Makens Secure In Job Decision

March 12, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — When Warner Norcross & Judd partner Hugh Makens speaks about securities law, everybody listens.

But at Little Mexico Restaurant on Grand Rapids’ West Side, Makens doesn’t have to speak at all. A frequent customer with colleagues who are also history book buffs, Makens’ favorite meal arrives without him even having to order it.

Born and bred in the U.P., Makens has become known below the bridge and across the nation for his four decades of expertise in securities law and his leadership posts in that area, including a recent stint on a dispute-solving body at NASDAQ.

As a lawyer for the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Detroit office in the 1960s, he helped crack an international ring that was smuggling bogus cancer medications and selling worthless securities in the sham company. Under Gov. William Milliken, Makens led the state securities office to become one of the most respected in the U.S. In nearly 30 years at Warner Norcross & Judd, he has worked with the second richest man in America (yes, that Warren Buffett), dismantled a defunct brokerage in a matter of days, oversaw countless public and private equity offerings, and mediated disputes among traders at NASDAQ.

An intellectually curious man of many interests, Makens, 68, remembers to this day the names of professors who influenced his life’s direction. He grew up in Houghton, where his father led the chemistry department at Michigan College of Mining and Technology, which eventually became MichiganTechnologicalUniversity. Makens attended Michigan Tech, studying accounting, and then was accepted at the NorthwesternUniversityLawSchool

Makens was uncertain about just which area of law would become his career until he took a securities law class in his last year at Northwestern.

“From that moment on, there was only one job I wanted, and there was only one place I wanted to work and one career I wanted, and that was securities: This is for me. Sometimes it just rings a bell.”

With help from a professor and against the odds, Makens landed his “dream job” at the Securities and Exchange Commission. However, that was put on hold for two years as he fulfilled his obligation, as a ROTC student, to serve in the U.S. Army. Makens served in a position mitigating disputes between the military and electronics contractors. He also volunteered to defend soldiers facing court martial, an opportunity that gave him trial experience.

At the SEC’s Detroit office, Makens said he handled routine tasks from emptying wastebaskets to inspecting broker-dealers. He also investigated securities fraud and brought the perpetrators to justice in both civil and — as a special U.S. attorney — criminal cases.

In addition to the cancer drugs and securities being smuggled in from Canada, Makens said, “I had the pleasure of interviewing (late Teamsters boss) Jimmy Hoffa once. Everybody knew he was going to take the Fifth Amendment, and so they gave the job to the youngest attorney in the office to go sit there to walk him through taking the Fifth and developing a record. He needed some help to get there, but that’s what he did.”

At that point, Gov. Milliken tabbed Makens, who had a flawless record at the SEC, to lead the state department that regulates securities. Today that area is part of the Department of Labor and Economic Growth’s Office of Financial and Insurance Services.

“When I walked in, I looked at the table, about twice the size of this thing, stacked like this all the way around. And I said ‘What are those?’ And they said, ‘Those are letters from lawyers asking about the law and how it’s interpreted that haven’t been answered.’ I said, ‘Going back how far?’ ‘Three or four years.’ ‘Oh, OK.’

“So we were understaffed, overworked (and) undertrained, and I set out to tackle those things. I spent a lot of nights getting that table down so there was nothing left on it. We dramatically improved our caseload. We built up our staff dramatically. I added CPAs and accountants, over the objection of (former Attorney General) Frank Kelley. Frank thought all attorneys should work for him. But as long as they were qualified for other job descriptions, I could bring them on and I did. We brought ourselves up to where we had a reputation of being one of the very top securities organizations in the United States.”

Makens makes no bones about the fact that he thinks the state securities commissioner’s office has shrunk in scope and influence since he left after nearly six years in the post. “Gov. (John) Engler virtually destroyed securities regulation in Michigan, and obviously a lot of people lose a lot of money when that happens,” Makens said.

After more than five years and a stint as president of the North American Securities Administrators Association, Makens decided he preferred being a lawyer to being an administrator and joined Warner Norcross & Judd, where he is a partner today.

Nearly 29 years at the Grand Rapids law firm have taken Makens across the U.S. and back, serving clients as a member of industry boards and as a lecturer. “I’ve got more clients in California than I do in Michigan,” he said. “Our practice in the brokerage area is definitely a national practice.” He loves due diligence. “It’s like a big jigsaw puzzle, putting things together so you can understand them and make sure you get them right,” he said.

Makens worked for Buffett as part of the Salomon Brothers Treasury auction scandal in the early 1990s. “He’s a dynamo,” Makens said. “He’s a consummate straight-shooter. Third, he’s incredibly decisive. He analyzes and moves to decision and implementation as fast as anyone I’ve seen, and comes up with a reasoned result; I mean, his experience is so vast.”

Makens recently completed a two-year term on the NASDAQ’s Market Operations Committee, resolving disputes between traders and writing new rules for how they interact with each other at the stock exchange. He’s also signed up as a trustee for the National Endowment for Financial Education, which provides programs for all ages, particularly teenagers and college students. He’s also been named to the editorial board for securities publications of LexisNexis, a research database widely used by lawyers and journalists.

An avid reader, trumpet player and canoeist, Makens is looking forward to more travel time with his wife, Georgia. They have two sons: Craig, who works in sales in Houghton, and Brett, who is in the foreign service and currently stationed in Mongolia

“I’ve never looked back for a minute to say, ‘Was it the right decision?’ I’m doing things that I really like to do and I’m being continually intellectually challenged.”    

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