The Business

(click on image to enlarge)


“To answer or not to answer. That, my dear ibanker, is the question you must ask yourself.”

- Jean-Pierre (A senior investment banker)

Those were the very words that came out of Jean-Pierre’s mouth one Thursday evening at quarter to eight as he got up from his chair to head home after a long day. He was my line manager and, as with people in the business, never gave a moment’s thought to anyone but himself.

I had pulled an all-nighter the night before with but only one little break – when a taxi drove me home at 5:30am so that I could shower, shave and put on a fresh suit. The driver just sat in his car while the meter ran. I was then driven right back so that I could be at my desk by 7:30am. I slept for no more than ten minutes en route to Canary Wharf. Colleagues had already started calling.

So here I am sitting at my desk, having missed out on a much-needed night of sleep, when, just as I’m beginning to think about the lovely prospects of packing up to head home, one of the phone lines on our desk area begins to ring. Oh God.

At this time, there are three of us junior bankers still working away. Custom has it that one of us should answer the phone and do so quickly. You never know, it could be a client, someone from the New York office or another team within the building that needs immediate help. It was an unwritten rule that a phone line should not go unanswered for more than three rings. I’ve seen Managing Directors yell across the room at junior bankers for not jumping at the opportunity to answer. [READ MORE…]


At any one time, I may advise anywhere from a few to ten families, each with a net worth above USD1billion. They are mostly based in London because anyone who lives here knows that the city simply attracts a lot of money, is far more international than most other gateway cities, is geographically central, has an undeniable prestige about it and so on and so forth. Having said that, some of these families also have bases abroad, depending on where they are from or spend a lot of their time.

The sheer amount of wealth these families possess is flabbergasting. Few people actually know who they are and what they own exactly. They not only have drivers, private jets, yachts and other goodies the rest of us only come close to via music videos, magazines and movies, but also an army of specialists ready to serve them such as private bankers, security companies (to look after their personal safety and that of their assets), house staff and more.

Often, their money is managed through what’s called a Family Office, an organization that manages the wealth of an ulta-high net worth individual or a family. A Family Office can be comprised of less than a handful of people, including the individual or family to whom the wealth belongs, up to twenty or more individuals. It varies on a case by case basis.

Different families different cultures

Family Offices allow very few people into their circle for obvious reasons.

Those I presently work with are a colourful bunch. They include: a secretive English family with its hands in multiple sectors in the UK and Europe; an Indian family which owns some of the most luxurious hotel assets in India; a funny Swiss individual whose significant wealth came from technology investments; the Family Office of one of Saudi Arabia’s wealthiest merchant families; a powerful Azeri family with billions in assets; a Mongolian ultra high net worth individual with, amongst other things, mining, hospitality and banking assets; an American family that is one of the largest real estate owners in the nation; and more.

Through my work, and affiliation to one of the largest Family Office platforms in the world, I have come to know many more Family Offices from all over the world. Some I interact with regularly, in person either in London or another international city, while others I see once in a while and tend to speak to over the phone mostly.

These groups differ from larger, more institutionalised organizations in so many ways that it would be far too difficult for me to show it one post. However, one important area I could quickly touch on is how they go about investing their money. Let’s set aside the type (debt or equity), sector (Oil & Gas or Technology), size (USD5m or 50m) and structure of investments they make, and touch on the process they go through in order to arrive at a decision to proceed ahead.

Let me provide two examples: [READ MORE…]


Once upon a time, Roman gladiators fought against one another in massive arenas surrounded by the deafening cries of thousands of blood-thirsty spectators who craved to see no less than blood carpet the ground, gouged eyes brandished like a cowboy’s lasso and decapitated heads affixed to the sharp end of swords like skewered kebabs.

One would need to momentarily turn a blind eye to the fierce brutality of what was once upon a time considered a magnificent sport, if they would like to perceive the noble elements of the game. Just as the crowds used to, long ago. For in their hearts, the audience longed for more than just the sight of blood. With determined eyes, they religiously followed each swing of the mighty sword as it cut through the air toward their opponent’s body. With each breath they impatiently waited to witness the manifestation of ideals and virtues that long confirmed the elegance of the sport.


The crowd held strong admiration for those who fought valiantly and displayed great courage.

When a gladiator put on a good show and revealed integrity, he or she was showered with gifts, honours, sexual partners and even freedom. In other words, the gladiator received a bonus.

Though those days have long gone, except in the imagination of a few poor yet ambitious Hollywood scriptwriters aspiring to bring to life the next great Ancient Roman blockbuster, some practices remain.

Just as many forms of punishment once open to the public moved behind closed doors, so too have some of today’s gladiator games. In particular those that involve financial combatants. Though they are out of sight, they persist within the halls of global investment banks.

Origins and the present

Gladiators usually came from one of two places. They were captured soldiers who had fought and lost against Rome. Or they were slaves. Through their status as gladiators they would have the opportunity to redeem themselves and potentially attain freedom. Perhaps even fame.  [READ MORE…]


Sometimes it’s the painful and annoying experiences you suffer through at work that are most instrumental in promoting your personal growth.

New joiners beware

I can tell you that for me and all of my former colleagues in banking, and I’d say most people working for a large powerhouse investment bank, there was no instruction manual to refer to when, on our first day and not long after we seated ourselves comfortably on what was to become an extension of our rears, some senior banker appeared unannounced and barked an order to have this or that done “NOW” or “ASAP.”

You were never approached with a gentle or friendly “hello”, “excuse me”, “would you mind”, “can you please” or any of that fluffy, time-wasting nonsense. There were exceptions of course, when someone put their hand on your shoulder, smiled and kindly asked you to do something for them. But those events which were few and far in between occurred when you daydreamed for a few seconds at your desk as a coping mechanism before another urgent deadline landed on your desk like a meteor and turned yet another hair on your scalp grey.

Generally, someone just commanded you to get X done in 10 minutes. And trust me when a Managing Director stares right at you with bloodshot eyes, a threatening open mouth and bulging neck veins you begin to stress very quickly. And as soon as he’s done giving his request and turns around you get to work and you call on every single cell in your brain to get their shit together and perform at 100%.

Parkinson’s law

There’s a saying that goes, work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. That’s Parkinson’s law. The time pressure and urgency to complete a task of epic propotions in 10 minutes leads you to become more efficient than you’ve ever thought imaginable.

But it’s not just about a 10-minute deadline which normally takes five people working together an hour to complete. What makes the situation highly challenging and significantly more stressful, is that you’re not given directions on how to carry out the task. Nothing. Nada.

No directions? Isn’t that counterintuitive? Given ibankers work on such important deals wouldn’t it make sense to be instructed properly on what to do? You may ask yourself plenty questions like these. The reason why instructions are not given will be the subject of another article. However, for the purposes of this post, I’d like to highlight how much of a good thing it can be for you not to receive any direction.

If you look past the momentary hell it puts you through and the spike in stress levels your body must adjust to, not to mention the probable onset of an ulcer, it can actually be a very good thing for you in the long run. Before things get good there will be pain. More often than not, lots of it.

Does anyone really think that the superior skills and abilities an ibanker comes to possess through years of experience on the job are intangibles acquired by way of a comfortable and soothing journey? Similar to a lovely evening stroll along the beach somewhere in North Goa? A saunter in Hyde Park. A promenade in Ubud. If only.

Project PORTO

One could fill thousands upon thousands of pages with incidences of tasks assigned with no direction or instruction. As I am in Portugal at present, I am reminded of the time Adam, a senior investment banker covering Portugese banks, appeared at my desk one fine Wednesday morning. [READ MORE…]


It’s showtime. I’d finished a presentation, printed a copy in colour and placed it, correctly stapled – for one could get a lashing even for something as small as a poorly angled stapling job – on the Managing Director’s desk.

I returned to my seat and began working on the next important task on my to-do list. However, concerns about how my presentation will be received played in the back of your mind. I became anxious. There’s nothing you can do but wait. Keep calm and carry on.

Enter the Managing Director (MD)

I noticed the senior banker returned to his desk yet I kept my gaze fixed ahead and pretended to be entirely preoccupied with a financial model.

As expected, he called me over.

“Come here,” he said.

I immediately got up and walked over to him.

Pointing at the document before him he asked, “This is the final draft?”

For a moment I hesitated. Speak up. “Yes.”

He made himself comfortable, threw me a glance which unequivocally said, “You’d better have gone through this doc carefully at least 50 times before putting it in front of my royal ass,” and then began flipping through the document.

Having done this for over 15 years, the MD didn’t struggle to spot mistakes – errors and typos practically jumped out at him, as would a robe-wearing Buddhist monk at a hedge fund conference.

Then came the moment. I was looking over the MD’s shoulder when, as he was carefully perusing a slide, I noticed that I’d misspelled the name of the client in one of the paragraphs. Holy shit. Absolute catastrophe. This kind of mistake generally warranted outright humiliation in front of the whole team. I nearly fainted. Without warning a drop of sweat descended down my forehead and then crashed onto the MD’s back leaving a wet stain. Shit. He sensed something and violently turned and looked up at me. I returned his forceful stare with a puny smile, which an onlooker would have mistaken for constipation. My superior quickly turned round again to resume his critique. I knew I was seconds away from disaster. He’s going to see it. It was imminent. Meanwhile I’d shortened my life by 2-3 days from the stress of being caught.

The MD cried out: “What the f@&k is this!”

The torture of the wait was over. Let him unleash hell. At least I was about to be put out of my misery.



Investment bankers drop out of the business daily and there are plenty of causes for this unfortunate phenomenon. Poor performance tops the list and, come on, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t. Every young banker knows what she or he signs up for before they start. If you don’t perform as you’re expected to you’ll be fired. Very fast.

Another cause of departures has to do with a nasty case of bad luck. If the bank is getting ready to lay off people you could get the short end of the stick. It happens. Investment banks lay off people without mercy. No exaggeration.

Then there are also self-led exits. Say the job becomes so damn overwhelming that you cannot hold up the weight of your responsibilities anymore and so you just give up. You throw in the towel and decide it’s time to get out. Who knows, maybe the real reason is that you want to spend more time with your friends and family; you can’t take any more crap from your boss; or simply because, as you build your 19,000th financial model, it dawns on you that you’ll remember the best years of your life having been spent with Mr. Excel. Whatever your reasons there’s a little trick that can make life a little bit easier at the bank, save you from getting a few additional grey hairs and help you reduce – but just a little – the labour abuse that’s an inevitable part of ibanking. It’s a two-letter word which conveys one of the most powerful human messages. An expression of refusal or denial whose mastery becomes a rite of passage for all successful ibankers who remain in the business and go on to attain great success, perhaps even one day grace the  cover of the Financial Times. That word is “No”.

1) The desire or need to abuse is the natural state of affairs in the jungle of ibanking

A jungle is a wild mass of vegetation but is also a place where animals struggle to survive. You must have thick skin to endure. The tiger doesn’t hesitate to devour a wild pig the moment the latter falls in view. It doesn’t think about little piggy having piggy desires and piggy ambitions and wearing piggy pijamas. It will simply rip the prey in half, walk away and then take a nap, thinking nothing of the slaughter which occurred moments earlier. Piggy was just a means to survival.

Similarly, in an investment bank many bankers won’t give a damn about you or how hard you slave away. You’re a means for them. Your very presence elicits, in them, a desire to give you work. And regardless of how awful, stressed or agitated you look they’ll pile on more work on your plate if they can and won’t think twice about it. I’m not saying they’re heartless bastards. It’s just the nature of the business and people are there to make money. They do what they have to. In fact, it’s very likely that the abuse being dished out was done just as badly to the guy who is doing it to you. And in time you’ll do it to the school of  fresh-faced goldfish that joins the firm.

2) The naturally weak will attract more predators for they are easy prey

Ruthless struggle is part of jungle life. And easy prey is, well let’s be honest, easy. If you’re a starved feline you chase the slow, helpless creature (i.e. meal).

In an ibank’s junior class there will always be a number of young grasshoppers eager to please all. Sadly, in their attempt to demonstrate eagerness, this demographic will be seen as willing and subservient servants. And surely they will be treated as such. They are generally incapable of refusing requests, which in a bank tend to come across more so as commands – remember, ibankers are assertive.

Therefore, when a junior ibanker is identified as a “yes” man or woman they will very likely be given a steady flow of work. More so than their more defensive peers. The “yes” people in time become quite miserable. [READ MORE…]


More Than Just A Word

The word bonus can mean different things to different people. If you were to randomly stop someone in the street and ask them what it meant to them you’d probably get a response along the lines of the following:

“Something extra that’s nice.”

“An amount or sum given in addition to what I expected.”

“An additional prize, award or bit of cash. Expected or unexpected.”

Fair enough. That’s pretty much the textbook definition of a bonus. But we’re not interested in generic, blanket definitions. We’re talking finance here. More importantly, the investment banking side of finance.

To an ibanker, therefore, those above-mentioned answers are dishearteningly superficial. They are the words of one who knows nothing about the long, painful journey of the ibanker.

Alas, living a world that very few understand is part of the ibanker’s burden in his quest for glory and riches.

The most powerful things are difficult to define

From my years in banking I’ve come to know a large number ibankers. Women and men from different countries of the world, emerging and developed alike. From children of European banking dynasties and Chinese real estate magnates to first-in-the-family-with-a-university-degree Americans, Indians and Norwegians with boundless ambition and energy. Thin, tall, fat, short, I saw them in all shades and colors. And despite their personal idiosyncrasies and individual backgrounds none could ever give you a straight answer if you asked them ‘what is a bonus’?

How could some of the sharpest minds on earth stall when asked a straightforward four-word question? Let me emphasise, they included former debate club leaders, chess masters, straight A students (since birth), mental calculators, standardized test aces and even members of rhetorical societies. It didn’t matter. The question would arrest them.

One of the underlying reasons was that only they, that special breed of financiers, felt the overwhelming surge of emotions which came from this highly charged word. They are alone in that respect. [READ MORE…]


Open anytime, any day

Investment bankers make money and make a shitload of it. The economy may be soaring to dizzying heights, streets can be filled with blood or the country may find itself on the precipice of collapse. Just as well, the ibanker will keep printing money.

Fear not for his or her fate my dear reader. The business is such that there will always be an angle to make money. In the worst of times it only means that some ibankers will be forced to walk the plank. Yet the bank, and the lucky, remaining bankers, will carry on doing what they do best: fill the organisation’s coffers. But only after putting clients’ interest first.

Clients first

As all investment bankers will be quick to tell you, one of the cardinal virtues of the business is dedication to clients.

By putting client first and delivering superior services money will continuously flow in, they say.

I can think of few better examples to illustrate an ibank’s uncanny ability to make money then one of my first advisory projects at Paris Berkeley Capital. The client was a large Qatari bank with an annoying problem. We were the doctor ready to diagnose and take away the pain.

Our opening hours were as follows: anytime, any day, and no appointments necessary. We always made time for clients.

An opportunity knocks

It was a morning like any other. I was in the middle of preparing one of a handful of presentations imminently due when, all of a sudden, Mario, one of the Managing Directors in my team, walks up to me, taps me on the shoulder and asks me to follow him into a meeting. He didn’t have to ask, I brought along a notepad and pen. By now it was second nature. I was so used to being given a shitload of work at any moment that I even carried pen and paper to the toilets.

We took the elevator to the floor reserved for important client meetings. Mario knocked twice and opened the door. We entered the room and proceeded with introductions. The CEO of the Qatari bank struck me as a distinguished  gentleman. I later learned that he was a close confidant of the Emir of Qatar and a very influential man in the Gulf. His countenance suggested to me that the nature of the meeting was of utmost importance so I was particularly attentive from the moment I took my seat…




A covert operation tasked with a mission to increase bankers’ resilience to stress so they work harder and longer for the bank, the Comprehensive Banker Fitness (CBF) programme made startling discoveries about the race of pitchbook monkeys soon after its genesis. The psychologists that headed the team were absolutely hysteric about it.

Generously funded by banks, this clandestine division, which falls somewhere between the HR department and the executive committee, though one can only surmise, began to catalogue, study and analyse different conditions suffered by the foot soldiers of the business, analysts and associates. The one which intrigued the psychologists the most was what became known as “ibanker syndrome.”

A most fascinating condition

At some point or another nearly every member of the banker subspecies race fell prey to it. Most survived the ordeal and got on with life just fine, while others were permanently scarred.

You’d possibly mistake it for the Stockholm syndrome. The weak are repeatedly beaten and cursed by the strong and by some strange twist of neurological circuitry, in time the former began to feel positively toward the latter.

In banking, however, the beaten develop an even stronger attraction for their superior. Some would even call it love. That is because the tremendous weight and intensity of those – often unexpected – diatribes and lashes thrown upon the junior bankers penetrated so deep in the psyche that a powerful bond emerged between master and slave.


{ 1 comment }