So you want to meet the men who run the world?
From Davos, Switzerland, Jeremy Warner reports on the business world's favourite summit
Sunday 01 February 1998
He walks up to Nathan Myhrvold, chief technical officer of Microsoft, and says in a whiny American accent, "Hi, Nathan, how yah doing. Long time no see". The two converse like long- lost friends.
This is Davos, Switzerland, an alpine ski resort up the road from Klosters, the Prince of Wales's favourite winter retreat. With its expensive hotels and labyrynthine conference centre, Davos at this time of year becomes home to the World Economic Forum annual meeting, which is claimed to be Europe's, if not the world's, premier business conference. Its setting amid the Alpine peaks certainly makes it the most desirable, which is why it continues to attract the cream of international business and finance, the people who in today's increasingly global economy really control the world.
Also in evidence is a smattering of those who vainly cling to the belief that they are the ones running the show. Many are politicians from developing countries, in Davos to attract international business and capital.
Chancellor Gordon Brown cried off at the last minute pleading pressure of work. Unkind souls said he would have hated a conference at which he would have been seen as merely a faintly interesting figure from a relatively small economy.
Self-congratulation and a sense of importance is what this conference is about. Businessmen and capital markets run the world now. Amid the constant ringing of mobile phones and the persistent worry over whether you are attending the right cocktail party, it would be churlish to disagree.
Meanwhile, our New Age traveller is about to put on a show. Mr Myhrvold will be defending Microsoft, America's fastest growing and most successful company, from allegations of abuse of its monopoly position at the forefront of computer technology.
The New Age traveller is Jaron Lanier, a leading "Microphobe", one of a growing band of Americans who believe Microsoft is a retarding force in the PC software market, crushing competition and hampering technological advance. His job this evening is to bate Mr Myhrvold. He is also visiting scholar at Columbia University, Lead Scientist of the National Tele-Immersion Initiative, USA, whatever that may be, and is said to have invented the phrase "virtual reality".
This can be gleaned from the WEF 1998 book of participants, a who's who of international business, finance and the media. Once in the book, you can claim to have made it in the world of high finance and corporate life. Mr Myhrvold is one of the WEF's "global leaders for tomorrow", which means he has been identified as a upcoming force on the business stage. If that sounds pretentious, it's not nearly as pretentious as half of what is said and opined on here in Davos. One participant, who will not be named, describes it as "about 80 per cent bullshit, but a very high class form of bullshit".
Howard Davies, chairman of Britain's new City regulator, the Financial Services Authority, remarks wryly; "It's amazing how many instant experts on South East Asia you come across here, many of whom claim to have seen the present economic crisis coming. It goes to show just how inattentive we must have been".
But listening to what is said is only a part of what this conference is about. As a chief executive of even a medium-sized quoted company, you are likely to bump into large numbers of your leading suppliers, customers and advisers. If you want to shake hands with the chairman of Toyota, the head of Deutsche Bank, the chief executive of IBM or even Bill Gates himself, they are all likely to be here.
Messrs Myhrvold and Lanier take the platform, and along with a Nobel prize winner in economics and a top American competition lawyer, begin to argue the territory. Their audience love it.
For some, the temptation of the slopes proves too strong, and the week ends up as a straightforward skiing holiday in illustrious company. For others, rubbing shoulders with the top figures of business, finance, economics and science is what it's all about, and the week is spent in a frenzy of meetings and conference sessions.
However he spends his time, the businessman leaves Davos feeling that much better about himself, his company, the world and life in general. As well he might, for each participant pays about pounds 15,000 to be here, once expenses are taken into account.
The topics under discussion range from the obvious - the impact on the world economy of the crisis in the Far East - to creativity, genealogy and spirituality in the next century. It is hard to see how some of this is going to help the average executive, but most participants claim to get something out of the relaxed and faintly anarchic atmosphere.
Davos has a hidden side which can only be guessed at. Behind the offical programme, there are other sessions and meetings. If you are an ordinary participant, you soon get to realise why you are not part of the world's elite.
World economic leaders meet separately to discuss new strategies and it is said that some of the world's biggest mergers and business transactions are conceived here over a late-night drink.
Ian Harvey, chief executive of BTG, the patent protection group, comes because in a few days he can get through more meetings with existing and potential clients than several months of international travel would achieve.
The theme of this year's conference is "priorities for the 21st century". After three days of intensive conferencing nobody is much the wiser as to what they should be. But one thing is certain. The power and influence of global business and capital markets is just going to carry on growing. That is what Davos is meant to tell you.
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