Somehow I was never too good at befriending the cool people of investment banking. Many of my colleagues were jumping over their heads to hold the serving tray at lunches attended by anyone remotely senior at UBS. That hypocrisy tournament never interested me too much. I actually found it excruciatingly boring. Networking is all fine and some of those senior people are indeed interesting and fun – but breaking one’s neck just to get into some cool grey-haired guy’s calendar is just not worth it. Chances are, they won’t remember you. What you might resort to as a result is telling your grandchildren about the experience – assuming that the cool guy won’t have embarrassed himself with some corporate scandal or, worse, leading a once respected investment bank into bankruptcy.
However, I have always been extremely fond of bonding with the people most bankers usually fail to notice. Cleaners, cooks, barristers, shoe-shine guys, waiters, receptionists, security guards, mailroom staff… the list goes on. The people whose presence makes our bankers’ lives more comfortable and manageable – and sometimes more cheerful, too.
The first such uncool friend I made at UBS was Dee, a black gentleman from British Guyana and never without a smile on his face. I first heard his “shoe-shine” call during my internship at UBS in the summer 2005. One year later I was back as a full-time employee – and was thrilled to hear Dee’s voice again, so familiar and dear, calling out to bankers for a bit of a polish, wax or even new shoelaces. The fellow was really a master of his trade – and a wonderful person, too. Our office friendship developed quickly and ended abruptly. We offered each other chocolates, discussed holiday plans, exchanged Christmas cards and confessed many a flaming secret – until one day I was made redundant and given ten minutes to pack my stuff and never to return. I thought I would never see Dee again, but, luckily, bumped into him just the other day. Nearly one year had passed since we last met. Bless the fellow – he had tears in his eyes and pressed my hand to his heart. I was very happy to see him again, and touched to the bottom of my heart to see how human and genuine his own behaviour was towards me.
Then there was the Starbucks Polish team. Those of you from UBS 2 Finsbury Avenue (2FA) offices should very well know a small Starbucks on the ground floor. I can bet the place has changed since I left. However, I have a perfect recollection of, and unreserved gratitude to the good old Polish team which once sorted our caffeine fixes so well. Would anyone remember Michal, the skinny type with a Master’s degree in Economics? Or Adam, a moustached Warsaw native, likewise highly educated and working at Starbucks to finance his brand new house? Or Gosia, the polyglot lady fluent in Polish, Russian, French, English and Turkish? Perhaps one would also remember Camilla, an exotic Brazilian lady adding a bit of flavour to the otherwise homogenous Polish crowd. I am grateful to you all! Many a time did I run downstairs to Starbucks for a bit of human touch – a drastic change from the stress-soaked environment just five floors above. The team welcomed me. I have to admit that there were very few times when I actually had to pay for my coffee, especially in the hours of complete stress and misery. Seriously, guys, I don’t know how I would have coped without you.
There was also Amanda, the PA of one of the most senior guys UBS 2FA offices have ever housed. I doubt anyone could beat Amanda when it came to positive load. She was smiling ceaselessly from morning till 5pm (secretaries’ leaving time), chirping on about every possible topic my girlie mind was deprived of. Babies’ clothes, cute teapots, flower-scented perfumes, sweet champagne, The Sound of Music – there was no stopping her. The angel of a lady, she saved me fruit from her boss’s plate on the days the gentleman decided not to show up. Then once, on the UBS Christmas Party night, I barely managed to escape work, failed to get an allocated cab to the venue, was brushed aside by my so-called colleague mates – when Amanda appeared out of the blue, urging me to follow her. Suddenly I found myself in her boss’s private car, driven by his personal chauffeur! I think I had never arrived to any party in such style.
Of course there were also countless other secretaries. Though technically not part of our support staff, they were notably different from the pool of bankers they did belong to. I found them such an inexhaustible source of smiles, fashion (or at least certain aspirations thereto) and femininity – in the crowd of sombre Ted Baker suits, blue shirts (pink on Fridays) and buy-2-get-1-free matching ties.
I could never forget Techie, the Filipino catering lady who distributed fruit baskets every night at 7pm. I remember her motherly grumping about eating fruit, as “it’s good for you”. After I had been made redundant, I bumped into Techie on my way out and delivered the fresh redundancy news. She grabbed my hand, dragged me to some room, pushed me inside and shut the door. It looked like paradise. All over the walls were cases full of biscuits. Those executive biscuits we used to nick from senior guys’ plates after their secretaries would leave. Next thing I remember was Techie stuffing a bag full of those gorgeous biscuits and forcing the treasure into my arms. Good luck my girl, she said, not listening to any objections from my side. Mind you, there weren’t many.
The funniest place at UBS though was our mailroom, where all business-related mail was handled. Somehow I became really good buddies with the mailroom boys, most of whom, coming from the North of England and Northern Ireland, boasted incredible sense of humour. Seriously, a trip to the mailroom was like a visit to a stand-up comedian show. Mailroom connections had a number of advantages, too. My Canadian friends may remember a DHL package for their little boy, which I duly billed to some random client (I have confessed my sins since). And would anyone recall receiving a Christmas card from me in 2007? You may want to re-check the stamp on that envelope.
There is certainly nothing wrong in making an effort to meet the people who went far in life professionally. Sometimes it is simply unavoidable, as everyone around is doing so. However, I find it highly unlikely that those cool people will remember you when the tide turns against them. They’ll be busy saving their own necks and will not think twice of leaving you to drown overboard. And it is those few remarkably real, simple people that I am grateful to for surviving two years of my life as an investment banker – the people who never compromised their humanity.
I bumped into my former boss the other day. He looked right through me. And I don’t think it was my new hairstyle that stopped him from recognising me.