“Manners maketh man.’’

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By:
Abigail Hofman
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In today’s disembodied world of text messages and electronic mail, who writes thank you notes for breakfasts?

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The older I become, the more I appreciate this adage. I recently had breakfast at the Wolseley restaurant with Mrs Moneypenny. Mrs Moneypenny writes a light-hearted weekly column for the Financial Times but her day job is head-hunting, a task that she combines effortlessly with being a mother of three children.

I was flattered to learn that Mrs M occasionally receives e-mails asking whether she is me. Mrs M is probably the most energetic and best-connected person I have ever met: during breakfast alone she was greeted or embraced by five other Wolseley munchers. Ever competitive – after all I was once an investment banker – I cast my eye desperately around the crowded restaurant for someone to accost and exchange sweet nothings with. A sea of unfamiliar faces glanced indifferently back at me.

Crestfallen but determined that Euromoney should not be vanquished by the Financial Times, I offered to pay the bill. And we parted the best of friends although I was left with the lingering feeling that I was one of life’s laggards. A week later I received a hand-written thank you note from Mrs M that restored my faith in the human race. In today’s disembodied world of text messages and electronic mail, who writes thank you notes for breakfasts? Well, the answer is: Mrs Moneypenny and, in future, me!

The Oxford dictionary defines etiquette as “the code of polite behaviour in a society”. Good manners are about putting the other person’s needs before your own. But there is always a cultural context. Last week, I met a male friend for drinks in a fashionable wine bar. I arrived slightly late and he was already sitting there with his back to the restaurant. My friend was educated at private school – in England we call it public school – as was I. And we can communicate in an unspoken language. An English gentleman always allows the lady to have the view. This gesture would probably baffle a Japanese or American woman. Divergent backgrounds mean we often travel along parallel tram tracks.

Barclays’ chief executive, John Varley

"It could be John Varley who is dicing with death. History reveals several examples of British banking chiefs who have made bold moves only to fall flat on their noses and into the mud"

Is that how Barclays’ chief executive, John Varley, feels? In late March, the governor of South Africa’s central bank, Tito Mboweni, told a Financial Times journalist that the cultures of Barclays and Absa had yet to gel. Apparently, there is a lot of friction as to whether breakfast meetings should start at 7am (the Afrikaner way) or 9am (the preferred option of the British). Barclays acquired a majority stake in South African bank Absa in July 2005. This transaction was hailed as a significant step to broaden Barclays’ international presence.

I was sceptical. Even though I was born in South Africa and have many reasons to love the country, it’s hardly the centre of the universe – let alone a major financial hub. Mboweni’s moaning is pertinent because Barclays is in the midst of trying to take over ABN Amro. And in case you had forgotten, the Afrikaners are descendants of the Dutch. So if Barclays can’t find cultural harmony with Absa, will it fare any better with ABN? I have never seen the point of breakfast meetings. I find mid-morning coffee much more stimulating. However, this may be because of my feminine and journalistic perspective. Note to Mr Varley – why not go for the macho alternative and suggest to Rijkman Groenink a joint pre-breakfast power-shower?  This tactic would give a whole new meaning to the phrase “joined at the hip”.

And I fear it’s going to be a case of ‘hip-hop’ round the block for certain chief executives of European financial institutions: Baudoin Prot (BNP Paribas), Daniel Bouton (Société Générale), Klaus-Peter Mueller (Commerzbank), Josef Ackermann (Deutsche Bank), Herbert Walter (Dresdner) Brady Dougan (Credit Suisse) Peter Wuffli (UBS), Matteo Arpe (Capitalia), Corrado Passera (Banca Intesa), Francisco Gonzalez (BBVA), Eric Daniels (Lloyds TSB), Michel Tilmant (ING), Rijkman Groenink (ABN Amro) and maybe even John Varley (Barclays). How many of these men will be in the same job in 18 months’ time? During lunch with a senior source, I enquired about the prognosis for the ABN deal. “Irrelevant question,” Source growled. “What matters is that the whole of the European banking industry is now in play. The horses are out of the stable and we will see the creation of a super-league of European financial institutions.” Source speared a morsel of sushi and mused – more to himself than to me – “I wouldn’t be surprised if Credit Suisse is the next to go.”

And talking of people whose tenures have come to an end, Barclays’ former finance director, Naguib Kheraj, had a farewell party last night. The glittering event was held at Spencer House, a private palace built in the 18th century for a forebear of Princess Diana. Kheraj, who is rumoured to be ferociously intelligent, ended his term as finance director last month after 10 years in the Barclays group. The question on everyone’s lips, however, is what is next for numerate Naguib? Some speculate that Mr Kheraj’s future lies at a private equity firm.

Am I the only person to find it odd that Barclays is trying to undertake the largest European banking cross-border takeover with a finance director, Chris Lucas, who has been at the helm precisely 12 days? And rumours that respected finance directors of top public companies might move in to the leveraged buyout industry make me nervous. If you add to this the forthcoming IPO of leading private equity group, Blackstone, we might have a sell signal for the markets as a whole and private equity in particular. What do you think?

Next week: Does Citi have a strategy? Please send news and views to abigail@euromoney.com.


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