Shocked by the antics on BBC TV’s bank drama Industry? The real Square Mile was even WORSE in the 80s, says one survivor
IT was 1985 and the Big Bang was transforming the Square Mile from a cosy gentlemen’s club of bowler-hatted Home County-dwellers who caught the 4pm train back to Tunbridge Wells, into a cut-throat arena of sharp-suited, fast-talking, moneyhungry types from across the pond.
They brought with them entirely different business ethics – or rather, lack of ethics. Their focus on short term profits liberated them from antiquated constraints of probity, shame and soundness.
It all came flooding back to me in the first moments of BBC Two’s new drama Industry which depicts naked ambition, sex, drugs, lies and lethal overwork among a band of young bankers, fighting for a handful of jobs at a City investment bank. Because back then, I was one of the first female investment bankers to break into that gilded money pit. I was recruited, like the spies of old, at Oxford University during the so-called “milk round” when big financial firms scooped up ambitious undergraduates with offers of money beyond the dreams of avarice.
During my first three months in London I worked three weekends out of four on a deal as one member of my four-person team went down with glandular fever, and another got married before a long honeymoon, leaving just me and the most senior member, who was charismatic, brilliant and congenial, and also an alcoholic.
I headed off to the company’s New York HQ to begin the official training programme. The bank infamously sacked 40 per cent of participants during this six-month period. To succeed, someone else must fail. My particular training was modelled on a mini MBA. We were regularly given assignments that required us to pull all-nighters. We needed to get A grades for every one of these. Two Bs in a row meant we’d be on the next plane home.
I remember being given a B for an assignment which I profoundly believed was an A. I pulled another almighty all-nighter, secured an A and kept my place while others around me didn’t. I learnt not to fear these marathons. They were manageable, albeit grisly, and I was to repeat them regularly for real when I returned to London.
I remember one where I was tasked with pricing up acquisition targets for a certain, now disgraced, mogul – Robert Maxwell. He was infamous for pouncing upon a potential target, ringing us and saying: “I’m considering taking over company X. I want a proposal on my desk tomorrow morning.” I would pull the all-nighter, go back home and shower, return and present my findings to a team of eight – Maxwell, my boss and a few flunkies from his side.
One time, tired, hungry, in need of sharpening, I lit a cigarette and began to smoke. Cue horrified looks from around the table. “No smoking,” bellowed Maxwell. “But you’re smoking,” I observed, pointing to his smouldering cigar. He gave me a long look, then burst out laughing. From then on, he let me smoke. I was the only one at the table who did apart from him. A small victory.
Nicotine was my drug. I could not drink whilst doing my job. I would never have had the energy or the clarity of thought to pull it off. I didn’t take drugs either, though I was aware that many did. One of the biggest deals done at the time was, as the man who made it happen told me, fuelled by cocaine. But adrenaline and the fear of being fired were a strong enough stimulus for me. The pressure was relentless. After four years, I decided it was time to leave the wild American waters to seek the sanctuary of what appeared more like a tranquil backwater – an old-fashioned British merchant bank. We had a client, an American cowboy who had been run out of Wall Street and had come to London to reinvent himself. We were sorting out various issues for him in an attempt to boost his share price. A team of ten bankers and lawyers were advising him. I was the most junior. Periodically, the cowboy would announce he wanted to clear the room to talk to his chosen adviser. I remember tripping out but he called me back. I was the one he wanted to keep behind. And you know what? Eight people trooped out, leaving me alone with him. He then proceeded to proposition me verbally, grope me aggressively and finally chase me round the boardroom table. After a couple of laps I ran to the door, opened it and called everyone back in. They all knew what had gone on, but no one said a word. The groping and the propositioning continued. Finally, I’d had enough and told the senior director in charge of the deal. I wish I’d thought to record it.
He listened, saying nothing until finally, with a Delphic smile, he drawled: “My dear, did nobody ever tell you, the customer is always right.”
I stuck it out till the end of the year so I could claim a guaranteed signing-on bonus, and then jumped ship, back to another US investment bank, one of the wildest of the lot. It was known as a nest of vipers. The new bank sent me to Eastern Europe just after the Berlin Wall came down in search of venture capital opportunities. I met with one prospective client in his tower block office with its thick steel door, just him, me and my translator. We discussed his business idea, which seemed to have merit, we progressed to the equity investment he was looking for – $20 million would have done it – then out came a large black briefcase. He opened it up, gestured to the contents – wads and wads of high denomination Deutschmark. “I have a problem that I hope you can help me with. I have all this money and nobody to help me spend it. Perhaps you could help me…” The translator dutifully relayed all of this, blinking rapidly. I tried not to blink but looked back steadily and said: “You’re very kind but I would never take any upfront payment. Let me deliver and then we can discuss your very generous suggestion.” I made small talk for as short a time as I thought decent, escaped into the rickety lift, and travelled back to central Prague. “What will you do?” Asked the translator. “Think about it of course,” I answered. Back in my hotel room I packed, checked out, and flew home three hours later. Dealing with the Eastern European mafia was not quite what I had in mind.
I decided it was time to try life at the sharpest end of investment banking – the trading floor. There were even fewer executive women here (just four on a trading floor of around 400) but there were many female support staff and a lot of fraternising. There’s something visceral about trading floors in particular and the highs that come with successful trades. It’s a feeling born of conquest, winners and losers, Darwinian pre-eminence. In the days before people got tech savvy, the on-floor antics after the markets closed were source of considerable entertainment for bored security guards.
I still smoked to aid my concentration. One day, as I was mid-trade, my colleagues thought it might be amusing to extinguish my cigarette by shooting me with water pistols. Another time they thought it would be funny to tie me up with Sellotape mid trade, pinioning me to my chair. They wouldn’t have found it quite so funny if I’d botched the trade, put the decimal point in the wrong place and cost them their bonuses. And those bonuses… you wouldn’t want to miss them. Why else, apart from rampant ego, would you ever do a job like this? The cage was 24-carat gilded but it was still a cage. Many people found they just couldn’t escape, simply matching their spending to their ever-increasing income. The truth is, in terms of pure numbers, it’s hard not to save when you’re in that environment. So much money gets thrown at you. But there’s a competitive element to the spending. The “must have” was not a handbag but a Porsche, customised by AMG, followed by ever bigger flats and houses, ever more expensive bottles of wine. Friday evenings in the ski resort of Verbier looked like something out of Apocalypse Now as helicopters choppered the bankers in. The manic spending left people precariously exposed to the risk of sacking, ramping up stress levels that were already stratospherically high.
I had a different aim. I always wanted to write and my plan was to save up my “running away money” so I could do just that – run away and write. I left after eight years and I wrote my first book, Nest of Vipers, which went on to sell more than three million copies in 30 different territories.
I watched episode one of Industry and realised how glad I am I walked those citadels of money. But I’m even more glad I walked out of them.