The Writers: Brian Caplen
When a door opened to the secretive Rothschild enclave – January 1997.
By Brian Caplen
I remember clearly my first visit to Euromoney’s old offices in Nestor House for a job interview in 1995. It was a beautiful spring day and the sun was shining. But inside it was still winter.
There was a distinct lack of daylight; the office was very much in the pre-online era, with shelves of ring files and piles of old newspapers on desks. A group of weathered journalists were hunched over desks punching stories into vintage computers.
My first instinct on witnessing this scene of industrial toil was to turn around and go straight back out into the sunshine. But my interview with then editor Garry Evans went well and as I went on to write some of the best stories of my career at Euromoney, I was subsequently pleased not to have reacted over hastily.
Garry asked me to do a trial day rewriting the tangled copy of a graduate trainee. With a background in general business rather than finance, this was my first experience of such concepts as backwardation and contango.
I remember feeling overwhelmed by it all and was touched that the graduate trainee in question gave me a bottle of wine as a thank you and Garry gave me a job as surveys editor.
Country surveys were big business and the IMF issue might contain as many as 20 of them. Pulling this monster operation together meant developing relationships with flexible freelancers prepared to hop on a plane at a moment’s notice.
The publisher, Neil Osborn, had a sixth sense, rare among advertising sales execs, of knowing months in advance which of his proposed deals were certs and which were doubtful. This allowed me to organize a very efficient operation, sail through the IMF issue and earn promotion to executive editor.
Finally, I got to work on the in-depth articles that Euromoney was noted for and, crucially, was prepared to devote time and resources to producing. Euromoney was founded and run by former journalists who knew that spending money on travel and entertaining contacts – not fancy offices – was the way to deliver good copy.
I focused mostly on overseas stories and spent a lot of time in Latin America researching cover stories on, for example, the sale of Brazilian investment bank Garantia to Credit Suisse and the restructuring of Argentine conglomerate Bunge amid the machinations of several, colourful, shareholding families.
But the story I wrote with the longest shelf life involved only the shortest of treks – to St Swithin’s Lane, near Bank tube station in the City. I made so many trips to New Court, the offices of Rothschild & Co, that in the end the security guards just waved me through without any checks.
This was not so long after the collapse of Barings in 1995, when questions were being asked about the credibility of family-held independent investment banks such as Rothschilds. Famously secretive, Rothschilds had decided to restructure and reveal more of its balance sheet. The aim was to be more open to the media, but as my research went on it became clear that this was not something they were entirely comfortable with.
The firm rolled out all the big guns. I interviewed both Sir Evelyn de Rothschild, then chairman of Rothschild Continuation Holdings, and Baron David de Rothschild, from the French side of the family and who in 2018 handed over the chairman’s role of the combined French and UK banks (which took place in 2012) to his son Alexandre.
Although cousins, Sir Evelyn, now aged 87, and Baron David, now 75, could not have been more different. The former, English, aristocratic, patrician and uneasy about being grilled by a journalist; the latter, French, charming and relaxed about my questions, even if he supplied rather vague answers.
Rothschilds was only opening up a little and the firm had not really thought through the implications of being put under scrutiny.
When I asked Sir Evelyn about media criticism, he replied: “People have written nasty things about me, I don’t mind it, but they really don’t know the true story. I am not very talkative. I do not want to be in the press every day of the week. I don’t want to have my name glamorized.”
Unfortunately, if your name is Rothschild you don’t really have a choice about being in the media. So my story had some hilarity as in the above quote, but also tragedy as in the previous year another family member Amschel Rothschild, who had been running asset management, committed suicide in Paris, at only 41.
While I can only claim to have scratched the surface of the workings of Rothschilds in my article, many others have followed in my footsteps. For years after, these researchers would read the Euromoney story in preparation and call me to get my thoughts.
The Euromoney name always did, and continues to, open doors, allowing for the publication of many trail-blazing articles over the years. In my case, a door opened in 2000 allowing me to join The Banker magazine where I have remained ever since and where I still draw on the experience gained at Euromoney.
Brian Caplen worked for Euromoney in the 1990s. Since 2000 he has been editor of The Banker, an FT publication.