The first we heard about it was at 9am on a Wednesday morning, when a London-wide email went round informing us that there would be a 3pm stand-up in the boardroom for the entire office (attendance compulsory).
Just one of the great things about this was that I had a sit-down booked with some pointy-heads at McKinsey to talk value creation that afternoon, and this gave me the perfect excuse to cancel (since not even Nicholas Pye can manage a stand-up and a sit-down at the same time).
Believe it or not, when I called to tell the partner in charge that I’d had a better offer, he had the temerity to bleat about coming back from Athens especially. “Look,” I said (this is a conversational tic I’ve been working on; all the best buyout guys do it and it’s a brilliant way to sound authoritative) “I know you must be disappointed. But let’s just focus on the bigger picture, yeah? I’m the client, ergo ipso facto I’m always right. QED? Besides, just think of the air miles.” He muttered something inaudible and hung up (how he ever got past engagement manager level I’ll never know).
It’s hard to convey the sense of anticipation that gripped the office as 3pm approached. People were literally bouncing off the walls with excitement – except for my boss, who was walking around with a face like someone had tortured and killed his prize schnauzer. I guess people just show excitement in different ways. I must admit, I had a few butterflies myself as our appointment with the great man loomed larger – though that was balanced by the sneaking suspicion that his surprise London trip was to pat us (by which I mean me) on the back for my amazing olive oil deal.
Anyway, at the appointed hour, we trooped dutifully into the boardroom, to find the great man towering over that legendary slab of mahogany (I say towering; technically he’s only 5”4, but what he lacks in stature he makes up for in charisma).
He didn’t waste any time. “Don’t even think about sitting down,” he barked at one of the partners who’d foolishly attempted to take the weight off. “If your ass is on a chair, it’s a lot harder for me to kick.”
It was around this point that I began to suspect this meeting was not primarily a back-patting exercise.
“Listen up,” he growled. “I just got last year’s numbers. You want to know how Europe did? Do you? Well, let me put it this way. If I’d taken a big pile of my cash, and asked a passing bum to go and try his luck at the track, he’d probably have earned me more money than the brainiacs in this room. You people are a dead weight on this franchise. You’re a goddamn anchor, dragging the rest of us to the bottom of the Atlantic. There are more dead dogs in this portfolio than in the back yard of a Korean restaurant. And don’t even think about crying macro. We are Big Shop. We laugh in the face of macro. We rip off macro’s head and spit down its neck.”
All around him, spittle-flecked buyout guys in expensive suits try desperately to keep their heads down (clearly not everyone has the confidence that comes with a blue-riband track record, like me).
“So as of now, you’re on notice. I don’t care if Germany declares war on Iceland and collapses into the sea; you will make me double digit returns in 2013. Or I’m going to come back with a very big axe and start chopping. Are we clear?” There’s an embarrassed mumble, and people start slinking shamefacedly out the door.
Afterwards, as I reflected on the meeting, and thought about that hugely talented group of executives doing their level best in hugely trying circumstances, I was left with just one overriding thought: I really need to start lobbying for deal-by-deal carry.