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September 24, 2009

Did You Hear the One About the Ex-Banker?

By Spear's

Secret agent? Stand-up comedian? For a lot of high-flyers, leaving the City opens up all manner of more interesting career possibilities, says Josh Spero

Bankers have not got credit for much in the past couple of years, but at least they still have their sense of humour: I recently heard a banker talking about how his newly redundant colleagues were ‘leveraging their new time-rich personal balance sheets’. That combination of jargon, euphemism and unspoken failure captures the pricked pomposity of banking. But they are by no means eternal outcasts from capitalism, doomed to walk the streets of the City with a decommissioned BlackBerry and marked with a scarlet B.

For some financiers, it is a chance to move on to their long-cherished Plan B; for others, it is casting about after fancies or fantasies; others still will not countenance anything else. One friend reported that many ex-bankers of her acquaintance were sitting about, waiting for a new bank to call them, ‘twiddling their thumbs and refusing to do anything else’.

They are scattering across the spectrum. Many are vying for the thrill of a job in management consultancy or the civil service, figuring that institutionalisation is the safest context for them, while others are pursuing cookery courses and yacht skippering programmes as infinitesimal rewards for long and loyal service in the pits of banking. A lucky few are even just going to live off their redundancy payments.

There is certainly a market for those following fantasies: a CIA spokeswoman said they had seen an increase in applicants with financial sector backgrounds. She added that these people would be ‘ideally suited’ for ‘assessing illicit financial activities, including networks used by terrorist and criminal groups, financing and procurement of weapons of mass destruction, money laundering and corruption among foreign governments and companies’, as well as most other CIA jobs. All those desk-bound James Bonds prick up their ears.

Perhaps the polar opposite of banking is teaching: educating many instead of juggling money; favouring explanation over complication; looking beyond their computer screens to society. Bankers have certainly shown a prodigious interest: a new programme to reduce teacher-training from 12 months to six was introduced in March to seize on demand, and straight after Lehman Brothers collapsed last September the Training and Development Agency for Schools organised two events in Canary Wharf and the City to spread the didactic word.

David (surname withheld), in contrast to many who have left banking, had a good recession: whereas M&A dived, his field of corporate restructuring at a blue-chip firm boomed, with ever-more companies needing their debt rescheduled, reworked and repulsed.

It was, in fact, too good a recession: after three years in his job, the summer of 2008 saw him in sole control of a restructuring some distance from London: ‘I was working on a deal which took me out of London every Monday morning and put me back every Friday evening. I got sick of having room service. I was never at this house I’d just bought, I was knackered all through the weekend, I was no fun at all.’

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His own crunch was set against one much larger: ‘I just thought, I’m sick of this now; that was September 2008. The weekend I left was the weekend that Lehman broke.’ A month later, he got a job as a maths teacher at a private school in London.

By that point, David had already become disillusioned with his job: ‘I built a model [to run scenarios for a business]; it was just 40 megabytes of number-crunching. You start to move away from anything that’s sensible. Hundreds and hundreds of switches. You just keep flicking switches in the model until you get a number you like.’

But far from abandoning the skills and knowledge he had built up, David has transmuted them into stimuli for the children: ‘We have a young investors club, which is fantasy stocks and shares. They get a notional 50 grand to invest, and they have to make a trade a week on real stocks. I expect there’ll be some really bullish 15-year-olds.’ He also says that the children like to hear about his life in the City, like an old soldier recounting the stories of war wounds.

‘The best bit is engaging with kids, because they’re all different in their own way. It’s not a case of sitting in an office, dealing with the same group of people, phoning up the same lawyers day after day after day.’ He does, however, confess to slightly missing ‘that sense of importance’ that a BlackBerry clamped to the ear implies.

Equidistant from banking is the charitable sector. Denise Holle’s career took in both conventional and social finance, with 12 years on the Merrill Lynch equities desk in London after time at the World Bank, a period as ‘one of those slaves to corporate finance’ at First Boston and a Harvard Business School MBA. Despite quitting in June 2007, Denise won’t say she saw the writing on the wall — ‘that would be taking too much credit.’

Her resignation was down to having four children under the age of ten and the tiredness that this situation, combined with a job in finance, engenders. ‘I wanted to do something more meaningful,’ she says, although her only plan when she quit was to rest for a year.

Denise had six months off before CAN, a charity which supports social enterprise, approached her and offered her a job managing a venture philanthropy fund. CAN provides serviced office space, business support and funding for the third sector, the last of which it achieves primarily through a fund called Breakthrough, a joint venture with Permira.

Money is given out as grants and additional business support is supplied through meetings with CAN and Permira advisers. ‘One thing that appealed to me was that CAN was commercially minded, but working for a social purpose in a very innovative manner,’ Denise says. ‘It has used pretty much all my skills — project management, as I did at the World Bank, business and industry analysis, as at Merrill Lynch, and due diligence.’ While the third sector is filled with idealism, Denise’s financial past makes her more realistic about methods and achievements.

There are also those who come out as entrepreneurs, a true vocation if anything is: the insistent entanglements of ideas, minds which see the holes in reality and feel compelled to fix them. Entrepreneurship is life outside the cogs of corporations, with all the benefits and harms that implies.

Olivier Bonnefoy, a lifer in the financial system and now founder of Gentlemen’s Tonic, a spa for men, had his aim before he knew how he would incarnate it. Five years ago, ‘I was a hedge fund trader — broking and trading — at Société Générale. I was doing that for ten years, straight out of university. I loved it, but at 30, I looked at my life and thought, do I really want to be doing this in another ten years? When I started, I looked at the guys who were 30 and thought, I don’t want to be like you.’

He started with a general aim — ‘I was looking for the creation of a brand’ — and hit upon the idea for Gentlemen’s Tonic when he saw how men were spending more money on themselves, a sector without any multinational involvement, a thought which combines entrepreneurial inspiration and financial acuity. Gentlemen’s Tonic (whose main spa is just off Berkeley Square) is as much about education as relaxation: ‘Men have never been taught how to shave. Wetshaves are our most popular gift voucher.’

Although he can list ex-US presidents among his clients, Olivier’s plans have not always been faultless: ‘In summer 2008, I had nine international spas in development, and every single one collapsed on me — Las Vegas, Miami, Bali, Monaco, Mumbai, the list goes on.’ Indeed, he says that his ten years’ business experience were ‘of absolutely no relevance whatsoever. You couldn’t go more 180. The only thing that possibly would have helped is understanding the bigger picture, which is a lot easier for me than for some others.’

Colleagues may look on in envy, too, at one who goes from being one in 170,000 employees (as at Merrill Lynch at its height) to setting their own course, and also at one who has a Plan B: ‘The shocking thing was, none of them had a concept which they could do if it all came to a head now. And why should you? That’s music to your bank’s ears.’ Olivier can understand why people stay in the City: ‘When you looked at the summer home, the three children at private school, the £15,000 holidays, it was too big a risk to rock the boat. That’s the one issue that keeps people from leaving an institution — the security. They’ve got you by the balls.’

Olivier does not think he will be the last entrepreneur, either: ‘The only positive derivative that’s going to come out of this story, at least in the UK, is an untapped level of entrepreneurialism which hasn’t been seen in a while here.’
Matt Linnecar, in contrast to Olivier, had already been an entrepreneur, having co-founded Blue Ventures, a volunteer organisation which arranges environmentally friendly experiences in Madagascar, while at Edinburgh University.

After graduating, he joined a multinational asset management firm: ‘I wanted to join because of the environmental and sustainability vein within me. One of their subsidiaries had a respected charities and socially responsible investing fund and I was angling for that, but it became apparent that the harder I pushed, the less they were going to give it to me.’ After two years, he got fed up. ‘All this time I thought, what can I do? And I thought electric vehicles were going to be the next big thing. I spent about four months researching it, handed in my notice and that was it.’

Illusions fell away fast while Matt was working in the City. ‘I remember the day of the first massive dip in the stock exchange — everyone was just going bananas. People were advising us as individuals to buy because it was never going to get any lower — but it got lower and lower and lower. People didn’t have a clue.’ He was also frustrated by his colleagues’ lack of ambition.

The result of resigning was Gnewt, a company which imports and sells electric vehicles. This has developed into another business called Gnewt Cargo, to be launched later this year. Gnewt Cargo is a last-mile logistics company, delivering parcels in London the final stretch, the most expensive leg. With their unique electric vehicles — a cross between a rickshaw and a van — they are both saving companies money and helping the environment.

Matt credits his time in banking with allowing him and his business partner, Sam Clarke, to push forward with their ideas: ‘Number one is financial skills — Sam is probably less confident with this side of things. The second is that it’s brought me great contacts, and when we were fundraising all the contacts we spoke to came pretty much from contacts I’d made while I was in the City. It also gave me credibility: when I stood up in front of people and mentioned the name of my former employer, people listened.’ He understands why it is that people do not want to leave:

‘There’s a lot of fear — where are they going to go? No one’s going to pick them up now. Not many have Plan Bs.’
Kate Smurthwaite is the perfect example of a banker putting their sense of humour to profitable ends. While Kate was in the distinctly unamusing fields of convertible bond analysis and then hedge fund products, she was doing stand-up comedy gigs in the evenings and ‘there just wasn’t time to do both. I don’t think there was ever really a reason why I got into finance: when I left college I was just very short of money and took the best paid job I could find. I never felt that I wanted to be a banker, really, just that I wanted to not be poor any more.’

She left in June 2005 and credits her banking experience with ‘giving me a different perspective from other comics. A lot have come from an acting or entertaining background while typically audience members are people who work in offices doing jobs they find dreadfully uninspiring on computers that keep crashing, surrounded by people who take it all too seriously. I can relate to that.’

It seems that if you fire a gun into any building in London, you may hit a former banker. There are, after all, thousands upon thousands of them who are now out of work, moving into new careers, and it appears, as the Romans say, that there are as many intentions as there are people.

Even though their subsequent careers may have nothing in common — stand-up comedy and charity, electric cars and gentlemen’s spas — and even though they draw on wholly different parts of their financial experience, knowledge and skills, they do all find it beneficial to have done it, if just as a memento mori.

And importantly, not all left their jobs because of the credit crunch — many reached their own tipping point. Perhaps the lesson to draw from these stories of catastrophe and recovery is that once bankers have broken free from their shackles, their afterlives are bounded only by their imaginations.

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