Stress takes toll of key SBC Warburg staff

Staff at merchant bank pay the price of takeover crisis while broker's employees earn rewards

DAVID HELLIER

The high price that can be paid by key personnel during difficult takeovers is vividly illustrated by the sudden leave of absence being taken by Mark Nicholls, the head of corporate finance at SBC Warburg.

Mr Nicholls, who has been leading Warburg's corporate finance department during one of its most traumatic years, was earlier this week forced to take a break from the job on the advice of his doctor.

The bank declined to give reasons for Mr Nicholls' leave of absence and expressed a hope that he would return to his former post.

Friends suggested that Mr Nicholls was suffering from stress and exhaustion and some doubted whether he would be able to return to his former position.

Friends are blaming Mr Nicholls' health problems on the inevitable tension at the bank that has followed the takeover, which has brought together teams of people at both banks who hitherto regarded their counterparts as deadly rivals.

The merger, which has created one of the world's strongest investment banks, has inevitably resulted in a number of staff defections and the loss of some clients.

"Mark has taken some of the defections personally and he has been through a very difficult time," one of his friends said yesterday.

Since the two banks have started their integration process about 900 employees have left the combined operation and hundreds more are expected to depart before the process has been completed. About 60 of the former Warburg staff have defected to Morgan Grenfell Deutsche Bank.

Mr Nicholls is one of three former SG Warburg directors appointed to an SBC-dominated executive board of the investment bank and his duties are temporarily being taken over by Marcus Ospel, the bank's chief executive.

A former lawyer with Linklaters and Paines, Mr Nicholls moved to become head of corporate finance at SG Warburg when Derek Higgs and Nicholas Verey were moved aside to concentrate on winning new business after the breakdown of the bank's earlier merger talks with the US bank Morgan Stanley. The cessation of those talks caused a big downturn in morale at SG Warburg, which used to be the City's foremost merchant bank.

Employees at SBC Warburg were sent a memorandum informing them of Mr Nicholls' leave of absence. They were also told that his duties will be taken over by Mr Ospel until his return.

Yesterday, however, some City sources were speculating that the firm may have to look to replace Mr Nicholls, possibly from outside the firm. Another option being discussed was the possible splitting of his job.

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