City's knives out for WestLB's high-flying financier

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The Independent Online

As a glamorous financier, Robin Saunders has earned an enviable reputation in the City, with deal-making skills that have earned her a not-so-small fortune in an industry normally dominated by men.

But Ms Saunders, whose confidence normally knows no bounds, was unusually reticent yesterday. As she jetted off to Florida for a bank holiday rendez-vous with her parents, her German employers - WestLB - were forced to rush out a statement of support for their best-known employee. Whether it will be enough to keep her on their more-than-generous pay-roll is another matter.

In the most serious of a string of blows to the reputation of the 40 year old, Ms Saunders has become mired in an alleged conflict of interest with the German bank after she and five close colleagues took significant personal stakes in a company they separately lent money to through the bank.

Her department is also the subject of an investigation by the German banking regulator after WestLB had to make emergency provisions of £350m to shore-up Box Clever, the television rentals business loaned £850m by Ms Saunders' team in 2000.

The series of highly embarrassing revelations have turned her charmed life into a cursed existence. As the executive heading WestLB's principal finance business, she pulled off a string of high-profile deals, including the financing of Bernie Ecclestone's F1 team and an agreement to facilitate the rebuilding of Wembley Stadium.

Her private life seemed just as glamorous. She counts among her friends Mr Ecclestone and Philip Green, the retailing billionaire who owns Bhs. Earlier this year she hosted a three-day party in Tuscany for her 40th birthday, her 10th wedding anniversary and the christening of her twins.

But this reputation now seems to be one of the things working against Ms Saunders. A string of people who work in her area of complex deal-making have been all too ready to question her professional ability, as well as attacking her willingness to be photographed in newspapers.

While jealousy and snobbery about the American banker may account for some of the backlash, Ms Saunders still faces some heavyweight criticism. WestLB yesterday backed Ms Saunders, saying it had authorised her and her team to hold personal stakes in businesses they organised financing for, as a way of incentivising them to do a good job.

Nonetheless, the 20 per cent stake Ms Saunders and five close colleagues took in the parent company of Mid Kent Water, a business which WestLB bought two years ago for £106m, raised eyebrows in the City. It has led to accusations that she has a potential conflict of interest between her duty to WestLB and her private interest as a stakeholder.

One banker at a rival institution said: "She should have been negotiating to get the best deal for WestLB as the main lender to Mid Kent. But as the owner of a stake in that business, she will have wanted to get the best deal for it - there is clearly a conflict of interest."