20 July: Monica Wong; Awards for excellence; Reich's KFW farewell
“Hi Monica. How’s my portfolio and how’s your lawsuit?” - Gossip from Euromoney's Awards for Excellence dinner and KfW's Hans Reich farewell dinner - Natwest Three's legal PR specialist
I love to dance. I even wrote an opinion editorial for the Financial Times about dancing entitled “Trading bonds for ballet”. My teacher was once a ballerina with the Dutch National Ballet. I pay her £16 an hour to transform me from an elephant into an elegant silhouette. Nothing noteworthy, as regards silhouette or story, so far. Hong Kong, however, is buzzing with news of another female banker who loves to dance. Those who count on the island have been avidly scanning the South China Morning Post for updates on a tale that is stranger than fiction. Monica Wong, HSBC’s head of private banking in Asia, is suing her former Latin dance instructor, Mirko Saccani, and his wife, Gaynor Fairweather, for the return of HK$62 million (approx US$8 million). This represents a prepayment of fees under a HK$120 million contract that guaranteed Monica eight years of unlimited dance lessons and competitions with Mr Saccani.
The mature banker apparently turned to Latin dance “looking for the last bit of glory in life”. However, Monica decided to terminate the contract after Saccani allegedly commanded “move your arse”, called her a “lazy cow” and threatened to throw her out of the window. This tender exchange between pupil and instructor took place in front of a crowd of spectators at the Li Hua restaurant in Causeway Bay in 2004.
Monica is 61 and Mirko is some 30 years younger. My contact, a glamorous adornment on the Hong Kong party circuit, describes Wong as “An iron butterfly who doesn’t look her age”.
The whole episode is embarrassing to Wong and her bank. An extremely high profile trial is hardly the hallmark of discretion, a virtue we normally associate with private banking. What do clients say? “Hi Monica. How’s my portfolio and how’s your lawsuit?”
Of course, it’s reassuring that heads of private banking are once again doing well and have millions to squander on esoteric hobbies. Perhaps I am narrow-minded in querying such disbursements. If Wong collected impressionist art, the sums would seem more seemly. We might cheer not chortle. But you have to wonder whether – with all these high kicks, quick steps and turbulent emotions – Ms Wong is really focused on her day job? At one stage, Monica was reported to be taking six dance lessons a day, seven days a week. Clive Bannister, chief executive of HSBC Private Banking, responded “No comment” on the Salsa saga. Monica insists that the litigation will “not affect my passion for dancing” and returned to work at the end of June after the two-week trial. More of La Wong in a future column once the judge has decided who tripped who up, as it were.
There was much partying – and, later, dancing – at the Euromoney Awards for Excellence dinner last Thursday. Despite the tumbling markets, the mood was ebullient. I was seated between Johnny Cameron, head of corporate markets at Royal Bank of Scotland, and Bob Wigley, chairman of Merrill Lynch, Europe. Both men were charming. Johnny and I had a lot of catching up to do. We had not seen each other for 17 years. Bob, who acted for Philip Green when Green bid for Marks & Spencer in 2004, insisted that his job was similar to that of a doctor: confidentiality is key. So, sadly, I got no gossip from him. Merrill Lynch, however, was out in force that night: Greg Fleming, president of global markets and investment banking, had interrupted his family beach holiday on the Amalfi Coast to be there, collected Merrill’s award for best investment bank and made a blissfully short speech. A few tables away, I glimpsed the dishy Italian Andrea Orcel, Merrill’s co-head of EMEA global markets and investment banking. Italians may recently have been mired in scandal (both on the football field and in the banking arena) but the men can always turn heads. That intangible combination of swarthy masculinity and “nuovo uomo” emotionalism is irresistible. A Gallic touch was given to the proceedings when Philippe Citerne, CEO of Société Générale appeared on the podium to collect the award for best bank.
Talking of Gallic flair, there was even a rare public glimpse of Pierre LaGrange, one of the founding partners of secretive but hugely successful GLG Partners – a man who, according to Alpha magazine, earned a paltry $85 million last year. I didn’t get to meet Pierre but I am reliably informed he was delightful and very down to earth. But then again, I guess he can afford to be.
Johnny Cameron lamented that today’s senior figures in the financial industry are pallid compared with those of previous decades. I have some sympathy with his view. Men like Dan Tyree, Hansgeorg Hoffmann, Charlie McVeigh (who was actually at the Euromoney dinner) and Don Roth were colourful, eccentric and ever so slightly politically incorrect. All most un-Sarbanes-Oxley and refreshing.
Last Thursday saw a clash of engagements for some bankers. The Euromoney party in London Bridge or dinner in Berlin with KfW? The institutional great and good were out in force to say farewell to Hans Reich, chairman of the KfW board. Chuck Prince of Citigroup, Jürgen Fitschen of Deutsche Bank, Walid Chammah of Morgan Stanley, and Bill Harrison of JPMorgan Chase mingled with lesser mortals such as Paul Hearn (“Why was he at the top table?” one rival queried. “He seemed ill at ease and lowered the average compensation of the table considerably.”), Allegra Berman, Brian Lawson and Giles Hutson. Peter Wuffli, chief executive of UBS, was also there. “He looks as if he just graduated from high school,” one elder statesman sniffed before adding: “The star-studded guest list shows how important KfW has become in the capital markets. A lot of that is down to Reich.”
“I did not realize Chuck Prince was so large,” another Mole reported. “He’s definitely a two-seat belt man.” I tried to explain to him that Chuck probably never suffered the indignity of flying commercial. But mole had already moved on to describe the competitive jostling next morning for seat 1 A on the BA 7.30 flight back to London. When I hear about these dawn occurrences, I’m so glad I’m no longer a banker! In fact, I remember my ex-boss, Bob Diamond, now president of the Barclays group, saying gently: “Mornings are obviously not your strong point, Abigail”, as I stumbled onto the trading floor, ashen and hung over, at ten to ten one morning.
Many thanks to those who wrote in to sympathize with my trenchant views on the Natwest Three. “The first sensible piece,” hurrumphed one dedicated reader. “It’s been difficult to stop myself from throwing up on the morning train as I read the Daily Telegraph coverage of the affair.” While researching the story, I discovered that the three former bankers have a legal public relations specialist working on their behalf. It’s interesting how easily the media can be manipulated, isn’t it? Or to put it another way, the best form of defence is attack!
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