The Square Mile and Me: Bill Blain on Bear Stearns, the Old Dr Butler’s Head and sailing on the Solent
Each week we ask a City figure to tell us about what makes the Square Mile special. This week, it’s Shard Capital’s Bill Blain.
What’s your first memory of the Square Mile?
As a young Scotsman fresh to London, I thought the City was all bowler hats before a university chum invited me for lunch at the JamPot in Big-Bang 1985. We didn’t eat – just slurped beers! I was staggered by the scene: Yuppy blokes knocking back pints by the bucketful and girls with big hair, big shoulder pads drinking wine by the bottle. A few weeks later I was part of it, having sort of fallen into the City by dint of being a terrible trainee accountant.
First job in the City?
Morgan Stanley, where I was in the middle office based in the Commercial Union Building. I was enormously lucky to get in just as the Eurobond market was taking off – there were no limits on what they let us do. I’d always fancied being a journalist so my early career switched between journalism and banking. I joined Euromoney, had great fun but the pay was lousy. I went back into bonds before a spell at Bloomberg, before yet more bonds! I still mix my day job in finance, running Alternatives at Shard Capital, with writing about markets in my daily commentary, Blain’s Morning Porridge.
When did you think the City was the place for you?
Best thing I ever did was joining Bear Stearns in 1992. Great people, great ethos and great culture. We were the underdogs who had to do more, work harder and deliver better outcomes than the bigger, more established banks. We also understood “information was only valuable if you can withhold it”, so we learnt to co-operate, monetise what we knew, and all worked together rather well. I learnt that success was something you could achieve by being imaginative, inventive, innovative and that a salesman’s job started when the client said no. My biggest mistake was joining HSBC – lovely people and a great bank, but a strict internal bureaucracy and method. To thrive you had to fit – I didn’t. I had great success growing their FIG bond business, but agreed I should depart. I learnt I could never work in a hierarchical firm again.
Your most memorable lunch?
in terms of laughs, it’s probably one I’m still trying to remember the details of… but it would probably have been in Sweetings with the legendary Padraig Fallon of Euromoney back in the 1980s. I still go there today!
Now, I tend to think of the City as less of a place, and more of a mindset. My most inspiring “City Lunch” was when I was taking Ace Greenberg, the legendary CEO of Bear Stearns round the Washington IMF meetings. A 15 min break had been scheduled, but I was like a headless chicken checking next meetings. Ace told me to stop, sit down, take a breather, and demanded we shared his lunch together. He gave me some great advice on the business, and told great stories. I keep a copy of his “Memos from the Chairman” on my desk.
The Old Doctor Butler’s Head was my personal favourite. Today I like Planet of the Grapes for a quiet contemplation on what’s next. For business, nothing beats getting a client “relaxed” with a Martini at Dukes in St James before closing the deal.
What’s one thing you love about the City…
Today “The City” is a mindset rather than a place. Deals work because of the experience that goes into them. I know I can talk with top-class investment and market professionals around the planet, and know they are thinking the same way I am. My clients may be European, American or Asian, but we’re doing business the City Way. It makes global finance easy.
… and one thing you’d change
I’d probably require all compliance, risk management, diversity and HR officers have to spend at least 5 years being successful bankers, traders or fund managers before they become management! The value of experience should not be dismissed – but being as old as I am, everyone would expect me to say that.
My clients may be European, American or Asian, but we’re doing business the City Way.
Where’s home during the week?
We live in Hamble-le-Rice, on the south coast. It should be an easy train trip, but never is. I am in town at least a couple of days each week. Zooms are ok, but face to face is better!
And where will we find you at the weekend?
My absolute passion and addiction is the ocean and sailing. I’ll either be swimming in the River Hamble, paddleboarding, racing my Foxer dinghy, or sailing my yacht “Batfish” round the Solent, weather permitting. During the summer, I’ll end up working from the yacht, using a background shot to make it look like the dealing room.
What’s your bold prediction for 2023?
The UK will surprise the markets to the upside. After Liz Truss cost the UK our financial and political credibility last year, some tough decisions will be addressed and the prospect of a new government will see increasing confidence the UK can get back on track. Or, we will see the “adults-in-the-room” Rishi Sunak premiership brought down by yet more internal Tory bickering, consigning Gilts and Sterling to the bin.. again!
Who’s the City figure you most admire?
Sir Robert Stheeman of the Debt Management Office. Calm, clever and focused chap who kept the UK’s access to global funding on course despite what the political idiots have done over the past 15 years. Or Sir Douglas Flint, the best bank CFO ever who became chairman of HSBC before jumping from frying pan into the fire to sort out Standard Life.
You’ve got a week off. Where are you going?
If it’s winter, take my wife, kids and 20 of my mates skiing somewhere with deep snow, the best tarteflette, hot rums and bombardinos in multiple mountain bars. Alternatively, I’d take the same group to Antigua for Race Week, with expresso martinis at Skullduggerys, and remember practically nothing!
Bill Blain writes a morning email, Morning Porridge. You can sign up here.