Remembering Neil DeSena

Tim Bourgaize Murray looks back on Neil DeSena's legacy.

Neil Desena

Neil DeSena, co-managing partner at boutique merchant banking and investment house SenaHill Partners before he passed away this weekend at 52, was always an expert at imagining the technology people want, and making the model for the business work at the same time. He had a rare talent, but also a rare voice.

For a journalist, the reality is that while we may know some of our sources to see them, especially covering a cozy space like fintech, the typical picture of our job is still in the office: legs perched on a desk and phone in hand. At a busy magazine, even a small one, days’ worth of recordings can roll by with interviews of people we’ll mostly never meet. A few always stand out, though.

That’s what I remember about Neil and our first talk years ago: his thick, commanding baritone that for more than an entire late-afternoon hour painted a panorama of where he thought financial technology was heading. Some of it was not exactly PR-approved, as it were; there was no sales pitch. I barely got in a word edgewise. In short, it’s the kind of interview we love.

As it turned out, the stated reason for that call was to chat on Symbiont, a startup purveyor of a new distributed ledger technology the world had never heard of—yet. But I’ll be honest: When I learned of Neil’s death yesterday, I didn’t recall that part. Just the talk, and his willingness to teach.

DeSena’s earliest mention in Waters, at least as far back as our website goes, came in 1999 when he introduced what would become his most famous project. As a managing director with market maker Spear, Leeds & Kellogg, he discussed the firm’s newly-engineered REDIbook, a then-nascent trading platform that would get acquired—along with SLK—by Goldman Sachs a year later, and spun off again before ultimately being sold to Thomson Reuters just last September. It has proven one of our industry’s most sought-after commodities.

One can look at SenaHill’s portfolio today—not only Symbiont, but Trumid, Tradelegs and others—and imagine similar upward trajectory for any of them. In an era of massive holding companies and billion-dollar acquisitions, DeSena and his co-partner, Justin Brownhill, ran a small, fast shop that is out there with their own money, hands on and taking risks. We call such outfits “new” the more they pop up (as if the explosion of fintech was a surprise to these guys). But to me, they’re more old-school than anything, harkening back to an era when the technology was truly all that mattered—so much so that it spawned magazines like this one. And when you talked to Neil, that cut right through.

Victor Anderson, Waters’ editor-in-chief, has written poignantly in the past about learning of a colleague’s death in our industry, where the best among us bring this kind of eternal motor, a never-finished mentality—a kind of foil for death. For Victor, it was a different experience: the shock of emailing with someone one day, and learning they’re gone almost the very next. 

Eventually, I did meet Neil; we crossed paths occasionally at events and the like, and he would check in with some colorful, off-record commentary or a hint for a good story now and then. He was always prescient, and told it straight.

That’s why, today, it’s not his many successes or lasting impact on our space, so much as Neil’s voice that’s still bouncing around in my mind. Ultimately, getting his name or SenaHill in print wasn’t ever really the goal. He just lived and breathed this stuff. For that, as my thoughts are with his family and colleagues today, he is fondly remembered.

Funeral Details:
Friday, February 17
4:00 to 8:00 pm
Thompson Memorial Home
310 Broad Street
Red Bank, NJ 07701
(732) 747-026

Saturday, February 18
10:00 am
St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church
979 Avenue C
Bayonne, NJ 07702
(201) 436-2222

If you’d like to make a donation to the Neil & Carolyn DeSena Foundation, where monies will be used to build new community gardens in the community, please send donations to SenaHill Partners Attn: Joe DiMaio at 113 East River Road, Suite A1, Rumson NJ 07760.

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