Michael Karam: When Lebanese bankers learnt to walk the walk

Lebanese investment bankers have not always cut a dash in the global financial world.

The other day a Lebanese investment banker told me the most extraordinary story.

The incident happened in the mid-’90s, when our bankers flicked the dust of civil war from their suits and were ready to once again sally forth into the world and make money.

The banker had recently returned to Beirut from London, where he had cut his teeth at two of the City’s great merchant banks. The blue blood of London finance may have still coursed through his Levantine veins, but he accepted a position at one of Lebanon’s leading banks. He wanted to do his bit. However it didn’t take him long to recognise that the war had put the brakes on Lebanon’s famed banking culture.

The Lebanese may have cut a dash in the ‘60s and early ‘70s but it ended there. The banker was dismayed by – how should I put this? – the lack of sophistication among his new colleagues, from their dress sense and basic manners, to their ability to communicate in the language of modern global finance.

Crunch time came when the bank decided to launch a roadshow to meet financiers in major European capitals. It was the first time since the war that Lebanon’s finest would come under scrutiny from serious investors.

“I was concerned,” the banker said. “They hadn’t a clue and yet we had to ensure they’d at least be taken half-seriously and not come across as bumpkins or, heaven forbid, gangsters”.

He had a plan. “There was a British banker in Beirut. He was a former army officer, so he knew how to behave, even if he hadn’t a clue about banking. I enrolled his help and we shut ourselves away for three days with [he names two very senior figures in the current banking sector] and quite literally coached them on how to answer questions from investors as well as what suit, shirt, tie, socks and shoes to wear.”

They even showed them how to properly hold a knife and fork. “The British guy would say stuff like [mimics plummy accent] ‘Look, you just can’t wave your knife around like that’ and ‘Try not to hold it like a pen’. When I look back, I find it hard to believe it happened, especially when you consider where these [two] guys are now.”

The bulk of the sessions were how to answer questions with a modicum of credibility. “I would ask them about Lebanese sovereign risk,” the banker said, “and they would start banging on about how, ‘yes Lebanon was run by warlords but that it was still a good time to invest’. It was as if the mafia was launching an IPO and we knew they had to be more polished.”

The banker did concede that the Lebanese do have a talent for eventually getting it right and admits the pair did scrub up well in the end.

“We like to think that with our languages and what we perceive to be a certain Mediterranean style, that we can hold our own anywhere in the world, and I think it shocked them when I told them they wouldn’t cut it in European banking circles. To be fair to [names the most senior of the two bankers] he has done really well. I saw him on TV the other day. His English is now excellent and he talks like a financier.”

Times have changed. Lebanese now hold very senior positions in the global financial markets on both sides of the Atlantic as well as the Far East. The modern Lebanese banker has also become very conservative in how he dresses for work, even if he does still insist on buying the most preposterous leisurewear, adorning himself with jewellery and dousing himself in weapons-grade eau de cologne.

“This, you will never change,” said the banker with a smile. “We are who we are.”

Michael Karam is a freelance writer based in Beirut

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Published: March 10, 2014 04:00 AM

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