Bankers put their foot in it! When in Rome, get with the foreign culture dude.

The Queen is celebrating her diamond jubilee and that seems a great moment to talk a little about doing things properly and dealing well with those all important cultural differences. A little more light hearted than usual, this week we focus on how things may not be quite what you expect when dealing with parts foreign.

The service economy

The far flung smaller offices of Goldman Sachs have historically been used as a training spot for upcoming talent, often partners in waiting. That might have changed now, but was true in the past. Certainly in Switzerland, there was a bias for parachuting in an Anglo-Saxon rather than having a local Swiss general manager. So it was that in the early 1990’s one outgoing American who was not going to make it to partner was replaced by another who might. Walter Haydock was the new guy, replacing the outgoing John Hewett who had not had enough success in building the local Swiss bank to secure himself a partnership. He had though had a fun time doing it and spent more than a few million dollars of the partners’ money, some of that in more fanciful ways than one might expect. I seem to recall having met Walter once before he officially moved and to quite looking forward to the change of the guard. On his first day in the office, I was at my desk when I got a call summoning me upstairs to meet the new boss. “I’ve got something important I need to ask you, Olaf”, he announced down the phone. Eager to please, I interrupted what I was doing and walked up to his office. Walter was unmistakably American; tailored shirt with the initials on the chest and braces, or as the Americans call them, suspenders. We did the hand shake thing and I welcomed him to Zurich. I was quite thrilled; his first morning on the job and he has invited me in. Must be something pretty important he needs help with. “Olaf, I have heard you are a local and run the Operations here,” he started. This was partially true, I am Swiss, as well as British and ran a piece of the Operations. “I need to get something important sorted out. Where can I get my shoes shined around here?” I was disappointed and I had to disappoint him. I was disappointed; I really did not consider the logistics of shoe shining to be important. I ad to disappoint too, because the good old New York shoe shine is virtually non-existent in Switzerland. At that time, the only good advice I could offer was: “Walter, sorry to have to tell you this. There is no shoe shine in Zurich or even in Switzerland. Just does not exist as a concept. So I hope you got the whole collection done before you left New York!” In the intervening years, a service has sprung up; a lone guy in Terminal A of the departure lounge at Zurich airport. Last time I checked it was 10 Swiss Francs a time.  At that price, it really is an indulgence.

Lessons Learned: Use TripAdvisor! Or perhaps, if you have a new American boss coming over, present him with a shoe shine kit when he arrives. In this case Walter deserved to do some manual labour, to compensate for the silly braces.


A topic near and dear to many a person’s heart. I must confess to being not very good with wine. I scarcely know one from the other; in fact I probably know just enough to stick my oar when out with one of my wine snob friends and I need to get the order in before they are plonking for the more expensive tipple on the menu. Another one of those awkward wine moments is when you are out with somebody more senior; it is quite usual for an outbreak of deference to seniority to occur. This is either because you do know something about wine, but are not sure about the budget and don’t want to appear to eager to order the more expensive bottle or because you know nothing about the subject. The latter was the case at an early dinner with Goldman Sachs operational staff in Zurich. Our big boss, Peter Friend, was in town as we worked through a major project, in fact the very project that had brought me to Goldman Sachs and to Zurich. It was late, and had been a long day, which was actually the norm of the times. So Peter wanted to take us all to dinner. We were a bunch of about five guys and Peter, and a good steak was top of the wish list. So it was that we found ourselves at the Beef Club, a pretty swank eatery, even by Zurich standards. Swank enough to have a separate wine list and a wine waiter or Sommelier, who was as English as we all were. All five of us knew nothing or next to nothing about matters of the grape, so we all mumbled something or other and saw to it that the Sommelier passed the wine menu to Peter as the most senior person present. Peter duly started to study and make a few comments about the different types of wine on offer. He gave the obligatory bit of banter with the Sommelier and plumped for a bottle of Chateau something or other. Several minutes later, the waiter returned and presented the bottle for inspection in some fine wicker basket decked out with a plumped up napkin. Now wine labels might conveniently be divided up into the simple, such as those from Mondavi, the ornately written, such as odd Marquis de Riscal or even the Chateau, where there is a coat of arms or a picture of a grand chateau. Here we were being presented with something altogether different. On the label was a picture of a pig! Perhaps it was a truffle hunting pig, but at that moment, huge peals of laughter broke out, as of course did the natural English instinct to make fun of people’s disadvantage given half a chance: “Chateau Trotter, great choice”, “Waiter, another bouteille of your finest Chateau Porker s’il vous plaite.”  Just too good an opportunity not to really take advantage of. I don’t actually remember if the wine was any good or not, I just remember the fun being made of our unlucky boss.

Lessons Learned: Don’t volunteer to deal with the wine. if it’s too cheap, people will hate you. If it is too expensive you’ll embarrass the person paying or worse still, if it’s you footing the bill, you might not be able to re-claim. Defer to the most senior person there. If that is you, simply ask the waiter if he would recommend the house red or white. Can’t go too far wrong there.

The shirt on your back.

That is part and parcel of everyday life, not just in a bank. Of course there is that old adage that you should never volunteer for anything. That is good advice. Sometimes though, you do have to help. In the days of building up the Swiss operations of Goldman Sachs, there were several cases where we needed to import help and our colleagues were really supportive. Mostly we drew on the resources of the big office in London. One day, on one of the European management calls, there was a big discussion about Frankfurt. It is no exaggeration to say that many an investment bank has had its Teutonic adventures with matters Frankfurt; the locals insist on things being done their way and this is often a contributing factor to having blow-ups. All three investment banks I have worked for could contribute a couple of chapters to a small book of “Things that have gone all Pete Tong in Frankfurt.” Well things were going wrong in the Mainhattan branch of the holy Goldman Empire. They needed help; German speaking help with an EU passport. So that ruled out 99.9% of all the Brits and Americans in Operations which meant that there were only a handful of possibles in London. Funnily enough, in Zurich we were blessed with a couple of enormously talented Ops guys who were Italians, living in Switzerland. The Italian Stallions we called them: Valerio and Giovanni. Both got two ticks in the box: German speaking with EU passports. It was payback time and our turn in Zurich to do a good turn for the other offices. I decided that I would volunteer Giovanni’s services and was thanked by Jim Cahill, the guy whose problem I was solving.

Putting down the phone after the conference call, I called Giovanni over.

“Hey, Gianni, what are you doing next Monday?”

“Eh, silly question, I’m going to be here.”

“Ah new plan Gianni, Frankfurt on Monday for you. Need you to go and help out Jim C and the guys up there for a couple of weeks. They need some help.”

“Ok, but I have a question, where will I stay?”

“I don’t know, I am pretty sure the Firm has some apartments. So tell you what, go up there check in to the Arabella Sheraton and then Jim will sort things out for you.” By now I was already quite bored with the detail, I’d lost my my guy for a few weeks, which would no doubt stretch for a good while. The other guys could sort out things out with Gianni.

“So boss, if I have an apartment, how big will it be?”

“Err, no idea really.” What the hell, this was getting tedious.

“Will it be big enough for my girlfriend to stay?”. Now this was getting very tedious.

“Should be fine if she is there at the weekend if you don’t want to come back to Zurich. But, as the rules go, we can’t pay for her to come to Frankfurt”. Goldman like most places had reasonably tight rules on the old T&E, travel & entertainment.

“Can she stay longer, my girlfriend?” This was now becoming too much.

“Gianni, I am sure it is alright if she is there for a few days. Anyway she’ll have to to work right?”

“No, she doesn’t work, she’ll come with me.”

“Won’t it be boring for her, stuck in a little flat in Frankfurt on here own?”

“Doesn’t matter. She has to come, how else am I going to get my shirts ironed?”

Must confess, I really did not see that one coming.

Lessons Learned: Italians have special needs. When you volunteer them, rather like the rider contract with rock stars, you need to make sure that all the creature comforts are provided for.

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