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Opinion

Abigail with attitude: Barclays and the Brand of Bob

I was lunching at Cecconi’s with my friend Richard. Cecconi’s is an Italian restaurant in Mayfair frequented by hedge fund hotties, Latvian lovelies with pneumatic mammaries and the odd voyeur such as myself. Dame Marjorie Scardino, chief executive of publishing group Pearson – or her doppelganger – was at the next table. Regretfully, under my Cecconi classification system, she falls into the voyeur category. Well she’s hardly a buxom Latvian is she? Richard is the brother I never had. He is funny, clever, irreverent and, in his spare time, a successful investment banker. If he weren’t one of my closest friends, I would hate him for the insouciance of it all.

Richard was regaling me with some of the marriage jokes circulating in Canary Wharf. This follows a spate of English legal judgements regarding the division of spoils when matrimony goes sour. “My wife and I were happy for 20 years. Then we met.” Or more risqué: “Always talk to your wife while you’re making love... if there’s a phone handy.”

We were sitting by the window. A house-on-wheels-type of car drew up. This monstrosity disgorged a lithe young woman with pink streaks in her hair. I recognized the streaks. “It’s Tara Bernerd,” I murmured more to myself than Richard. Tara is one of the infamous London it-girls who were very much on the scene 10 years ago but famous only for being on the scene. According to an acquaintance who mixed in these elevated circles, it-girls wore vertiginous heels, partied intensely and ate very little. “Most of them are ‘anas’ as in anorexics,” my mole, a dumpling of a creature, hissed spitefully.

The surprise sighting of Tara started me thinking about brand: not brand as in business but brand as in personal. The concept of individual brand has infiltrated management thinking. Tom Peters, the doyen of business gurus, has written a whole book on the subject: The Brand You 50. Personal brands need to be authentic, consistent, and relevant. Or, as Peters trumpets: “In today’s wild wired world, you’re distinct... or extinct. Survive, thrive, triumph by becoming Brand You.”

Take Tara for example, she’s the daughter of a tycoon (Elliott Bernerd, founder of property company Chelsfield), married to lounge lizard James Archer, a former CSFB trader, (remember the Flaming Ferraris? A flamboyant gang of bankers named after their favourite rum cocktail). James’s father is of course the disgraced Tory peer Jeffrey Archer who has a penchant for prostitutes, writing novels and rewriting history. Tara is an interior designer with her own company. She promotes herself as determined and hard-working. But there is a dissonance in her personal brand. Her lifestyle implies a nymphet who nibbles, not a dreary, career girl. And the pink hair extensions shriek: wild, funky, daring – not demure, detail-orientated, grafter.

From Tara, my mind (always a bit of a mountain goat on a frolic of its own) leapt to Bob Diamond. Robert E Diamond Junior is president of the Barclays group and chief executive of Barclays Capital. Bob is the most high profile banker in England and, probably, Europe. In recent years he has given a lot of press interviews. Too many, some say. One source huffed: “Doesn’t he realize that real players pay people to keep them out of the press?”

“The thing about Bob,” I said to Richard between mouthfuls of meatballs, “is that he’s crossed over.” Richard looked horrified. His blue eyes blinked rapidly and he flapped his hands in the air: “Not dressing surely?” he spluttered. “Don’t be ridiculous,” I snapped as one only can to a friend of 20-something years. “What I mean is even housewives in Hendon have heard of him, or rather how much he earns. He’s no longer just a City phenomenon. He’s a brand. Nigella the sexy cook. Bob the golden banker.”

My editor put it more elegantly: “Bob’s transformation from reticent Morgan Stanley i-banker to hero on the podium at Stamford Bridge (and on first-name terms with half the Chelsea football team) is one of the more remarkable stories.” This was an oblique reference to Mr Diamond presenting the Premiership Trophy to the Chelsea football team this spring. Barclays sponsors the tournament.

I might not know anything about football but I do know that Bob’s journey has been an interesting one. He joined Barclays in 1996. In fact he was employed by its investment banking subsidiary, BZW. BZW was short for Barclays de Zoete Wedd. But even those of us who worked there couldn’t remember how to spell this convoluted concoction and most clients had a nervous breakdown trying to articulate the name. ‘ Barclays, zit and webb’ , ‘ Cartleys de boot,’ ‘ Carpet, Zut,’ they would stutter before lapsing into embarrassed silence. As a marketing officer, how I longed for the crisp, bullet-like, efficiency of a bulge-bracket moniker: Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs!’ Bob obviously felt the same way. As soon as he got the opportunity, he changed the name of the firm to Barclays Capital.

Mr Diamond spent the first part of his career in the rarified echelons of Morgan Stanley and CSFB. It was, I imagine, a cloistered world of apple-pie clichés (“there’s no I in team”), testosterone-fuelled trading and lavish living. If you work for Morgan Stanley, it’s easy for others to pigeon-hole you: “preppy, risk-averse, rich”. Therefore Bob’s decision to join a third-tier, masquerading as a second-tier, sleepy British merchant bank was extraordinary. But then Mr Diamond is beyond the ordinary.

“He has a thousand-watt charisma and a backbone of steel,” one commentator enthused, mixing metaphors in an effort to describe the great man. Nevertheless, I’m sure that in 1996 (a mere 10 years ago), many of Mr Diamond’s blinkered American colleagues were shaking their heads sorrowfully: “BZW? Never heard of it. Poor Bob, he’s lost his way. Bit of a loser really...” Oh sweet Schadenfreude. How wrong can you be? Next week more on the brand of Bob as B grapples with A.

Eleven in the morning London time on Tuesday and my editor is already on e-mail from New York: “Can you believe this Abigail? I’m meant to have a 10am meeting with Lloyd Blankfein today. I got up at 4.30 to prepare for it and what do I find – an e-mail from their head of PR at 10pm last night cancelling the meeting? Alter your column, let’s put your stiletto into Goldman.”

As I was agonizing about putting my Brand of Bob bons mots into storage and jumping on the let’s bash Goldman bandwagon, another e-mail arrives: “Stick with the original draft. Paulson has been made US Treasury Secretary. I suppose that’s a reasonable excuse.” Don’t you long for the days before e-mail and mobile phones when one could go incommunicado and evade the tentacles of energetic bosses for hours on end? Next week, I will examine Hank Paulson’s legacy and what the future holds for Goldman.

From one very British institution, BZW, to another – the Gulls’ Eggs City Luncheon held at the Merchant Taylors’ Hall on May 16. Singer & Friedlander (an obscure British banking group now owned by Icelanders) sponsors the lunch and the money raised goes to Macmillan Cancer Relief. The buffet selection is trenchantly British, (gull eggs, smoked salmon, cheddar cheese and fruit cake) and the crowd is definitively old City – Throgmorton Street as opposed to Grosvenor Square. There was not a hedge fund manager in sight. Over lunch, I chatted to the legendary Brian Winterflood, chairman of Winterflood Securities. Brian has worked as a market-maker dealing in British small-company stocks for more than 40 years. He was in a cautious mood: “I don’t trust these markets,” he said. “I’ve told the boys, don’t go long. It’s going to be a rough ride.”

The next day, the FTSE 100 fell 170 points and European equities suffered their worst one-day fall in three-and-a-half years. Commentators are divided as to whether any up-tick will represent an excellent buying opportunity or a dead-cat bounce. 

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