efforts that have given him and his family foundation international recognition. Some notable endeavors include, providing hundreds of educational scholarships to those less privileged abroad, co-founding the American University in Kosova (RIT Kosova), helping rebuild his father’s elementary school in Montenegro, establishing a foundation supporting women and children in crisis, organizing an orphanage and funding to adulthood the care of children that were the byproduct of rape during wartime, among countless other endeavors.  He has also worked tirelessly as an advocate, even working alongside government agencies to aid in relief/rehabilitation efforts during and after the various conflicts in the Balkans. In time, he developed a reputation with diplomats in the US and abroad for pragmatic thinking and acting as a reliable bridge between the region and the international community.  We got the chance to speak with the man we are coining, “The Financial Engineer,” Mr. Richard Lukaj.

Lukaj’s story starts not too dissimilar to many children of refugees of his generation. His parents were among those denied education/opportunity and who fled ongoing conflicts, vicious discrimination and the programmatic ethnic cleansing experienced by millions of ethnic Albanians in former Yugoslavia. His father initially migrated to Italy, his mother joining him not long after, to find work and provide for the families left behind.  During this period, they lived in a refugee camp just outside of Naples. “Here they would work and report into the camp at night and due to the isolation and absence of the Internet and other forms of entertainment, I was born!” laughed Lukaj. After a couple of years, the new family was afforded the opportunity to continue their journey migrating to the Land of Opportunity.

Lukaj’s parents settled in the lower east side of Manhattan, then considered the ghetto for Eastern European immigrants, taking on any available blue-collar jobs until his father landed long-term employment as a porter & security guard and his mother as a seamstress in the garment district. These humble beginnings forced the family to work very hard (often holding multiple jobs), learn quickly (including learning Spanish and other languages common in their new workplace) and adapt to their rapidly changing circumstances.  They risked and sacrificed everything, endeavoring to set forth a better life for him and his siblings, while also investing to teach their children about their values and traditions, most notably the value of integrity, hard work and education/experience.

At an early age, Lukaj excelled at school.  He was a top student at his elementary school, despite starting school unable to speak English, and never missed a single day. He was the graduating valedictorian of his middle school and ranked 7th in his graduating class of nearly 1,000 students at Brooklyn Technical High School. While in High School, he also completed numerous college courses in mathematics and engineering and managed to accumulate considerable advanced credits towards his university studies, completing nearly half his required courses before even attending college.  He always leaned into his technical skills, wanting initially to pursue a degree in engineering, but ultimately decided to attend what is now known as the Stern School of Business at NYU.

During his undergraduate studies, he also managed to work full-time and nearly complete his MBA simultaneously. While Lukaj was concentrating his education on Finance and Economics, his parents had urged him to study law. His first exposure came, while he was an undergrad, when he was hired as an administrative clerk/paralegal at one of the largest global law firms in NYC, Davis Polk and Wardwell. Lukaj reminisced on his experience, “I worked as a liaison between the Real Estate/M&A and Corporate Finance practices and external clients. I think that was a wonderful immersion and the opportunity that exposed me to the financial sector, most notably investment banks, which was eye-opening for me.” Not long after, he opted out of the legal profession and pivoted all his attention to the world of finance.

From this point, Lukaj’s career began to take root, blending the many branching paths he took in his years as an interdisciplinary student. He found his start on Wall Street as a financial analyst at Bear, Stearns & Co. Inc. Lukaj mused, “I’m a byproduct of my early disposition to always embrace change. When I started, we had no excel, no email, fax was a new technology, it was truly a different technology era! Early on in my career, I felt the inertia within the industry, competing against the considerable advantages of the larger established players that possessed access to proprietary information that was very difficult to access or duplicate. It was an uphill battle but being a scrapper raised in the concrete jungles of NYC… I was ready to dive in, learn and see what my life journey would translate to in this new uber-competitive arena.”

Lukaj’s approach was nothing short of loyal, persistent and dedicated, a young graduate eager to make his mark. He expressed that 80-100-hour work weeks were the norm, which pushed his abilities and ultimately enabled him to score and successfully execute transactions at a very early age, thus fostering a network on a global scale.

In 2002, he founded a predecessor entity which later acquired and became Bank Street, alongside his long-time partner James Henry (another legend in the sector). “When we first started, we had no shot competing on a global scale. I think our edge developed as our collective ability to access information and leverage it grew.  In many cases, we became ever more dynamic and nimbler than many of our rivals across the globe,” Lukaj said. “I would say respectfully that our franchise today is among the leading platforms across all the categories of the industries where we focus.  That would have been unimaginable a generation ago without all the new democratizing technologies and access to information that leveled the playing field for us to compete so effectively. We are now frequently up against the biggest and most venerable firms across the globe. I’d also venture to say the introduction of AI and other tools, which we are constantly evaluating, are creating more excitement about how these new elements promise to complement and augment our business. While some fear the pace of technology changes, I don’t think we see much threat of displacement for our business. What we do involves a fair amount of finesse / human skill, as well as transactional experience, which can’t easily be codified. I think our business is likely to be further transformed by the proliferation of fascinating new tools that allow us to be more efficient and more potent as professionals in this category.”

Lukaj started as a generalist banker, advising companies around the world across a variety of industries.  After a few years, he began to concentrate on Technology, Media & Telecommunications (TMT), most notably Internet & digital infrastructure and services.

When prompted about his substantial personal portfolio of transactions over his nearly 30-year career, Lukaj estimates he has worked on over 1,000 transactions with an aggregate transaction value exceeding $100 billion. Most Bank Street clients know them mostly for their domestic North American transactions; however, they have had major dealings on every populated continent, including today’s announcement representing New Zealand based Infratil in their JV with Hong Kong Telecom, Console Connect and multiple transactions last year in South America for KKR.

Aside from Lukaj’s professional accomplishment, perhaps his greatest achievements pertain to the philanthropic endeavors of his family to reconnect to their Albanian heritage. “Initially I had little exposure. Living in New York and meeting people from all over the world helps to enlighten you, but outside my family, I didn’t know too much about my heritage,” Lukaj said. “I remember vividly one night while sitting in my safe and secure penthouse apartment in mid-town, I sat down to watch the news and what I saw, I couldn’t believe… babies being handed out onto a train as they were being ushered (violently ethnically cleansed) out of a war-torn Kosova at the time. Sitting there with the realization that if things had gone differently, my parents had not made the journey of immigrating… any one of those faces could have been mine. I felt a calling to get involved. I needed to act. I spent considerable time at the Department of State, Defense and other circles and ultimately found a role mostly in advisory and advocacy addressing issues facing the region, which I still do today.”

We continued to learn more about the projects Lukaj’s family were involved and how they want to pay it forward.

Lukaj continues to spread the message that if you have the means and have such gifts, to assist whenever possible. Saying, it can be made especially easy to do so when you see yourself in those you want to aid. He spreads this message to his children, who appreciate the importance of such actions, and have also gotten heavily involved in philanthropic endeavors themselves. 

Thank you again, Mr. Richard Lukaj for taking time out of your schedule to share a bit of your ongoing journey with us and the greater telecoms community! And of course, there is more to the story of “The Financial Engineer”, Richard Lukaj, that we couldn’t cover that we may revisit in the future.

This concludes this month’s feature of Luminaries in Telecom. Please feel free to add to the conversation! Did you meet Rich Lukaj at the recent ITW? What did you take away from his ability to embrace education and inspire, ultimately using his position to provide aide to those in need. Sound off in the comments below with any fun facts/specifics that may have been missed.

For any suggestions about any movers and shakers in telecom history you think deserve a feature, send a message to Emily@njfx.net.

 

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