One of the biggest sharks on the floor my first year at Paris Berkeley Capital was a managing director called Matt. A tall and chubby man in his mid-forties, he looked like a character out of a Dickens novel and scowled every time he faced a junior banker. When Matt was around, the atmosphere was unusually tense. People behaved differently. As he walked past an analyst, the latter immediately put on an air of gravity, moved closer to the computer screen and stared ahead with a sense of purpose and determination. It was imperative to give off the impression of high concentration and mental focus. You had to look extremely busy when he was around. Matt’s proximity sent shivers through many spines. Mostly junior vertebrates. There was reason for this, of course. It was no irrational fear. It was not unfounded. You were afraid. Very afraid.
Not a day went by without Matt yelling and screaming at someone. I assumed these intense episodes were cathartic for Matt. No doubt he was under a lot of pressure to deliver more revenues and fees for the bank. Everyone was under pressure at Paris Berkeley Capital. Most of us dealt with it our own particular way. But when Matt went off on some poor pre-pubescent creature of the lower banking species it meant being belittled so badly in front of others that the downtrodden intern or analyst wouldn’t peep another word out of their mouth the rest of the day. Stories of Matt’s abuses became the thing of legends. Having witnessed many, and sadly experienced a few myself, I can confidently say that his verbal attacks were legendary.
Much like predicting the movement of stock prices in emerging market stock exchanges, knowing when Matt would violently erupt next was confined to the realm of fortune-tellers, soothsayers and clairvoyants. There were too many variables involved to know for sure. Anything could set him off: a missing period at the end of a sentence; a small typo in an e-mail to a client; forgetting to PDF a document; the way you dressed; being unlucky to have been born. Occasionally, he’d walk up behind you and just stand there. He then carefully eyed your computer screens looking for, no summoning, a mistake. Unsurprisingly, you started feeling uncomfortable and it would affect whatever work you were doing at the time. And that’s when he would unleash hell.
Daniel, a German analyst in my team bore the brunt of it in our group…
An investment bank being what it is and Paris Berkeley Capital being a top investment bank, meant that at the very least you had offices in London and New York, the world’s leading financial centres. Regularly, these remote offices worked together. And why not? While New York slept London could work and vice versa. Add in offices in Dubai, Mumbai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai, etc. and you get the picture: the bank works round the clock.
So within this backdrop our lovely analyst came in to work extra early one Monday morning to work on a presentation. The task required him to e-mail the document so that it arrived to the New York office by 8am (New York time) the latest. We were based in London and 5 hours ahead so Daniel had plenty of time to do the job. Yet as happens in your day to day life in a fast-paced environment driven by money lots of crap came up throughout the morning and therefore Daniel was unable to make much progress on the presentation. Fast forward to 12:30pm (London) / 7:30am (New York).
Daniel was mindful that he had a half-hour to go until the deadline. The New York team would then pick up the ball and carry on working on the presentation. Earlier, I had offered to help him but he declined thinking he had everything under control. Now he was in trouble. His right knee was bouncing up and down so fast that my desk, a few meters away, began vibrating. A cursory glance at Daniel displayed what appeared to be a terrified boy on the verge of getting diarrhoea.
Making matters much worse, out of nowhere Matt arrived on the scene. He first surveyed the environment and then slowly strolled up to Daniel’s chair where he stood in place for at least three minutes without uttering a single word. He observed young Daniel at work.
Daniel didn’t turn around. He had been through this many times before. He simply focused on the task at hand and kept working. Earlier, our whole team had been warned by a personal assistant that Matt was in a really foul mood that day and therefore we were all on high alert. The buildup of anxiety was so intense that I twice repeated to myself, ‘keep staring at your computer screen’ because I knew that so much as eye contact with Matt could have been potentially disastrous. You did not want to tempt Matt. Especially when he was having a bad day.
Matt (Managing Director): quickly checking his watch ”Let me get this straight. This is the presentation that needs to be sent to the New York office within half an hour?”
Daniel: turning around and stuttering ”Hmm…yes. It’s…hmm…well it’s about to be finished.”
Matt: “Finished? How the fuck do you expect to finish this in thirty minutes Daniel? Half of your tables are missing data and you need to update your charts. I saw some league tables from last year.”
Daniel was silent. Probably praying an earthquake would erupt right there and then and swallow up Canary Wharf.
Matt: “You want to make the London office look bad?
Daniel: looking down and speaking softly “No.”
Matt: raising his voice “What? Speak up.”
Daniel: looking up at Matt “No Matt.”
Matt: “But that’s what you’re fucking doing. The yanks are just going to think ‘typical fucking lazy European mentality at work’. Is that what you want? Is that what you want Daniel?”
Daniel: “I’m sorry, the Germany M&A team wanted some research done right away. The MD called and —”
Matt: “An MD called?”
Daniel: “Yes, it was—”
Matt: “I don’t give a shit who it was. I’m your MD and you’re my fucking analyst so you listen to what I say and do it. I told you to have this presentation ready.”
Daniel: “I came in early today to—”
Matt: “Why didn’t you come in this weekend?”
Matt: “There are a thousand little German kids from top schools waiting for your fucking chair who would work every weekend for this job.”
Matt looks again at his watch.
Matt: “If you don’t finish the presentation in 20 minutes just take your stuff, leave and don’t come back to work again.”
On that note, Matt walked away and was soon out of sight. Daniel was in such a state that he just sat at his desk staring at his keyboard. He was paralysed. A few of us went over to help him.
Fortunately, the presentation was completed on time. Interestingly enough, Matt didn’t reappear the rest of the day. We learned from his personal assistant that he had left early to go hunting with another managing director. Go figure.
The next day another poor soul suffered Matt’s wrath. The day after that another. So on and so forth. It was business as usual which meant Matt was behaving like the King of the Jungle. He had been a force to be reckoned with for so long that he had forgotten one of the main rules of banking: every day you’re closer to your last.
Nobody can escape
And so one day, not long after the earlier episode, Matt was doing the rounds near our desk and walked right up to Daniel again. Everyone braced for abuse. Daniel hunched down while typing away on his keyboard. Poor guy, I remember thinking.
By the grace of God, just as Matt opened his mouth, one of the phone lines rang and Matt’s personal assistant cried out.
Personal assistant: “Matt, there’s a call for you.”
Matt looked annoyed, as if interrupted just as he was about to feast on a long awaited meal. He walked over to his desk and answered the phone standing. He hadn’t taken his eyes off Daniel and looked anxious to get back to his favourite pastime: picking on the weak.
Over the next several seconds I watched the look on Matt’s face transform. The imaginary rope which previously held up his body in a straight line suddenly snapped as if the handles of an invisible pair of scissors were squeezed together. The muscles on Matt’s face gave in to gravity. Something serious happened, I realised.
Matt very slowly sat down while listening to the other line. He didn’t utter a word for nearly a minute. Then he hung up the phone and sat still. In that moment I saw Matt hunch down just like Daniel had done on so many unfortunate occasions. I pretended to work but inconspicuously stared at Matt from between two computer screens. His appearance was sad yet riveting. He just sat there staring at his keyboard with his mouth wide open. He looked like he had just been slapped by a whirling dervish.
Matt stood up and motioned me over. Oh oh. I walked over to him. I was a bit apprehensive and my heart started beating faster than normal.
The ibanker: “Hey Matt, what’s going on?”
Matt: stuttering and in a very quiet tone to make sure nobody hears ”Hmm…I’ve been sacked. Can you walk with me please?”
That was the first time I heard him use the word ‘please’.
I walked Matt to the elevator. We didn’t exchange a single word on our short journey. I figured he simply wanted someone to walk with him so he didn’t feel alone.
Matt had been called by the head of our division, someone he had worked with for many years, and told to grab his personal belongings and come downstairs for a debriefing. The financial crisis was underway and Paris Berkeley Capital could do with one less fat cat banker. Especially one who had grown too comfortable with his senior position and spent more time spending money than earning it for the bank. Matt had lost his hunger and drive and was consequently persona non grata.
One day on top of the world handing out commands and orders, firing people without remorse and the next day fired himself disgracefully over the phone.
Every day you are closer to getting fired. Whether you are lion or a lamb. And if you are a lion you are expected to provide even more food for the rest of the pride. Moving up the ladder doesn’t necessarily mean the job gets easy.
After Matt stepped into the elevator I opened my mouth:
The ibanker: “Can I have your chair?”
As soon as he heard my words he started crying and the elevator door shut.