The Writers: Felix Salmon
Inside the reality distortion field – September 2003.
By Felix Salmon
It started with a tip from a well-connected, if slightly mysterious, Colombian businessman. Had I heard that Violy was in trouble? I should look into that.
I hadn’t heard. In truth, I had only the vaguest of ideas who ‘Violy’ even was. But as I started making calls, I found no shortage of people willing to tell me.
Violy McCausland was arguably the most notorious investment banker of her era. A bold and tireless Colombian with extremely sharp elbows, she seemed to be the best friend of every owner and chief executive of a multi-billion-dollar Latin American family-owned company.
Violy carved out a highly lucrative business advising Latin America’s most powerful men on M&A and capital markets issuance, while paying no attention to the hundreds of toes she stepped on along the way.
In her most famous operation, she worked with Gustavo Cisneros, who owned the Cisneros Group Pepsi bottling operations in Venezuela. She negotiated a deal, in extreme secrecy, to switch his operations to Coca-Cola literally overnight – wiping out Pepsi’s presence in the country.
One day stores and supermarkets around the country were receiving Pepsi; the next day, they found themselves buying Coke. Literally, Violy changed the entire nation from Pepsi drinkers to Coke drinkers overnight.
Violy’s weakness, always, was spending. An avid art collector, she almost always flew private, once taking two private jets to a meeting in Bogota. (The second, she explained, was a decoy.)
One source described her to me as: “The only person I’ve ever seen spend a million dollars in a day.” Inevitably, her expenditure started running ahead of her revenues and eventually her boutique investment bank, Violy Byorum & Partners, fell apart.
Reporting the story was hard in some ways. While dozens of individuals were more than happy to talk to me, none of them would do so on the record, and ultimately I ended up relying heavily on court filings. Finding sources, on the other hand, was incredibly easy. I would simply call up just about anybody who had ever worked with Violy, and, after promising them that I wouldn’t use their name, lean back and let the stories flow.
I was on my second tour at Euromoney. The first started in 1995, when I accepted a graduate traineeship alongside Elisa Martinuzzi, who went on to a stellar career at Bloomberg. My career was less stellar. I didn’t show much aptitude for reporting, but I was OK at editing other people’s writing.
The ability to snark about other journalists’ solecisms would serve me well once blogging was invented, but at the time Euromoney declined to offer me a full-time job and I ended up freelancing there for a year or so before moving to New York for a doomed dot-com. That job then led into a gig covering Latin America for an equally doomed newswire, Bridge News. Eventually, after Bridge fired me, Euromoney let me cover Latin America for them, once again on a freelance basis. The editors were always in the market for juicy stories, especially when the big September issue was approaching.
Peter Lee, the editor then, ended up calling my subject ‘Consensus-shy Violy’ in the headline, which was a polite way of saying that she pretty systematically alienated just about everybody she worked with.
Kick enough people on the way up and they will line up gleefully to stab you on your way down.
The only person who didn’t want to talk to me was Violy herself. It took months before I was finally invited to her office, and that only happened once it was clear that I knew the whole story and had talked to everyone.
Once I entered her famous reality distortion field, she persuaded me that I shouldn’t count her out entirely – that she had at least one more big act ahead of her in her career. Thus the Euromoney headline also talked about her starting afresh, at a time when many of her former colleagues were gleefully writing her off.
The critics were wrong and Euromoney was right: Violy & Company continues to this day. I was just lucky enough to find the briefest of moments when its survival was in enough doubt that sources would be honest with me.
Anybody seeking to profile Violy today would, I’m sure, have no difficulty finding dozens of people to say glowing things, on the record, about her professionalism and work ethic. That is normally what happens when you try to write about successful bankers.
Writing about failing bankers, it turns out, can be much more fun. And more than a decade later, in 2014, I ended up working at a media company top-heavy with Colombians, some of whom I remembered from the Violy days.
Latin American business, it turns out, is a very small world indeed, as Violy, more than anybody, well knows.
Felix Salmon is chief financial correspondent for Axios and host of the Slate Money podcast. He has worked for Fusion, Reuters, Condé Nast Portfolio, Roubini Global Economics and Bridge News.