The author of theibanker.com left his investment bank to run his own business. We met for a coffee plus some healthy breakfast in South Kensington. He is a confident man in his early 30s.“Some of my most vivid memories have to do with layoffs. You can be fired and literally out of the door in less than five minutes. Even worse: they just block your security pass. Some mornings I’d walk up to the turnstile thinking, this could be it. My pass won’t work and the security guard will tell me that somebody will send my stuff by post. My pass did fail several times, but in each instance because it was old or damaged.
“With the big redundancies the bank is required to announce that it’ll be curtains for some. At least you expect it. One redundancy round went like this: a senior banker would call his PA and ask her to walk over to the victim and have them pick up a particular line on their phone. Then the victim was asked to quietly collect their personal items – the rest would be sent by post – and come up to a particular room. So we would sit there, and hear the PA’s phone ring. One time I collected my things beforehand, just in case, because I had had a really bad argument with my line manager a few weeks prior. That time the PA headed straight for me. I started getting up when she put her hand on my shoulder: ‘You’re cool.’ Part of me was hoping it would be me. As if I needed someone else to unchain me.
“I saw many people cry. One time, a very popular guy on our team was let go. It took everyone by surprise because this dude was not only very nice, professional and dedicated but he actually made a lot of money for the team. His eyes welled up and I’m sure he broke out in tears when he left the floor. Moments after his departure, his desk was cleared and the head of our team got up to say something to the effect: “He was a great guy but business is business and let’s get back to work and make some money.” So a guy you’ve spent X number of years sitting next to for most of your days since joining suddenly disappears and that’s it … back to business. New faces spring up all the time. I’d think someone a few seats away was on holiday but then a new face would take his or her seat and role soon after. At first it’s a bit weird. My boss used to say: “Every day you’re getting closer to getting fired.”
“After being made redundant it’s easier for junior bankers to bounce back. I launched a few businesses after banking and the skills gained earlier came in very handy.
For senior guys it’s different. They’re trying to squeeze into a pyramid where there are very few spots. Plus, they have become hardwired in a particular way. I remember one global head who mentioned he was thinking of launching a start-up with a friend or two and would ‘get their hands a little dirty’. I remember laughing inside. He couldn’t function a minute without his PA there to carry his papers, hand him a tissue when he had food stuck to his lips, pay his children’s school fees and buy a birthday gift for his wife.
“I worked in the bank throughout the recent crisis. Fear of losing one’s job was rampant. You had to work even harder and with a bigger smile on your face. It’s insane because even under normal conditions you could be clocking in 100-plus hours per week. Often I’d suddenly get up out of bed an hour or more early. Adrenaline. I dreamt about Excel files and PowerPoint. Freud’s notion that dreams express some kind of sexual desire can go straight to the bin.
“You’d have cockfights about who sacrificed most. This Italian chap had just been fired. He was generously given a few weeks to hang out and try to find a role in another division. So I see him confront a managing director. At one point he tells the MD he was so dedicated to the job he even missed his grandmother’s funeral to work on a deal. The MD quickly retorts: ‘I missed my father-in-law’s funeral!’
‘Somebody gets treated like shit all day by his line manager, we’d go for a drink and he’d still speak very fondly of him.’
“There is something of the Stockholm syndrome, where juniors end up identifying with the people giving them hell. Somebody gets treated like shit all day by his line manager, we’d go for a drink and he’d still speak very fondly of him. You’d get shat upon for days by your line manager, then one day he’d say something halfway nice and you’d feel elated. Again, not all seniors were like that. My first line manager probably said hello to me less than five times my first six months on the job. The person who sat between us was always late so it’s not like there was a barrier. It was just business. We were there to make money, not friends.
“You get the kindest guys and the most heartless bastards. Like anywhere else. But the environment changes attitudes and behaviour. You’re far too immersed in a world motivated by making money with money to not change, however little. You need to actively work at it to stay grounded. You’re working on billion-dollar deals, for a firm that spends more money on stationery than some companies make in revenues. You’re flown around in business class, eating at the most expensive restaurants on business, etc.
“People were always on the phone making reservations. Table for four here, table for six there. The restaurant business in London must love bankers. Some guys would come in on Mondays with the bills from the weekend. Dropping a thousand pounds on a night out was not surprising. Not everyone was like this. Many of us spent weekends at home, cooking a meal. But you definitely had more than a few bankers who rolled into a lounge thinking they were Thomas Crown.
‘The big banks are worlds unto themselves and you’re a – temporary – citizen. Their logos are your country flag, their motto your national anthem.’
“The big banks are worlds unto themselves and you’re a – temporary – citizen. Their logos are your country flag, their motto your national anthem. There is a lottery element to it all. The lucky ones join top teams from the start, the way some people are born into rich families. Sure, you could move to a top team even if you started in back office but it’s tough. People on top like the status quo. It’s a jungle.
“Theatrics should not be overlooked. Over drinks a senior banker once recommended I be more aggressive and swear at the littlest oversight. “People will see you as highly motivated to make money and they’ll want to keep you,” he said. Half of his time on the phone was spent yelling to get things done faster. He cursed like Al Pacino in Scarface. Others would comment “man, that guy is committed to the job”. My senior banker also said if I wanted to get paid real money, I needed to look like I wanted real money. If I wore a cheap watch they’d think I’d be happy with a 100-dollar bonus.
“The whole compensation system is very sophisticated. For instance, you’ll get a good bonus but never enough to leave. Because that would destroy the bank. Its biggest asset is the people. They want you to keep chasing the precious carrot. I wouldn’t be surprised if they hired psychologists to improve bankers’ performances and increase their resilience to the stress of the job.
“The futile acts of resistance. You were allowed to order in a meal after 8pm, so people would hang on till 8.01pm and then order a nice meal. You could take a taxi from work paid for by the bank. Who were we kidding? This stuff actually ropes you further in.
“Many investment bankers are into extreme sports. Perhaps to counter the stress. You have people running a six-day ultra-marathon in the desert. Triathlons, climbing Kilimanjaro, etc. I’d say it’s also about personal credentials and league tables – look at me having done this and that. Others in the bank then feel “I have to do this, too”. The great thing is that they raise money for charity.
“Anyone could do this job. It’s different for quants, who need to be very strong in maths, but most of investment banking anyone can do – with enough practice and stamina. The mystique about a banker being an X-Man isn’t true. The media are partly responsible for that.
You’re surrounded by a lot of intelligence. The sector attracts talent from all over the world.
“A few things I miss. You’re surrounded by a lot of intelligence. The sector attracts talent from all over the world. You want to learn about commodities, Middle East politics, tax loopholes, shipping … you pick up the phone and you get PhD-level knowledge on the end of the line.
Then the headline-grabbing deals. It’s all over the news and you’re part of it. I also miss the efficiency. The banks were well-oiled machines. We’d sit there and boom, another billion-dollar deal done. Next, another billion-dollar deal. That’s one reason why it’s hard to set up your own advisory boutique after leaving a big investment bank. Clients go with established institutions and their brand power.
“In essence, an investment banker resembles a magician – his greatest trick is the disappearance and reappearance of money, an illusion he aptly executes with nicely designed and immaculate literature and an arsenal of free-flowing industry jargon intelligible mainly to his own circle. The investment banker contrasts with the magician in his finale – the reappearance seldom matches the original; he lubricates the passage of capital with very sticky fingers. (That’s a definition I have used on my blog.)
“Overall we provided a good service, helping to raise money for governments, corporations and financial institutions. If we made some money off that, all the better. We weren’t screwing them over, if only out of self-interest. There’s a self-correcting mechanism here, with reputational risk. A utility company could bring in millions in revenue each year. Such a relationship takes long to establish. All in all, however, nothing was done unless it would bring in money directly or indirectly, either today or in the future.
“Sometimes I bump into former colleagues at Canary Wharf. They treat me almost like a patient, saying: ‘Are you all right?’ They think life after banking is no life at all. When you’re immersed in that world you can’t imagine life on the outside. It creates a fear of the outside and consequently obedient soldiers.
“Time is money but, more importantly, it is life. That’s what bankers need to ask themselves when they’re sacrificing the best years of their lives. If they truly love the job, it’s fine. But I assure you they are a small minority.”
This page guides you to the top five best-read, most-liked, most-tweeted and most-commented on of the 70-plus interviews so far.
“Some of my most vivid memories have to do with layoffs.” This employee relations manager does the firing. Read her hair-raising testimony here: “When the call comes, people know right away.”
“For senior guys it’s different. They’re trying to squeeze into a pyramid where there are very few spots.” This managing director in roughly the same field as the interviewee is very happy in his job: “I would come home from work just when my wife’s morning alarm would go off.”
• Follow @JLBankingBlog on Twitter