The murky world of private banking
Following up on Jack Patel's Dubai Dreams, his first book author PG Bhaskar returns to his protagonist, now married and wanting to return to the world of private banking. Here's an exclusive excerpt from the new book -- Jack is Back in Corporate Carnival. Read on.
I hate it when the Indian cricket team loses. It might not have been a big deal in the sixties and seventies when, I am told, they lost most of the time. But now that we taste success quite often, it is a bitter cup to swallow when they go down, especially if they do so without a fight. I had been so looking forward to this match. But belying my every expectation, the men in blue were succumbing to pressure as one batsman after another kept walking back to the pavilion.
But then again, maybe all was not lost. Dhoni was still at the crease and there was another batsman to follow. The next over or two was critical.
'Does my bum look big in this?' Mina asked.
'No,' I said quickly. On the verge of celebrating my first wedding anniversary, I was a veteran of twelve months at disposing of such questions.
Maybe India could still make it, I thought. I mean, they don't refer to cricket as a game of glorious uncertainties for nothing. Miracles do happen.
Oh, damn! This just wasn't Dhoni's day. Now there wasn't a chance in hell, unless, of course,
Zaheer Khan managed to hit a few out of the park. I remembered him displaying some heroics with the bat before, some four years back, maybe five. Go, Zak, go!
'Jai, you're not even looking at it!' Yes! Yesss! Edged down to the third man fence.
Hah! Like the commentators say every time, it doesn't matter how they come, as long as they do.
'Jai!' This time Mina's voice was sharper and louder. 'I said you're not even looking at it.'
'Honey, we have known each other almost three years. I know exactly what it looks like.'
There was a pause.
'I'm talking about this dress, Jai.' Now the voice was softer but I could sense the iron fist behind
the velvet glove. I turned around quickly. 'It looks perfect, Minoo. That's a terrific figure your dress
She melted at once. Clever me. A little tact, a honeyed word, it's all that's required on these occasions. Now if only these blokes could somehow get under the ball and heave. How come
yorkers seem so much more effective when Indian batsmen are at the crease? This is so irritating.
Hit the ball, mister. Good Lord, man, he's gone!
'I wish you would stop watching this silly cricket. Such a colossal waste of everyone's time.
There! They've lost. See? I told you. A whole evening down the drain.'
Less than an hour later, we were at Kitch's and Galiya's apartment in Bur Dubai.
This was our second innings in Dubai. Over a year ago, we left Dubai, licked to a splinter by a worldwide economic crisis that engulfed Myers York, one of America's largest investment houses, and brought our little world crumbling down. We returned from India a year later to a new Dubai.
Its sands had shifted under the fierce impact of the financial Armageddon that followed the collapse of Lehman Brothers. The resurrected emirate had assumed a new shape, a new avatar that was in sync with the new reality; sober but not bitter, aware but not drowning in regret, reflective but with its vision and optimism intact. This time round, Kitch and I were living quite some distance away from one another. Kitch and Galiya couldn't bear to leave the perennially lit up and bustling areas that formed the heart of Dubai.
Mina, on the other hand, couldn't bear to move into an apartment. She had lived in an apartment only in the brief period that she spent in London, and hadn't enjoyed it one bit. For Mina, a house isn't complete unless there is a garden attached to it. She herself is never really happy unless she is somewhere in the backyard either talking life into a plant or taking life out of a pest. As a compromise
for getting her to return to Dubai, we had bought this house not far away from where Kapoor lived.
Kapoor was a family friend of Mina's, an elderly, rather swash-buckling gentleman who had greatly
helped me with my previous assignment here. Kitch and Galiya had moved into this house only a couple of weeks ago and this was our first 'formal' visit after they had settled in.
We rang their doorbell, which involved pushing Minnie Mouse's nose, upon which a series of nursery rhymes started playing inside the house. The bell amused Mina but frankly, I found it rather embarrassing.
When God blesses a couple with a child, I think he tends to take away their balance.
To think that an old pal, a hard-nosed, regular guy like Kitch would attach a soft-nosed Minnie
Mouse to his door... but then, in some ways, Kitch had changed since the wedding and more so after the baby. Among other things, he was now clean shaven. A year's persistence from his wife and his rather prominent moustache had – like the Berlin Wall – fallen and with it, I suspect, many of his whims. As we walked in to the tune of 'Humpty Dumpty', Mina grabbed little Olga from Galiya and folded her in a hug. Kitch got up morosely from the couch in front of the TV. The presentation ceremony had just ended. We exchanged a silent look of commiseration.
'That's it,' he mumbled. 'We're well and truly out of the tournament.'
'Now there's nothing for us to do but sit and mope,' I said.
'And,' he added, 'hope that Pakistan gets thrashed by Australia.'
'What!' I exclaimed in mock surprise. 'You mean you wouldn't want the trophy to remain in the subcontinent?' 'Screw the subcontinent,' he cursed, promptly attracting a wifely glare. 'If India doesn't win, I don't care if the damn cup goes to the other end of the universe.'
Image: Cover of Jack is Back in Corporate Carnival
The murky world of private banking
Kitch and Galiya lived just a few minutes away from where they lived earlier. This was a bigger apartment, with three bedrooms. They showed us around the place. Their spacious living room was done up in black and white. White marble tiles, a big black couch with white cushions and smaller white ones with black cushions; a black dining table and black chairs with white seats. The master bedroom was in beige and some kind of brown. It had a double bed, as well as Olga's crib. They all slept in the same room, though Olga had her own room, done up in pink and yellow, liberally dotted with pictures of Minnie Mouse, Barbie and a few other characters I didn't recognize.
In the master bedroom, just above their bed was a framed picture of Kitch and Galiya on their honeymoon
in Cambodia; Kitch wearing a white T shirt with the letters 'L' and 'O' printed on it, his arm around Galiya's shoulder; she in a black one that said 'V' and 'E'.
When I stepped into the room, Kitch blushed and mumbled something about Galiya insisting on putting that picture up there. Just goes to show, I thought, that you should think a million times before getting your photograph taken. A few quick ones here and there, a snap taken during an inebriated, youthful moment and there you are, potentially faced with a lifetime of shame and sorrow, and thanks to Facebook and Youtube, an audience that can quickly run into thousands. On the opposite wall was another huge picture of the two lovebirds holding a glass each in front of a bar called 'Angkor
What?' a corrupted version of Cambodia's famous tourist attraction.
We sat down to dinner. What one year in Madras can do to a girl! Galiya – of French and Kazakh descent – served us idlis (made, of course, from the ready-made dough now available at Dubai
supermarkets) and homemade vada, or vadai as Kitch calls it.
'Do you know,' Galiya told us, 'at one of our restaurants in Chennai, we actually stopped making vadais, because we realized that between Kitch, me, the cooks and the waiters, we were devouring about forty a day. I kept calculating how much weight we were putting on.'
'And I kept calculating how much money we were losing. But the customers got upset; after all, you can't have a Madras eatery without vadai, so we put them back on the menu, but at almost ouble the price.'
Over a year ago, Kitch, Galiya and I had all been part of Myers York. Kitch and Galiya got married while we were working there. When we lost our jobs, the two of them went to Madras, where they opened three restaurants. I married Mina – whose Kenya-based family members were my clients – amidst a lot of turmoil in the world markets and upheaval in our personal lives, as a result of the 2008 banking crisis. We ended up buying and running a farm in Brahmadesam, Tamil Nadu, racing against time to pluck acid lime fruit before they became too ripe, trying to predict the weather so we could water the crops just right, convincing a van driver that his van was not a truck and that it was perfectly okay for him to take our produce to the city in the middle of a local truck drivers' strike.
We enjoyed it for the most part. But Kitch and I couldn't resist another shot at the private banking business. I think it had something to do with the way we left Dubai, amidst ruin and disaster, without so much as a friendly wave in the direction of our clients who had faced so much shock, and with such little warning. I also had a nagging feeling that I had left a task incomplete; a feeling of helpnessness, of being at the mercy of the markets. I felt like a footballer who, having gone past the defenders and the goalkeeper, finds the ball being blown away by a gust of wind.
Try as I did to convince myself that it was the markets that did everyone in, I was still plagued by guilt.
Besides, looking after the farm was definitely a struggle. There was a lot to do and we were a good way away from making real money. Kitch and Galiya too, while they were enjoying their restaurant business, were still in the red. They lived with Kitch's parents. While Galiya says she loved the comfort and atmosphere of a larger family – she herself having come from a split home – I think she missed being able to tuck into kedgeree and goulash at will. Kitch's family were strict vegetarians and even something as simple as having an omelette had to be planned well in advance and away from home. Besides, the weather in Chennai, as she put it, fluctuated between bad, terrible and downright awful. I could empathize with her there. Chennai – or Madras, as I still tend to think of the city – is hot and sticky and it can drain you of your energy like a vacuum cleaner, leaving you weak, limp and almost soggy. Galiya was also unused to being 'fully' dressed as she had to be in the presence of Bala uncle and Dharini aunty, Kitch's parents. Gone were those twelve inches of bare midriff which was so prominent two years ago.
There was another reason as well for their move back here. Kitch's younger brother had got a job in
Dubai and given the lad's somewhat chequered and notorious background, his parents felt a lot
more comfortable with big brother Kitch lurking in the background, keeping watch.
The clincher for both Kitch and me was when Peggy, our boss at Myers, told us that the two of us could form a team within the private banking unit and work with her at Abbots-Adriaan Bank, a British-Dutch combine of two banks that had come together last year in a bid to become stronger. It was now one of the largest institutions this side of the Atlantic. The offer appealed to Kitch and me at once.
Peggy is a workaholic, but she never treats work like a chore. I had never seen her weighed down by anything, even though she had to bear the brunt of the market collapse in 2008: repeated phone calls from angry and fearful customers, lawsuits, central bank investigations, compliance issues and god knows what else. When Peggy came to Kitch's for dinner on the evening of our first day back, she was her usual smiling self.
Image: Cover of PG Bhaskar's previous book -- Jack Patel's Dubai Dreams
The murky world of private banking
Gee, what a wonderful feeling it is, being together again! Awesome! So guys, how do you like
our new workplace? I hope you aren't comparing the training with what you got at Myers?'
'There's no comparison at all, Peggy,' I said. 'It's like apples and... umm... eggplant.'
Kitch chipped in, 'This training is almost entirely compliance related. Rules, procedures, policies, guidelines, documentation... I'm going crazy.'
'I'm sorry, guys. I know it's not the same but, hey, these days it's the brand that matters. This is a solid, conservative blue chip name with one hell of a pedigree. That's what clients want now.
Business has changed, honey, we have to face that. It's a cautious, risk-averse world that we have inherited from the crisis; still very nervous about sudden noises and prone to panic. What's that dark sauce, Galiya dear? Do I pour it on this thingy?'
'Yes. I call it VK. I can never remember its full name and wouldn't be able to say it even if I did. But I'm completely in love with it; I even use it as gravy for some meat dishes. But today is vegetarian night, because of Mina and Kitch. I hope you don't mind, Peggy.'
'Aw, shoo!' Peggy said, brushing it aside. 'I love all this. Mina, honey, I didn't know you were vegetarian, too?'
'Oh, I've been one for a few years,' Mina said. 'But I eat anything that's veg. Unlike him.' She pointed at Kitch. 'He is fussy even with his vegetarian food; it has to be the right colour, texture, taste to suit his requirements. No mushroom, no zucchini, no eggplant and several other things.'
'Mmmm,' said Peggy, closing her eyes and taking in the aroma. 'This stuff is incredible! Oh, wowie!
But y'know what? I can feel smoke coming out of my ears already. Someone hold me if I pass out.
Kitch! What is this liquid dynamite called? Is it one of the words we were taught at your wedding... one of those z-h words that only Tamil Brahmins and apparently Jack here can pronounce?'
We all laughed.
'Actually, it is!' Kitch replied. 'It's called vathakozhambu. It's supposed to be eaten with rice, but short of adding it to tea and coffee,
Galiya uses it in everything.' 'That and Ranbir Kapoor are the two Indian things she has fallen most in love with,' Mina said. 'Kitch is only the bronze winner, after those two,' I added. I considered showing off by pronouncing that 'V' word, but refrained. It seemed like a tough one, even for me who pronounce 'zh' TamBram style. It's simply a question of positioning your tongue the right way.
'And what are those little black things in here?
It ain't pepper, is it?'
'No, that's called maathankkali,' Kitch replied.
'I'm not sure if there's an English word for it. I think it is some kind of berry which is dried, deepfried
and then added to this.'
'I'm surprised you even get these things in Dubai. But I guess the number of foreigners
who live here is what makes it possible. Richard Weatherford, the compliance guy, was telling me
that he gets everything he wants, from mushy peas and fish-and-chips to chicken tikka and vindaloo.'
'Peggy, that fellow is so stuck up, it's like he belongs to the nineteenth century.
Do you know, when he answers his phone, he doesn't just say
"This is Richard" or "Dick"; he says "Richard Weatherford, Head of Compliance". Every time,
Peggy! With an emphasis on the word Head. So pompous! Jack and I call him Dickhead!'
The girls giggled. Galiya, who was halfway through a Breezer, ended up spitting a portion of it on the brand new carpet, and she and Mina spent the next few minutes trying to remove the stain.
'You are such a rogue, y'know,' Peggy told Kitch, dabbing some vathakozhambu on Kitch's face. 'You shouldn't be let loose.' The gravy formed a dark smear across his upperlip. 'Ah!' she exclaimed, 'that's more like the Kitch I used to know. What made you shave off your moustache?
I thought you loved the thing.'
'He loves sex more,' I said, provoking another round of laughter.
'It was just the kissing part!' Galiya protested.
'How can anyone kiss with hair in the way?'
'You have to focus on the lower lip and let him go for your upper lip, that's how! I had the same problem with Rich.' Rich was Peggy's former boyfriend, the chap she used to see while we were at Myers.
'By the way, Peggy,' said Kitch, continuing to whine, 'they are really buggering us out here at the training centre. I don't think they plan to give us much room to operate. We have been saddled with some 600 pages of compliance requirements to write a test on tomorrow.'
'Well, mind you do a good job, fellas. You don't want to hear any sarcasm from old man
Rutherford. And anytime you find yourself thinking this is painful, just put yourself back eighteen months and ask yourself where you'd rather be. 2008 Myers, or here in 2010.'
'Please don't even mention it, Peggy,' I begged.
'If there's one thing worse than losing your own money, it's losing the money of someone who has
trusted you with it. We'll sweep Dickhead off his feet, don't worry.'
'Y'know, the weird thing about this bank is that they don't seem to have decided who's going to be
the boss, the Adriaan Dutch team or the Abbott Brit team,' Peggy said thoughtfully.
'I can sense a cold war in a thinly veiled slugfest, as both teams tussle for power. As a bank, the numbers add up great, the synergy seems good and that's pushed the stock price up, but there are plenty of people issues to sort out. Everyone thought it would be a friendly merger. I did too, but it doesn't quite look like it. But the good thing is that as of now, we are on the side of the Brits and we seem to be winning.'
Image: PG Bhaskar
The murky world of private banking
Staying several miles away from 'town' in Dubai took some getting used to. It was magical waking up to the musical chirping of the birds. It was what Mina had been used to all her life, but for me it was an altogether new experience. Mina would wake up at the stroke of dawn and get busy with her lemon, ginger and honey health drink followed by deep breathing and yoga. I, on the other hand, would open an eye when Mina got up, experience the early morning magic for a few seconds, and then promptly go back to sleep. By the time Mina had breathed deeply a few hundred times, stood on her head, tied herself in knots and rolled her eyeballs, I would be ready to stagger out of bed, with one single thought for starting the day off on the right note: hot coffee with milk and lots of sugar.
Coming back to the magical chirping, there were all these birds whose existence in Dubai I had never suspected. I must confess, though, that on the days when one is hoping for a lazy morning in bed, the chirping does seem more like a cacophony. There was a nice patch of greenery behind the house where Mina and I enjoyed a cup of something sometimes. It was a luxury of space for the three of us – our dog 'The Boss', Mina and I – in this four-bedroom 'villa'. On the flip side, it was undoubtedly a bit of a pain to have to learn new routes, especially since the office was in town, closer to where Kitch lived. Also, at night, the house felt a little spooky, what with trees swaying unexpectedly outside or a tiny bird flying past the window, the light effects causing a large shadow to flash across the bedroom wall.
This was the first time I had ever lived in an independent house and it took some getting used to. Like most cities with a large immigrant population, Dubai has been a city of dreams.
People stream in with optimism in their hearts, aiming to work hard, live comfortably and save well. The ultimate materialistic executive dream for most youngsters remains a villa and a spanking new four-wheel drive that widely accepted king of the road that brooks no nonsense from either man or machine, on or off the asphalt.
Apart from Mina and myself, our newly-acquired villa had its fair share of guests from the reptile world as well, mostly ants and flies. And if you happened to be a fly on the wall of our house last week, you would have spotted me standing, initially on the dining chair and then on the dining table. A minute later you would have seen me make a miraculously long leap onto the sofa, emitting simultaneously a terrified yell.
Mina would have been darting around all the while, concentration writ large on her face, a long-handled brush in her hand, trying to persuade a small lizard to leave the room, urging me to remain calm and not behave like a baby. My next move, prompted by a sudden about-turn by the creature, was to attempt to fly to another sofa and the upshot of the whole thing was that I landed on its edge and crashed to the floor with another piercing scream that scared the lizard into speeding back to the garden. I have no issues with tigers, lions, elephants or bears. And I love dogs. But for some reason I have always been petrified of lizards, practically since birth. That one forgettable incident apart, both our families settled down fairly quickly within a month of reaching Dubai.
We were well and truly ensconced in domestic bliss and comfort, aided undoubtedly by the very welcome amount of US$ 50,000, the sign-on bonus Peggy had negotiated for us.
It was office life that was creating problems. We were finding it difficult to get used to the new working methods at Abbots-Adriaan (popularly known as AbAd). Unlike Myers, which was a brokerage house with a simple, flat hierarchy, this company seemed to have a complicated matrix structure, a three-dimensional one at that. There was the private banking outfit which Peggy had been asked to form and lead, but there was also an 'NRI' team and a 'Premier Banking' team, both of which had several clients who would have qualified for private banking. Some clients had separate accounts with each team. Some had only one account but both teams claimed it as theirs.
There was also a team known as 'Investment Services' which overlapped these two teams and now ours as well. The management hierarchy chart had lines all over the place – clear lines, dotted lines, straight lines and curved lines.
The structure apart, the bank had a bureaucracy that was all powerful. There was an internal audit department that focused on routine procedures and processes. There were compliance people whose job was to interpret regulatory requirements and ensure adherence. Post crisis, most banks had swung like a pendulum to one extreme where controls ruled the roost, Abbott-Adriaan probably more than most. The staff in the compliance and audit departments strutted around with an arrogance that one normally associated only with immigration officials from the developed world before the crisis. One would have expected the guys in finance to remain firmly in the background, but no. Out here, they too behaved like they owned the place, spoke rudely, interpreted petty internal rules differently at different times, and generally made life difficult for employees. And they seemed to gain perverse pleasure from doing so. Business trips had to be sanctioned not just by the business head but by both finance, who had to approve the estimated cost, and by compliance, whose job was to ensure that marketing guidelines were followed for all countries where we did business.
When I made a business trip to Kuwait, I stayed at a hotel other than the one that had been officially approved, because I could not get a booking at the approved hotel. The finance chaps pinned their ears back and refused to reimburse me. After a lot of back and forth, Peggy had to talk to the local head, Chris 'Fergs' Ferguson, to get them to do it. When Kitch spent two days each in Nigeria and Zambia during a business trip, they questioned his laundry bill because their policy stipulated 'minimum three days' stay' to be eligible for claiming laundry expenses. They claimed he had not 'stayed' in a place for three days. Again, they had to give in because it was, after all, one single trip, but it resulted in some friction and wasted a lot of time. Compliance approval was required even to open an account. Three of my new accounts were still pending with them two weeks after submission. Phone calls made to them were stonewalled by the compliance secretary, a stuck-up Irish woman whose breasts and nose both pointed upward, defying all known laws of gravity. 'Miss Up-titty', we named her.
Sometimes it seemed like the office was packed with heads. Every other guy was head of something or the other. There was a head of corporate bank, retail bank, compliance, finance internal audit, credit, private bank, NRI, premier bank, investment services, loan recoveries, technology and several others.
Within each of these, there were sub heads and unit heads. Separately and laterally there were regional heads, sector heads and country heads. Being a head was everyone's goal. There were so many heads that you wondered where the other body parts were. It was a Ravana of a bank. But who did all the work if everyone was a head? Despite all this, business remained steady, predominantly, I suspect, because of the brand name, general risk aversion and the fact that retail accounts continued to grow.
In the middle of all this, Peggy told us that the chairman of the group, Sir Sidney Wilkinson, was visiting Dubai and would formally inaugurate the private banking business during a client 'do', part of a series of visits organized by the group as a public relations exercise. They called it the 'Back to Growth' campaign. It was supposed to announce and demonstrate to the world that AbAd had come out of the recession strongly and was poised for growth in a world that was recovering. The CEO of the Middle-East region wanted ten of our 'top clients' to be at the venue to meet the chairman. He would not take no for an answer and Peggy herself was quite upset about the way the matter was thrust upon her without even a discussion.
We hadn't even opened that many accounts yet. 'This place is all about politics,' Peggy grumbled, 'politics and perception. Everything else takes a backseat, especially business.'