A day in the life of: Peter Meinertzhagen Chairman, ABN Amro Hoare Govett

The veteran broker ready to leave the floor 20 years after Big Bang
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The Independent Online

Peter Meinertzhagen will not have to set his alarm clock at such a "hideous" hour for much longer. The City veteran, who is one of London's best known investment bankers, is finally stepping back after more than four decades on the job. It is the 60-year-old's second attempt to let go: last year he was coaxed back into a full-time role running Hoare Govett, the corporate broker owned by ABN Amro, after the man he had picked to succeed him defected to an American rival.

What for weeks has been an open secret at the Dutch bank, will today become the talk of the Square Mile once confirmation of Mr Meinertzhagen's departure hits the financial headlines in a couple of hours. His timing, on the eve of the 20th anniversary of Big Bang, appears charged with symbolism. In fact, he says, it became a big story by accident after it appeared on a City blog.


After the same Tube journey that he has made every day for the past 42 years, Mr Meinertzhagen arrives at his desk. Well, almost the same. Since ABN swallowed Hoare Govett 14 years ago, the broker has ballooned in size and is now based in a purpose-built building on the City's north-eastern perimeter, which adds a couple of stops to his commute from Sloane Square.

For the City old-timer, who is a blue-blooded descendant of the pre-Big Bang era, getting to work so early is still something of a cross to bear. When he started out, fresh-faced from Eton as one of the broker's mail clerks, no one got to work before 8.30am. "The partners in those days had a considerably shorter day and a good lunch to go with it as well ... [Now] the problem is that to do the job half decently you've got to be in by this sort of time because that's when all the information comes out."

As chairman of Hoare Govett, one of the premier stockbroking partnerships before Big Bang, Mr Meinertzhagen works from a fifth-floor corner office with a view over the newly developed Spitalfields market. His role as corporate broker to some of the biggest names in the FTSE is to be their eyes and ears in the City and a sounding board for their ideas. In the old world before the new regime of 27 October 1987 swept aside London's protectionist regulations, breaking up the old boys' monopoly and opening the door to foreign competition, this was pretty much all he did. But these days he knows he also has the full gamut of ABN's other banking services on tap.

"The greatest success of the post-Big Bang era is that the City has definitely become, if not the world's capital centre, then very near that. And far bigger," he says.


His phone is red-hot with people keen to hear the news from the horse's mouth. "I must have been besieged by calls, particularly financial journalists' calls. And I was surprised because I'm a pretty ordinary guy doing a pretty ordinary job." But he sells himself short. In today's City, where US banks such as Merrill Lynch and Citigroup call the shots, Mr Meinertzhagen typifies a time when bankers did not regard the corporate broking relationship as essentially a foot-in-the-door to win more lucrative business, such as dispensing advice on big deals.

"As you know, I think that leads to less-than-independent advice sometimes because not all deals turn out to be the success that they're hoped to be at the start. They [big US banks] have pressure to do deals, let's put it that way." He thinks this is because bankers' long-standing relationships with their clients, their former bread-and-butter, have become "more promiscuous".

"People are taken on, or not, as the case may be, because of a transaction they may have brought. There's no longer the continuity that one used to enjoy. Maybe that's a good thing. I don't know," he says.

And that doesn't only apply to the bankers: "Company chief executives and finance directors are more vulnerable today. Going back 25 years they probably had a reasonably long shelf life, but now with all the various shareholder organisations like ABI and Pirc if somebody is not doing a good job they are pushed out very quickly."

His departure also robs the City of one of the few who can still remember the tough times of the 1970s, when the then index of 30 shares sunk as low as 150 points and junior partners such as he was had to shovel their own cash back into their firm to keep it afloat. "That was a salutary lesson, which perhaps means people of my generation have always been a little bit more cautious and a little less exuberant than someone of today's generation."


With all the top brass at ABN well aware of his intentions to leave - nominally he has set 6 April as his last day before handing over to Paul Nicholls, whom he plucked from Credit Suisse to succeed him, but he admits he could go sooner - it is business as usual for Mr Meinertzhagen on Monday. This typically means chewing the cud with one of his clients over their forthcoming results or a deal they might have up their sleeve. It is at moments like this that he sees the most use for the 24-hour helpline that corporate brokers provide. And also where he sees the most risk: from fee-hungry American banks, who don't necessarily dispense the most sensible advice.

"Although clients have lots of experience of their own market place, when it comes to doing transactions in a financial sense they can be quite naive. They can be persuaded to do something which perhaps they shouldn't do."

He spends this morning with a company called GT Solar that Hoare Govett is floating via its joint venture with Rothschild. It's a $500m-plus (£263m) bet on green technology and something called "polysilicon". Much of the debate surrounds the company's valuation. They fix on a range of 125p to 170p per share but "it's a growth story company and therefore probably rather harder to value".


Mr Meinertzhagen skips lunch today as he has to take care of some personal affairs. A welcome respite in a week dominated by Big-Bang anniversary lunches, including one on Wednesday at the Stock Exchange, on whose board he sits. He hopes to hang on to his non-executive directorship there, which he has held for the past nine years. "I'd certainly like to stay on until we have a resolution as to whether we're owned by Nasdaq [the US exchange tipped as a potential bidder], or independent, which is what I'd still like us to be," he says. "Although, I don't think we can ever be truly independent now sadly because we have somebody already owning a 25 per cent stake [Nasdaq] and another group of institutions owning another 25 plus, i.e. the hedge funds. We're always going to have a big shareholder on our register, but hopefully it will be someone who's there for the long term."


London's financial sway may be because it can cope with a near- 24-hour day, handling Tokyo in the early hours and New York in the evenings, but Mr Meinertzhagen is archetypal old school when it comes to calling it a day. He may no longer be sloping off before tea after one of the boozy client lunches that were endemic pre-Big Bang, but neither is he wedded to his desk. "I'm a great believer that if there isn't a transaction live going on then why should people stay in the office until all hours of the night?" His five daughters have long left home but on the rare nights that his presence is not required for some dinner, he happily heads back to Chelsea for some downtime.

Come April there will be plenty more of that. He is keeping his plans under wraps, saying: "I've had several headhunters on the phone, I will tell you that. It's rather ironic but having sat in many board meetings, the idea of filling one's day sitting on the board of a company isn't quite at the top of my list - at the moment. I've no doubt that something may appear that appeals to me."