Profile: Rich Byrne, president of Benefit Street Partners and Brazilian jiu-jitsu champion
- February 1, 2024: Vol. 11, Number 2

Profile: Rich Byrne, president of Benefit Street Partners and Brazilian jiu-jitsu champion

by Mike Consol

While a research analyst in the high-yield bond group at Merrill Lynch, Rich Byrne covered Bally Manufacturing Corp., a casino company that also made pinball machines and operated a chain of health clubs. In reviewing the financials, he noticed the company was seriously overleveraged and heading toward a financial cliff. He wrote a “sell” report predicting the company, groaning under the weight of more than $1.86 billion in debt, would go bankrupt.

“Nobody wrote ‘sell’ opinions back then. The report was called ‘Bally not so Grand’ because Bally’s Grand was the name of their casinos,” Byrne recalls. “I predicted they would go bankrupt, and they did, and it got me an incredible amount of notoriety. I took heat like you wouldn’t believe from the company and its many investors for putting out that report.”

One of the rankled investors was a corporate raider named Arthur Goldberg, who was also Bally’s largest shareholder at the time of the incendiary “sell” recommendation. Goldberg, who said bankruptcy “isn’t even a word in my vocabulary,” according to a Los Angeles Times article, requested a meeting with Byrne. As Byrne explained his logic for the report, the two men discovered an instant rapport, so much so that Byrne assisted Goldberg in developing a strategy for refinancing and salvaging Bally. The strategy worked and enriched Goldberg to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Their relationship abided through the remainder of Byrne’s 14 years at Merrill Lynch, and some of his subsequent 14 years at Deutsche Bank, underwriting all of Goldberg’s ensuing financing deals until he passed away in 2000 at age 58.

“That was one of the biggest commercial turning points in my career,” says Byrne, now president of Benefit Street Partners, a credit-focused alternative asset management firm focused on both institutional and high-net-worth investors.


During his first day at the Kellogg School of Management in Chicago, Byrne saw a list of professions posted at the Northwestern University career placement office. It enumerated careers ranging from advertising and banking to consulting and manufacturing. Byrne reviewed the list top to bottom, paying special attention to starting salaries. He noticed that consulting firms and investment banks offered the highest paydays.

“I thought, wow, maybe I picked the wrong industry,” says Byrne, who at the time was aiming to become an advertising entrepreneur after earning a fine arts degree at Binghamton University in upstate New York. “I know you’re supposed to do something you love, but certainly life would be a little easier if I loved the thing that paid twice as much money.”

Byrne started taking finance classes and was reminded that, in addition to his facility with art, he also had an affinity for math and all things quantitative.

“I liked finance,” he says. “It was very logical and strategic.”

Between his first and second year at Kellogg, Byrne scored a summer internship at Manufacturers Hanover Trust (later acquired by Chase Manhattan, which in turn was acquired by J.P. Morgan).

“I loved it,” he says of the experience.

And with that, Byrne had confirmed the validity of his future as a financial professional.


When the TV sitcom Family Ties started airing in 1982, Rich Byrne saw reflections of his own coming of age. The show, you might remember, features the middle-class Keaton family consisting of liberal parents (former hippies) and their three children, one of whom is Alex Keaton (played by Michael J. Fox), a briefcase-carrying and politically conservative student dreaming of a successful career in business and finance. In essence, Alex is the antithesis of his parents, an apple that had fallen far from the tree.

Though Byrne’s parents were not hippies (his father was an accountant and his mother a homemaker who worked a series of part-time jobs), he recognized early in life a strong Alex Keaton-esque ambition to achieve business and financial success, a desire that was a sharp departure from his parents’ sensibilities, as well as those of his two brothers, who saw brother Rich — and his focus on goals and self-improvement — as a bit of an “odd duck.”

That ambition took him from a middle-class home in the Long Island town of Oceanside to Binghamton University, where he explored various courses of study, eventually settling on fine arts.

“I wanted to enjoy myself and just understand who I was as a person,” he says. “I didn’t want to be the person who cloistered himself in the library. I wanted college to be a meaningful experience, which it was. I grew up a lot, but probably wasn’t the most serious student. I was more focused on life growth. Fortunately, my grades were good enough to get accepted to business school.”

Byrne always had a passion for drawing (mostly pen-and-ink, charcoal and pencil) and other art mediums. He still hand-illustrates greeting cards, and the meeting notes he takes at the office routinely include cartoon drawings and other doodling.

His art studies and internships at an ad agency inspired him to consider a career as an advertising entrepreneur. That aspiration led him to the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Chicago, where he went from being a casual student as an undergraduate to a dogged graduate student.

“When I got to business school, I realized this is what I needed to complete the next part of my life,” he explains. “I really dug down and got very intense about it.”


Byrne participated in several sports during his youth, chiefly track (running middle-distance races such as the half-mile), while also playing football (wide receiver and cornerback) and other sports.

Post-college he turned to distance running, competing in nine marathons and still sits on the board of New York Roadrunners, founded in 1958 by Ted Corbitt with 47 members and has since grown to a membership of more than 60,000. Corbitt, the first African American to run an Olympic marathon, is often called “the father of American long-distance running.”

Over time, however, the wear and tear of Byrne’s aggressive running regimen resulted in a labral tear in the hip, an injury to the tissue that holds together the ball-and-socket of the hip. His doctor advised he stop running and find a new sport.

“I tried swimming and a bunch of things I didn’t love,” Byrne says.

A breakthrough came when his clients, Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, were working on a leveraged buyout of Station Casinos, a Las Vegas-based hotel and casino company. The Fertittas had within the previous 12 months also acquired the Ultimate Fighting Championship (better known by its UFC acronym), an American mixed-martial-arts promotion company also based in Las Vegas. Byrne was unfamiliar with UFC at the time but was told by the Fertittas that he should familiarize himself with the sport.

“I started watching it and was so horrified by the brutality that I couldn’t stop watching, which, I’m sure, whether they admit it or not, is a lot of the appeal of the sport.”

His clients set up a Thai kickboxing lesson for Byrne with a preeminent Muay Thai kickboxing trainer. Though he enjoyed the training, Byrne found it rough on the body and told the Fertittas that he did not consider it a good long-term activity. As an alternative, the Fertittas suggested jiu-jitsu might be a better fit.

“The difference between UFC’s mixed martial arts and Brazilian jiu-jitsu is night and day,” Byrne says. “There’s no punching or kicking or striking of any kind with jiu-jitsu.”

Brazilian jiu-jitsu training and competitions are more a combination of judo and wrestling, with the goal of either pinning your opponent to the mat or putting the opponent in a submission hold that forces him to tap out. Basically, to quit.

The Fertittas connected Byrne with Renzo Gracie, one of the founders of the sport and a star competitor and trainer, and John Danaher, who gave up his post as a philosophy professor at Columbia University to become a full-time Brazilian jiu-jitsu trainer and competitor.

“I fell in love with the sport,” says Byrne. “I really enjoyed it.”

That was 17 years ago. Byrne has since opened his own Manhattan martial arts gym, become a third-degree jiu-jitsu black belt, won two international Brazilian jiu-jitsu championships in the past three years, and founded the KASAI Elite Grappling Championships in 2016, a global organization for professional and amateur jiu-jitsu practitioners that hosts live events featuring competitions between grapplers from around the world. With KASAI, for which he serves as CEO, Byrne has built an organization that produces UFC-style events that create a higher profile and bigger fan base for Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

In addition to Brazilian jiu-jitsu training, his Manhattan gym also trains members in kickboxing, versions of CrossFit and other forms of personal training. Byrne personally trains five to seven days per week, getting up as early as necessary to rendezvous with his workout partners. He trains even during business trips.

“Gyms used to be hard to find. Now they’re all over the place; they’re in every strip mall,” he says, noting that, along with pickleball, jiu-jitsu is one of the nation’s fastest growing sports. “There’s a Brazilian jiu-jitsu place in every country. For example, I went to Saudi Arabia and had a choice of five different places.”

A typical jiu-jitsu session begins with 45 minutes of learning and practicing techniques, followed by 60 to 75 minutes of live sparring.

He supplements his jiu-jitsu training with regular sessions of cross training in the weight room. On weekends there’s biking, paddleboarding and other types of exercise.

Add to that The Feldenkrais Method, for which Byrne is a practitioner. Feldenkrais is a type of exercise therapy devised by Israeli Moshé Feldenkrais during the mid-20th century. The method claims to reorganize connections between the brain and body to improve body movement and psychological state.

“It’s restorative for the body. It’s very mindful small movements,” says Byrne. “Think of it as a full-body version of meditation. It’s kept me supple and young, and that’s how I’ve been able to do all the other physical stuff I do. Without Feldenkrais I don’t think I could.”

At first blush, Feldenkrais appears similar to yoga, though the former is more focused on internal awareness and “nervous system re-education.”


Byrne started his career in earnest after graduating from the Kellogg School of Management and getting hired as an equity sales trader in the Chicago office of Merrill Lynch, where he got an early taste of client relationships, before becoming a research analyst and gaining exposure to investment banking deals and an opportunity to work with traders and meet with sales clients, in addition to writing research reports. (The SEC has since enacted regulations prohibiting relationships between research analysts and investment banking departments and the companies that are the subject of research reports.)

During his tenure at the firm, Byrne worked with a closely-knit crew of people, chief among them Tom Gahan. After working with Byrne for years at Merrill Lynch, Gahan moved to Deutsche Bank and was joined there months later by Byrne. After a years-long run together at Deutsche, Gahan left in 2008 to start Benefit Street Partners. Gahan founded Benefit Street as the credit investment arm of Providence Equity Partners, a private equity firm, bringing along some of the key team members who helped develop Deutsche’s leveraged finance unit.

Benefit Street Partners went into operation during 2008, the year the global financial crisis rattled markets everywhere. Deutsche Bank was waist deep in cleaning up its balance sheet and dealing with federal regulators.

“I was planning to join Tom Gahan and a couple of other folks that had left with him, but my conscience, and maybe guilt, got the better of me, and I ended up staying at Deutsche Bank and helping work through the crisis and get the organization on solid footing,” says Byrne, who at the time was CEO of Deutsche Bank Securities, the U.S. arm of the bank. “Through it all, Deutsche Bank was one of the very few financial institutions that didn’t receive government bailout money.”

Byrne joined Benefit Street as president in 2013, and today defines his job as a combination of back-to-back phone calls and meetings. During the narrow cracks in between those calls and meetings, he regularly indulges in one of his few vices: popcorn. The SkinnyPop brand is a favorite.

He’s also an inveterate walker, discovering years ago it was one of the most practical ways to tame his nervous energy throughout the day.

“I walk a lot,” he says. “I have circled Central Park thousands of times over the years to empty my head or get into my own thoughts. Or, more often than that, listening to audiobooks. I’m a great learner when I’m walking.”

While Byrne was walking Central Park, banks were walking away from much of their commercial lending activities in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, creating big opportunities for alternative credit as an asset class and enriching Benefit Street Partners. The firm boomed as institutional and high-net-worth investors committed billions to private credit. When the assets under management at Benefit Street reached $26 billion, global investment titan Franklin Templeton took notice and announced in 2018 an offer to acquire the firm. It closed the deal in February 2019. Benefit Street Partners now has $77 billion in assets under management. For Franklin Templeton, the move helped bolster its menu of alternative investments. For Benefit Street, the deal added Franklin Templeton’s global reach — with clients and operations in more than 170 countries — and capabilities to Benefit Street’s offerings.

That deal was one of a series of acquisitions made by Franklin Templeton to expand its lineup of alternative products. Also acquired were Lexington Partners, which does private equity secondaries, and Clarion Partners, which Institutional Real Estate, Inc. ranked in 2022 as the eighth-largest real estate asset manager in North America, based on assets under management.

For all of Byrne’s steely discipline, fitness activities and healthful eating habits, he was reminded about a half-dozen years ago that immunity from life’s maladies is not necessarily granted. That was brought into stark relief when Byrne was stricken by a case of melanoma that required surgery to remove a compromised patch of skin, only to discover two years later the cancer had spread to the lungs, throwing him into stage-four melanoma. Medical statistics indicated less than a 20 percent chance of surviving the next five years.

“It was a life-altering experience.”

Fortuitously, a breakthrough immunotherapy treatment for melanoma was brought to market, and specifically for the cancer variant Byrne had contracted. He was treated at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan. Within 11 months he was off the immunotherapy and no evidence of the disease remained.

“I don’t talk about it much, but it was quite a scare,” he says. “I’m now four years post-disease. I still do scans every three or four months and get nervous as hell every time I wait for the results. I don’t have the hubris to think that I beat it. I feel like I got incredibly lucky.”

Lucky, yes, but luck, as the maxim goes, favors the prepared, and Rich Byrne has spent a lifetime preparing for this day — and the days ahead.


Mike Consol ( is senior editor of Real Assets Adviser. Follow him on Twitter (@mikeconsol) and LinkedIn ( to read his latest postings.

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