For most investors thinking about investment-banking stocks, the name Lazard (NYSE:LAZ) may not jump to mind the way Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS) or Morgan Stanley (NYSE:MS) does. But, in many ways, Lazard is no less of a storied financial institution than Goldman or Morgan.

Currently, thanks to general pessimism about the financial industry, Lazard's stock is a hair more than 21% down from its highs for the year. What's caught my eye over the past few months, though, is the way Lazard has been aggressively expanding its business.

But first ...
Lazard was founded back in 1848, in New Orleans, as a dry-goods business called Lazard Freres. Shortly after the founding, the Lazard brothers moved the business to San Francisco, during the gold rush, and subsequently opened offices in Paris and London. In 1880, the San Francisco office was moved to New York.

Through the 1900s, the three offices -- referred to as the "Houses of Lazard" -- operated independently. During this time, the New York office became a major force in merger and acquisition advising. In an effort to position the company for cross-border M&A deals, the three Houses decided to unite in 1984, and full unification as Lazard LLC was completed in 2000.

Why is this important? Believe it or not, in the highly competitive business of financial advisory, brand counts for a lot. While a great banker at a middle market shop can do fairly well, the parties involved in most major transactions are unlikely to even consider any but the premium names in the business. With a long history and a high-end reputation, this is a boon for Lazard, helping the firm -- which carries a market value 37 times less than competitor Goldman Sachs -- land major M&A deals like the $45 billion proposed buyout of TXU (NYSE:TXU).

Building the brand
Since Lazard's 2005 IPO, the company has been run by a powerhouse in the field of investment banking, Bruce Wasserstein. Wasserstein co-founded the investment banking firm Wasserstein Perella in 1988 and led it until it was sold to Dresdner Kleinwort in 2001. Wasserstein is not one to rest on his laurels, and he hasn't been letting Lazard do that either.

In May of this year, Lazard announced that it was going to acquire 50% of The MBA Group, parent to MBA Banco de Inversiones, an investment banking and asset management firm in Central and South America. This new entity, which will be called MBA Lazard, along with an existing joint venture that Lazard has in Brazil, gives Lazard coverage over all of the major markets in the high-growth Central and South American economies.

The following month, Lazard announced an agreement with Raiffeisen Investment, an Austrian investment banking firm, to work together on deals in Russia and Eastern and Central Europe. In 2005, Russia alone had $56 billion in M&A deal volume, making it one of the major growth economies.

The month after that (we're in July now), Lazard acquired middle-market deal specialist Goldsmith Agio Helms. This acquisition allows Lazard to bring its premium brand to a new slice of the market. Though fees obviously aren't as massive in middle-market transactions, the market is much more fragmented than the big-deal market and could help provide some stable deal flow. Also in July, Lazard acquired Carnegie Wylie, an Australian M&A advisory and private-equity firm.

More recently, the firm opened a new office in Boston to give it more exposure to the large base of technology companies located there. Then it picked up UBS' (NYSE:UBS) former Chairman of investment banking for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa to be the Chairman of Lazard International and the deputy Chairman of Lazard. Finally, just last week, Lazard announced that it is opening a new office in Zurich, Switzerland.

Tackling opportunity
While a flood of activity like this could be seen as an attempt to get bigger but not necessarily better, it should be noted that Wasserstein owns 22% of the company, and Ellis Jones, a director, owns another 16% stake. When insiders own major stakes like this, I tend to like the odds that expansion won't be taken on lightly. Collectively, these moves should put Lazard in a great position to capitalize on the growing number of cross-border M&A transactions and continue to expand its financial advisory business.

Amid the sell-off of financial services stocks, Lazard among them, Wasserstein stepped up and bought $5.2 million worth of Lazard stock. Do I smell conviction?

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Fool contributor Matt Koppenheffer does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned. The Fool's disclosure policy has never been across the table from Wasserstein in an M&A deal, and it hopes it never is.