People & Business : US fad wafts in like a breath of stale smoke

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The Independent Online
Peter Rosengard, the life assurance salesman who founded the Comedy Store in London, is at it again. This time he's founded what he claims is the capital's first cigar-smoking club, called The Havana Room.

The idea comes from the US, where all sorts of Hollywood starlets have decided that cigars are for the young and hip, rather than just the old and rich.

Mr Rosengard says he held a party at the trendy Soho club Groucho's last week to launch The Havana Room. "We flew in a cigar roller from Cuba called Carlos for the occasion," he says.

"We auctioned the first cigar he rolled, and it went for pounds 500. Then we decided to give the money to Carlos. His interpreter said Carlos gets paid $10 a month back in Cuba, so that was equivalent to eight years' income."

This tale sounds like something from the 1980s - proof that the pre- election boomlet is gathering steam.

To the equally trendy Kings Head theatre pub in Islington, north London, for Midland Bank's pre-Christmas press party.

Mark Searles, head of marketing at Midland, decided to hire five comedians from the Comedy Players to provide Whose Line Is It Anyway?-type entertainment.

Mr Searles got more than he bargained for, however, when Steven Frost (the large, balding comedian from the Carling Black Label adverts) was chosen to play him on stage. Mr Frost's task was "to invent a brand new financial product". He eventually hit on a bank account based on the pound coins you insert in supermarket trolleys to release them. "We'll pay you 10 per cent interest when you return the trolley," declared Mr Frost, aka Mr Searles. The Midland man took this merciless ragging in good spirit. Remember, when Midland introduces its revolutionary Supermarket Trolley Account, you read it here first.

An anonymous employee from Birmingham Midshires Building Society, which is proud of its mutuality, has phoned me to say the society's mission statement has just been changed - with sinister implications.

"The statement used to say our aim was to be the number one building society by 2001. The new statement says that we will be the one to beat on business performance by 2001. Nothing about building society. So are we going to convert to a PLC? After all, we've already got a banking licence through our Western Trust subsidiary."

Obviously Birmingham Midshires's staff need reassuring. Dangerous things, mission statements.

NatWest Group has appointed Achi Racov to the role of chief information technology officer, and according to the former IT consultant, it's not a moment too soon. While Mr Racov has sorted the computer systems at Ulster Bank, Coutts South Africa and NatWest UK, his new role gives him a unique headache.

Two big problems face IT people at the moment. The first is programming computers to handle the year 2000, since computers operate on the last two digits and may throw a wobbly if presented with "00". Second, the same systems have to be rejigged to deal with EMU.

As for 2000, Mr Racov says: "We started very early on that one. As for EMU, its rules have not yet been clarified by the authorities. It would be very dangerous, however, if EMU and 2000 happened at the same time."

Since the first wave of EMU is scheduled for 1999, and schedules tend to slip, it sounds like Mr Racov and his 5,000-strong army of IT techies at NatWest will have their work cut out.

Speaking of EMU, Salomon Brothers in London has landed a very big fish to help in its preparations.

Dr Gunther Thumann, who was a senior economist for the investment bank in Frankfurt two years ago before he joined the German Ministry of Economics, is coming to London to head up its EMU research project.

The doctor was one of Germany's representatives on the European Monetary Committee. At least someone knows what it's all about.

John Willcock