Ghosts, putting greens and silver emu eggs

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The Independent Online
Paul Wolsfeld breezes into town on the London leg of his nine- year quest to visit the corporate headquarters of the world's 2,100 largest companies - on a bicycle. A sort of Jim Rogers without the 1,000cc engine, the Californian is in the process of amassing the largest collection of corporate trivia ever seen.

Mr Wolsfeld's six-year stint in the US resulted in a book on US corporate trivia. Since then he has cycled through Canada, Australia and New Zealand before embarking on the European leg two years ago.

He has discovered a painting of Marrakesh by Sir Winston Churchill in the HQ of the Hudson Bay Co (the PM was apparently an honorary director of the company). He has seen solid silver emu eggs in the boardrooms of Australia. And the UK?

"There are some really neat buildings here,'' he says. The most impressive, he claims, is the head office of General Accident in Perth, Scotland, which offers staff use of a fitness centre the Princess of Wales would die for, an Olympic-sized swimming pool and a putting green. The Tarmac building in Birmingham only has two tennis courts, but the office is surrounded by a moat (presumably to repel boarders).

In London, Prudential's Gothic edifice is haunted by a ghost, according to security. This is denied by management but night staff say the lifts regularly move on their own.

British Steel has an eight-foot steel cannon displayed on its eighth floor. The gun was built in 1862. And Christian Salvesen celebrates its whaling origins with a harpoon gun in front of its Edinburgh office.

At Asda they have a "tomato'' room, a ''banana'' room and a ''table'' room. The table room is furnished with a five-foot-high table and nothing else. "It's designed for meetings that they don't want to drag on too long,'' says Mr Wolsfeld.

Bradford & Bingley actually owns the bowler hat worn by Stan Laurel. The very symbol of its corporate image, the building society bid for it in an auction. The Whitbread chairman has a boomerang in his office and BAT employees get 200 free cigarettes a month (although no free insurance from Eagle Star).

So what makes the UK different? "Free lunches,'' says Mr Wolsfeld, citing BP and Christie's, "and 13th floors. You will never see a 13th floor in the US.''

One could go on.

Talking of lunch, one is reminded of how things used to be. An acquaintance who worked for BA's predecessor, BEA, fondly remembers the staff canteens . Not only were there three different restaurants for various levels of staff, there were also colour-coded seats at the lowest level. One colour was for the hourly paid and the other for the weekly paid.

Some financial relief at least for Credit Suisse Asset Management, which is paying out a reported pounds 100,000 a month to cover gardening leave for the 10 private client brokers who resigned in the summer to join James Capel. The first, James Knowles, has been released from terminal boredom and will join Capel's investment management division on Monday.

This is not an act of generosity on the part of Credit Suisse, which remains determined to keep the team out of action while it woos clients. Rather, Mr Knowles was on a three-month contract. As readers will remember, some of the old Buckmaster & Moore team have a further eight months porridge to do. During this time they are forbidden to contact their clients - some of whom they have looked after for 20 years.