European Banks Take on American Sameness in the Workplace

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The big hirers on Wall Street right now are not the top name U.S. investment and universal banks but a handful of ambitious international players. But do the likes of HSBC, BNP Paribas and Barclays Capital have what it takes to retain new staff against their home-grown rivals, and how do the work cultures compare?

'Genuinely international career opportunities,' is the refrain of Keith Yardley at HSBC Securities in Manhattan. Yardley is head of U.S. campus recruiting and talent management at the bank, which is two years into a hiring spree that has added about 25 senior recruits in the past two months. "Most of the people who come to work for us are attracted by our ability to move them internationally," he says.

Yardley also points out that HSBC's balance of earnings is split equally between Europe, Asia and the Americas. "Not many companies can say that," he says. "Look at exciting growth countries like India and China; we have the scale and expertise to offer a full range of securities services there."

Other up-and-coming banks are keener to make a virtue of their ability to blend in. BNP Paribas has hired around 15 senior bankers in the U.S. in the past two months. Contrary to stereotypes that might have the French bank's American employees dunking croissants and supping coffee from bowls, a spokeswoman in New York says working there is no different to anywhere else: "We're just like any other U.S. institution."

What about Barclays Capital, the British bank that hired about 500 people in the U.S. in 2004 (many on allegedly generous guaranteed bonuses)? Ann Connolly, the bank's global head of recruitment, says BarCap is more meritocratic than its Wall Street peers.

One hire from a U.S. bulge bracket firm says Barclays Capital is more notable for its niceness. "Barclays is trying really hard to ensure the people they hire are good from a personal as well as a professional perspective," she says. "When I joined, I just couldn't believe people in banking could be this nice to one another."

Barclays' massive hiring spree has made it an interesting place to work, she says: "There are so many people I already knew from other organizations. We're all here to put into practice what's worked elsewhere. People here aren't political: they give you easy access to the resources you need to get on, which isn't always the case."

Recruiters are less quick to give Barclays full marks for cuddliness, however. Jay Gaines, president of New York City executive search firm Jay Gaines & Co., says Barclays corresponds more closely to Connolly's summation: "Barclays is a meritocratic but tough and demanding place to work," he says.

U.S. Banks: Similar Shades of Gray

Fast growing European banks on Wall Street may have their foibles, but the message from search consultants working with investment banking clients is that the big U.S. firms are increasingly similar.

"Most of the great American banking cultures have been pretty much destroyed," says Gary Goldstein, chief executive of the Whitney Group. "It's one of the faux-pas of the past few decades. Banking used to be a very clubby industry, where people identified with the firm they worked for. Not any more."

"The spirit of partnership and innovation has been lost," says Gaines. "Wall Street used to be an incredibly competitive, smart, and fair place to be. You had groups of individuals coming up with new instruments to take on the world. That edge has gone."

Recruiters who bemoan the loss of Wall Street cultures tend to sing a similar tune: mergers change corporate culture, and sometimes a bank's business edge, for the worse. Goldman had its own mechanical and meticulous collegiate culture until it went public in 1999; Salomon Brothers was a quirky place to work before it got absorbed by Citigroup; JP Morgan's exclusivity waned when it merged with Chase; and Morgan Stanley's recent travails are the death throes of a once proud and exclusive place diluted in the 1997 merger with Dean Witter.

Bear and Lehman: Splashes of Color

Some search consultants also agree, however, that two large U.S. banks have retained their individuality: Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns. "Lehman and Bear Stearns are different," says the chief executive of one Wall Street search firm. "They're meritocracies where people work hard and are well rewarded. But there's also an institutional esprit: people take real pride in where they work and who they work with."

Mark Abramson, a senior managing director at Bear Stearns who left several months ago after 11 years to start a number of investment projects in Europe, confirms this is so. "Bear has a very distinct culture," he says. "They hire people who are poor, smart and hungry. They're less interested in where you come from and more interested in what you can produce. It's like working for a small partnership with around 90 years of uninterrupted profitability."

Lehman was unable to field any candidates to blow its cultural trumpet. Perhaps modesty should be added to its list of unusual investment banking quirks.

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