Monday, February 24, 2020

Back in banking days, a trip gone awry, 1990...

As referenced in two prior posts, my job at Manufacturers Hanover Trust had become Director of Investor Relations in 1988.  Even at the beginning of the role, there was wide latitude in places to call on investors and who to call on.  Then in 1989, based on their polling data, I was named "best Investor Relations Director at money center banks" by Institutional Investor magazine.  As MHT was generally viewed as a beleagured institution, it was a stunning surprise to all, including the CEO.  After that, it was basically carte blanche for me, conferences, cities, countries, institutions, all visited at my discretion with the approval of my boss, the CFO.

When I was arranging a trip to Zurich, Geneva, Frankfurt, and Amsterdam, the continental European countries where some institutions were buying U.S. equities as investments(Germany not at all, but our office there was large and wanted us to visit), I asked the CFO if he wanted to join me.  He was always welcome, but he surprised by expressing interest.  As usual my secretary and I worked with the travel department to arrange the trip.

Everything was set.  Two days before our departure the Travel Department sent the agenda to the CFO's office.  On the Sunday evening of our departure, we met at Kennedy airport for our 9pm overnight flight to Zurich.  As he looked at the travel documents that were my responsibility, he was aghast.  "Business class?  I travel First Class." As it happens my secretary had handled the arrangements with the Travel Department and the person she dealt with in the travel department had not flagged the fact that members of the Executive Committee, of which the CFO was one, always traveled First.  Hmm, I would have been there too.  He called the Travel Department and found out that there were now no First Class seats were available.

Nice guy, the CFO, he accepted the situation and said no problem but with the admonition that next time Executive Travel should be used.  Oh, even a separate department for top brass, news to me.  Could this get worse?  Of course. When we boarded the Swiss Air plane, we had aisle seats and were seated directly across from each other as requested.  Seated on the CFO's right was a medium sized dog, looking perfectly at home.  To the dog's right was an obviously wealthy older Swiss woman.  Apparently dogs were not allowed in First.

We arrived in Zurich.  Now to a nice hotel, what else could go wrong?  While a famous old hotel, in a prestigious location, "old hotel" was what could be seen at first glance.  As we approached and stood at the reception desk, a slim tall black woman in a slinky dress walked up next to us and said "hi boys".  As we walked toward the stairs to head to our rooms, she whispered, "any company?".  Remember the Kinks song Lola?  I will never be sure if the CFO caught that whole sequence or took it in, but when we checked into our rooms they were messy, beds barely made up.  "We're out of here", he yelled through my door.

At this point it was late afternoon, no hotel, no dinner reservations, no 6pm vodka and tonic for my boss, and I could at least use a cold one.  He roused the Executive Travel Department in New York, late night there, and told them to find another hotel, one with a decent restaurant.  They used their clout to find a room in the Hotel Baur en Ville, a grand hotel of the old aristocracy.  It was old, but exceptional.  The hotel restaurant had just closed,  but they discreetly opened the door when we arrived, saying the chef had stayed for our arrival as we slipped in.  He came out, telling us that ordering from the menu was no longer possible but he would prepare our dinner, and hoped that we would like it.

Vodka tonics were quickly served, an amazing bottle of white wine hit the table, and after that my memory fails.  I do clearly remember us agreeing that it was one of the best meals we had ever had.  My job was secure!

There may be a follow up to this post, as so much more followed on this investor calling trip.  We will see, but not today.


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