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September 23, 2014updated 12 Jan 2016 4:03pm

Meet London’s longest-serving private bankers

By Spear's

‘I did have to ask why a couple of members of the board looked so scruffy this morning,’ says Warwick Newbury, the chairman of SG Hambros Private Bank, who is about to notch up a half century in the City. ‘It’s a dress-down week, apparently.’ Beginning his career at Coutts in 1964, he says that dress-down weeks weren’t on the cards (or even in the vocabulary) when he started: ‘We wore stiff white collars, separate from the shirt, brass studs and a frock coat of course, waistcoat and black shoes obviously. You got sent home if you wore brown ones.’

Newbury describes a world now only created in film sets: a ‘cathedral-like’ space with rows of high desks and typing pools clattering away. ‘It was all a very formal atmosphere,’ he says. ‘You were called by your surname. The chairman of the board sat at the back and the clerks, as we were, sat at their feet.’ Newbury recalls being summoned by the board to be congratulated on introducing four new clients: ‘”Newbury, I want to congratulate you,” said the chairman. “You’ve done something very wonderful… You’ve introduced The Beatles.”‘

After Coutts, Newbury moved to Hambros in 1997, which was bought a year later by Société Générale. The practice he learnt on the Strand under former mentor Sir David Money-Coutts stood him in good stead at his new bank: ‘He taught me all the principles — the key relationships, the importance of integrity and honest, open communication.’ Such ethics bore fruit during the ‘the war’ of 2007-13, because they hadn’t done ‘any of the riskier investment-bank-type of activities’.

If those ethics took a battering after Big Bang, they have certainly come back into fashion with private investment offices and post-crash wealth managers, as well as eternally sensible institutions. ‘A bit like Hoare’s,’ he says, ‘I think we were always considered to be a safe haven.’

Hoare’s certainly has the ancient aesthetic of a safe haven. As his ancestors watch over us from their ample oil canvases, Henry Hoare gives an insight into the bank he joined in 1953 during Churchill’s second spell as prime minister. He talks of the importance of mental arithmetic for writing up the ledgers, where a week’s work could be undone by a misplaced decimal point.

It seems a world away from any modern computer yet strangely familiar when one considers the billions lost by fat fingers, erroneously filled-in spreadsheets or even a deceptive tweet such as the one that said the White House had been bombed, which briefly lost the markets $136.5 billion last year.

One thing Hoare says was easier was dealing with the regulation of the time: ‘The Bank of England were our regulators and a senior chap used to come to lunch once a year — he’d talk to us, have a couple of glasses of port and then go back to the Bank of England. I suspect it was a cleverer way than using all the millions of figures we produce now, because he could see whether we made sense, as it was easy to say something foolish.’ He smiles wryly: ‘There were still some pretty good scandals.’

On my way out he shows me the dining table where he’ll be sitting for lunch with the next two generations of Hoares. It doesn’t look like it’s changed much in 300 years and must have hosted many a port-swigging Bank of England governor.

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However, Hoare has little time for reminiscence: he admits that the bank he joined ‘was a very restricted world, luckily in my favour’, but he doesn’t believe the world of private client wealth has lost a great deal: ‘The world is more comfortable, more fun, there are far more opportunities for everybody.’

In agreement is former Lord Mayor Sir Roger Gifford, now London head of leading Nordic corporate bank SEB, who started in the City in 1978. ‘What has gone is the kind of exclusivity that, if you’re not from a certain background, means you can’t get in,’ he tells me over tea in his St Paul’s office. ‘One example is Canary Wharf — there’s nowhere in the world as diverse as those offices.’

Like Hoare, Gifford has plenty of experience of the trappings of heritage but is more dismissive of the ‘nod and a wink’ culture some banks enjoyed with the regulators: ‘I’m not sure they were such good old days. There’s much that wasn’t right and wasn’t good: transparency, insider trading pre-1980. Those were the days banks had hidden reserves they didn’t have to talk about.’ He credits technology with cleaning up the system, allowing much greater liquidity and transparency, and leading to globalised finance.

But, as with Hoare’s ledger, you need to look at both sides: the Outlook calendar has put paid to the liquidity traditionally enjoyed over long business lunches: ‘Every one of those pubs you go past in the evening, they are stuffed. I think those people are doing what we used to do in the day, in a way that they’re almost not allowed to do any more professionally… I think business would be a lot better if we could move some of it off the email.’

When I ask him about the future of the City, Gifford unashamedly dons his old mayoral feathery hat: ‘It’s got everything going for it. Wealth management is probably better than it’s ever, ever been: £5.5 trillion under management, as a result of London being seen as a safe haven. Last year we [the City] announced a record income for the UK from professional financial services of £71 billion.’ When I ask him if the gold chain and ermine are still relevant, he smiles and repeats: ‘£71 billion.’

Even though the City has been open to the world for the past thousand years, this openness has oscillated; today it is much greater than when Newbury, Hoare and Gifford started. That is the real reason, Gifford says, for that £71 billion success: ‘Not just for banking — for insurance, for law, for accounting, for all the other different professions.’

Mark Henderson, chairman of Gieves & Hawkes, sees just this. Having worked in and around Savile Row for over three decades, he says the biggest change is ‘deep, deep, deep internationalisation’. Despite that and the invasion of smart casual, the suit remains stalwart for Mayfair men and City boys: ‘When you had the dotcom boom everybody was predicting the end of the suit. It never really happened and the reason is it’s just a very practical and elegant outfit. It’s basically a man’s handbag. The suit is here to stay — the only thing that’s changed a lot is the way it’s worn.’

Revealing that he turned down his first job in London because the interviewer was only interested in the name of his school, Henderson suggests the death of the old school tie might be followed by the death of the tie itself: ‘If I were making a prediction as to what will change in the next 100 years, it is that the suit will still be worn, but the tie might be a casualty.’ Even if he doesn’t miss the studs, Warwick Newbury would not approve.

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