BlackRock loses two European infra debt founders

Two of the original founding members of BlackRock's European infrastructure debt team – Chris Wrenn and Philippe Benaroya – have departed, leaving Gilles Lengaigne as the European team's only remaining founder. 

The three were hired in late 2012 to establish BlackRock's European infrastructure debt unit, now part of a $4.4 billion global infrastructure debt business, mostly built on separate accounts. Wrenn, Benaroya and Lengaigne had worked together for more than 10 years before joining BlackRock.

The departures come after a year of significant growth for the unit, which in 2014 had only about $1.6 billion under management. They also follow an internal reorganisation which last August saw Erik Savi, formerly BlackRock's head of North American infrastructure debt, promoted to global head of infrastructure debt. Eric Wu was also hired last October to head BlackRock's Asia-Pacific infrastructure debt business.

BlackRock said Jeetu Balchandani, a former MetLife staffer who joined in 2014, has been promoted effective immediately to head of North American infrastructure debt. Since joining, Balchandani has led investments in Gator Power, the Indiana Toll Road and the AIA Cochlis gas power plant. BlackRock added Savi will now be serving as acting head of Europe. 

“BlackRock sees infrastructure debt as a leading opportunity for growth within our real assets platform, continues to invest in the team, and we are currently in advanced discussions to appoint a new head of European infrastructure debt,” BlackRock said in a statement. 

Despite Wrenn and Benaroya's departures, the European deal origination team remains in place, Infrastructure Investor understands. Wrenn could not be reached for comment but Benaroya, in a statement, was bullish on the infrastructure debt space, where he plans to remain active: 

“We are just at the beginning of this transition in infrastructure finance that started about three years ago and where banks seek to minimise the use of their balance sheet, especially for long maturities, and distribute more to institutional investors and asset managers. Regulatory changes in the banking and insurance markets also support this evolution.”

He declined to address why he left BlackRock or where he is headed next. 

Benaroya originally joined BlackRock from Blackstone/GSO, bringing 18 years of infrastructure and project finance experience. Wrenn, who also came from Blackstone/GSO, had over 25 years of infrastructure and structured finance experience, including 12 years at monoline insurer Financial Security Assurance.

BlackRock Infrastructure has some $8.6 billion in assets under management, which it built up in a little over five years. In a March keynote interview with Infrastructure Investor, Jim Barry, head of real assets and leader of BlackRock Infrastructure, explained infrastructure debt was the second prong in a strategy that started with renewable energy, following Barry's hire from renewables developer NTR.

“BlackRock, very much an alpha/beta house then – was getting used to illiquids and was very pleased with what they saw in terms of the growth and penetration of renewables. On the back of that, BlackRock encouraged the NTR team to think about other infrastructure areas and debt was our next move,” he recalled.