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OPINION

Sept 21: How I fell in love with Sumner Redstone

Missed or missing at the IMF? The bank chairman that sought my company; Money (or a luxury yacht) doesn't make you happy; Why Swiss private bankers are the ultimate butlers.

I am sulking. Everyone except me was in Singapore last weekend for the IMF/World Bank annual meetings. The column I wrote about my exclusion elicited both condolences and congratulations. “Am I lucky to be going to Singapore?” mused one chief. A Brazilian reader grumbled: “Sadly, Abigail, you got it right ...One up for time-wasting!” And then there was the exquisitely crafted message from an investment bank chairman: “Dear Abigail,” went the e-mail, “Why don't you fly with me to Singapore? It would make an intolerably long and boring flight an entertaining excursion and at least people would talk to me because they will all want to pay their respects to you.” As the chairman is the best-connected man I know, I commend his humility. But I doubt that he lacked conversation partners or admirers for his Singapore sojourn.

I, however, decided to go to Sardinia. After all, it is also an ‘S’ destination. When he heard of my leper status, my friend Frankie said: “Sweetie, I’ll send the private plane for you. Join me on the yacht for the weekend.” He cut short my coos of gratitude with a curt: “You’ll have to make your own way home. Easyjet fly out of Olbia.”

Six of us flew on a Cessna XL from Northolt, a military airbase near London. We drove up to a small building that served as a departure hall. No queues, no delays, no stress. Formalities took five minutes. Everyone was smiling. When we went through security, an official apologized for having to give us a body search. “We’re going to get rid of this as soon as possible,” he said, patting me perfunctorily. Life, I have noticed, is a trajectory where the luxuries become necessities. And as far as I’m concerned, the only thing I want for Christmas is a private plane.

Contrast my travel heaven with the travel hell that IMF-bound bankers experienced at Heathrow last Thursday evening. A source telephoned to say that the throngs had been intolerable. Bad-tempered bankers were everywhere. Chief executives waving coveted BA black cards were ignored. Cries of “Do you know who I am?” were met with apathetic shrugs from harassed attendants. And that was before the “squeezed like sardines” flight and the misery of acute jet lag. As Mole rang off, I felt smug. Sometimes, it pays to be a contrarian.

Back to bucolic Sardinia and grown men’s toys. Frankie had chartered the Felicita west, a 210-foot Perini Navi yacht that is owned by an English billionaire. The vessel cost about €40 million to build. But if you charter her for a week, you will squander a mere €250,000. In today’s world of mass and massing affluence, the greatest privilege is privacy. And can you overpay for this?

Luxury is to the Felicita west as thin is to Victoria Beckham. We’re talking different leagues. There were 12 crew padding after six guests. Every wish was catered for, from wi-fi access (for my column) to a treadmill (for my expanding girth). Skipper “Hutch”, a doughty Glaswegian, had the unbending manner of one used to handling the capricious rich. Hutch and Frankie circled each other warily like two lions marking out their territory. Who was in charge? The captain of the sea or the captain of industry?

The master bedroom spanned 41 foot – twice the size of my living room in London. Unfortunately when you opened the door, an unidentifiable, pungent odour hit you. Fastidious Frankie wrinkled his nostrils, inhaled deeply and pronounced the smell unacceptable. He relocated to the only unoccupied cabin, which was also the smallest, muttering darkly about a refund. Lesson to aspiring investment bankers – money doesn’t make you happy.

Sumner Redstone, Viacom
Sumner Redstone’s tip for a long and healthy life? A meagre diet. “Starved cats live longer than fat cats,” he opined recently before gloating: “I prefer to be a starved cat”

And talking of money entwined with the letter S, I may be falling in love with billionaire Sumner Redstone, chairman of media companies CBS and Viacom. When will they make the movie, I ask myself? The feisty 83-year-old is incorrigible and indomitable. Fresh from firing film star Tom Cruise, the tycoon parted company with another Tom – Tom Freston, the chief executive (until early September) of Viacom. As Freston, one of the founders of MTV, limped off stage, Sumner snapped at a Financial Times reporter: “If you guys expect me to leave this earth tomorrow, forget it.”

Some speculate that the demise of Freston was due to an insufficiently aggressive acquisition strategy. Last year, News Corporation beat Viacom to buy the social networking site MySpace. But in the wings waits Shari, Sumner’s talented daughter. Shari is currently president of the Redstone family holding company, National Amusements Inc. While building up the 1,400-cinema chain, Shari told Business Week: “Sleep is something you can eventually get to, but a missed deal is lost for ever.” Oh please! This macho jockeying by women is so eighties and so over! Note to Shari: get a life and get some sleep.

Like daughter, like father, I suppose. Redstone doesn’t seem to need much sleep either and claims that he has never felt better. He rises regularly at 5am and sprints to his exercise bike where he pedals feverishly for 35 minutes. His exercise regime finishes with a 20-minute power swim in his pool. Sumner’s tip for a long and healthy life? A meagre diet. “Starved cats live longer than fat cats,” he opined recently before gloating: “I prefer to be a starved cat. There’s no chance of me retiring.”

I thought of indefatigable Sumner when I read that age discrimination is to be outlawed in the UK next month. Under the Employment Equality (Age) Regulations 2006, it will be illegal for employers to force workers to retire early on age-related grounds. This must be worrying for the investment banking industry, which is as allergic to the ageing process as is Holywood. What do you think?

I don’t know Mr Redstone but I have met other wealthy, self-made men. They are control freaks who operate in one mode only: arrogant overdrive. So managing money for moguls must be a nightmare from which you never awake. “Private bankers,” my best friend sniffed. “They’re basically servants. And Swiss private bankers are the ultimate butlers.” Do the Swiss do it better? Switzerland has built its reputation around chocolate and secrecy. Think: bulimia nervosa hotspot (chocolate combined with secrecy) for the loaded. But as every financial institution rushes into private banking, is Swiss hegemony a mirage?

Next week: more on the ultimate butler brigade. And gambolling with impunity, investment banks go on-line gambling. Please send news and views to abigail@euromoney.com.

See more from Abigail Hofman

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