When you join an investment bank, part of the social contract you sign up to with the institution requires you to undergo a twisted form of house arrest. The bank will keep a very close eye on your movements and whereabouts going forward. Though you may continue to enjoy ‘freedom of movement’, the way you interpret that very notion will fundamentally change in time. The single most essential element in this affair is the handheld device you’re given shortly after you are bestowed a seat and computer. Generally referred to as a ‘mobile’ or ‘cell’, you’ll occasionally encounter alternate nicknames for it. “You’ve been given an earring,” some jokingly said at Paris Berkeley Capital. Others had their own name for it. The day it was thrust into my hands the benefactor called it a lamp.
Till death do us apart
You wore your phone at all times – unlike an earring which occasionally came off. And the one cardinal rule you followed with religious zeal was the following: if it rings you answer. No matter what.
Whether you were standing up in a restaurant on the verge of delivering a toast in honour of your recently engaged best friend, watching Patrick Stuart perform Shakespeare in the West End, sitting in silent contemplation in a church, mosque, synagogue or Zoroastrian temple, or anxiously lying down on an operating room table minutes before being administered general anesthesia, it didn’t matter what the circumstances were. You had to stop dead in your tracks and answer your phone. Too much money was potentially at stake for your inconsequential personal life to get in the way. That is why this gadget quickly became an extension of your hand. You rarely saw mobile phones left unattended at someone’s desk. Like a wedding ring you carried it pretty much everywhere.
The moment it rang you answered. Period. Jumping out of the shower for several minutes and then jumping back in once done with the call was normal. If you were in a noisy area you simply muted the phone while others spoke on the call.
My line manager was absolutely fanatic about being always accessible. The only time he was unreachable was when he was in flight. Otherwise, it took no more than three rings for him to answer. Ever. It so happened that the poor guy suffered from stress-induced diarrhea, a fact he openly revealed to me the first time we spoke. I found it terribly strange at the time and did my best to imagine I never heard it. Little did I realize how serious he was.
Most mornings, right after he arrived to his desk, dropped off his briefcase and took off his jacket my line manager would walk straight over to the bathroom. In case you’re wondering, he’d generally stay in there longer than the time it takes to simply wash one’s hands and check oneself out in the mirror. Depending on his arrival time into the office and if a morning conference call was scheduled then minutes later he’d dial in from his mobile, while in the toilets. That was perfectly normal.
In time, another team member and I leaned to recognise – from my line manager’s face – the days he had particularly acute stomach problems. Those were precious days indeed. My colleague, Sam, and I would listen in on the call with great anticipation. My line manager was not the quiet type and always had to make his voice heard. Additionally, he was a highly paranoid individual by nature and believed everyone was after clients. Therefore, he felt he had to constantly convince others that he was in fact very close to all his clients and held a very special relationship with them. This all meant he’d go on for eternity when his turn came round to provide an update. And because at any one time there could be over five people on the call he didn’t care to mute the phone cause you couldn’t tell who exactly was responsible for being in a noisy area. Consequently, you’d hear toilets flush, water taps run and, if you were lucky, the occasional fart or two let loose. Some days Sam and I had tears running down our faces.
The genie and the lamp
You took or made calls whenever and wherever necessary.
Mark, a South African managing director, said it best when he handed me my company phone soon after I joined the bank.
“This in my hand is a lamp. Know what happens when I rub it? You answer. You’re a genie now.”
Several weekends later I was on a friend’s yacht off the coast of Brittany. There were only three of us on board – me, my friend the skipper and my girlfriend – and each of us was working hard to make it to the next port. I’d left my work phone below deck, where, because of strong winds, it was practically impossible to hear a ringtone. Later in the evening I noticed a missed call from Mark. Oh shit. I tried returning the call but he never picked up. I called again the following day, Sunday, before making way back to London. No answer. Monday morning I arrived to work, took off my suit jacket and made my way to the 7:00am team update meeting where everyone updated each other on team activities and relevant news.
The meeting started off in the usual manner. At then one point, Mark, who led these discussions, turned toward me and called out my name.
“What were the Non-Farm Payroll numbers on Friday?,” asked Mark.
“Hmmm, I’m not sure but I believe the numbers were better than expected,” I replied nervously as I was caught off guard.
“Where did the iTraxx Main and Crossover close on Friday?”
I had no clue. My instinct was to state that it was unchanged from the previous day but that was like handing him a cricket bat to hit me over the head with. So I kept quiet.
“Pay very close attention to what happens in the markets very closely. If you want to cruise by without doing much then join a consultancy. You’re a banker now!”
Later that day while I sat at my desk, Mark walks right up to me.
“I don’t care what you do in your free time but when I call you answer the phone.” And he walks off. Yes Master.