A Remembrance of Barry Geller
Robert Jackson on His Friend and an Era at Chase Geneva
Following graduation from Oxford, Robert Jackson built a career in finance, working for British Petroleum, Eurofinance SA Paris and Kleinwort Benson in London and Geneva before joining Chase Manhattan (Suisse) SA Geneva in 1984. He served Chase as head of the investment department and senior portfolio manager for Private Banking International Chase Europe. Jackson returned to Kleinwort Benson in 1990, before leaving for Lloyds TSB Bank Geneva in 1995. He was there until 2001 and joined HSBC in Geneva, retiring at the end of 2005. In retirement, Jackson became a student again, earning an MLitt from the University of St. Andrews (Edinburgh) in 2008 and another Masters from the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa, in 2012. He is now back in Geneva, from where he sent this remembrance of his colleague Barry Geller and the banking era they shared. For Geller's "In Memoriam" and other remembrances, please click here:
I first met Barry Geller in a room on the fourth floor of the old (chocolate) building of Chase in Geneva in the spring of 1984. A month or so previously, thanks to Alex Bridport, I had been interviewed there by Peter Bloem and Peter Holzer for a job as a marketing officer. It seems that Alex Bridport had shown no interest in the job, as he was then living in London, but had said to Chase: “Why do you not try a guy called Jackson who works at Kleinwort Benson?” So it was that I subsequently went round to Chase for an interview with Messrs Holzer and Bloem. They were clearly not very impressed with what they saw because I subsequently never heard anything from either of them.
Some weeks later I was at lunch with a friend who introduced me to Americo Wehbe, who had flown in from Zurich that morning for an interview at Chase. On returning to my office at Kleinwort Benson I thought: “Bloody hell, they are interviewing this guy for a job and they never even came back to me.” Somewhat irritated, I picked up the telephone, called Chase and asked for Bloem. To my surprise, Bloem, not his usual dry laconic self, replied rather animatedly, explaining that things had changed at Chase in Geneva, and that they now had a new country manager. I should come round to see them at once.
At the time, Chase in Geneva had a problem. The principal business of the bank was Private Banking, yet the components of this business were like two trains driving in opposite directions. On the one hand, there were the marketing officers who reported to a very charming man called Pierre Respinger; on the other, a small investment management group, headed by Raymond Larcier, who reported to Bloem. Respinger and Bloem both reported to Holzer. It seems that Respinger had discouraged his people from introducing clients to the investment management group, afraid that investment performance would be so bad that clients would leave the bank. In an attempt to improve on this situation an investment manager, Claude Roosens, had been seated amongst the marketing managers, with a view to improving communications between the two groups. But by the time Bill Rowan arrived in Geneva as the new country manager, it had been decided that more drastic measures were necessary. Marketing officers and investment managers were to be merged into one group headed by a new face brought in from New York. And that face was Barry Geller.
So it was then, after meeting Rowan and Bloem, I was introduced to Barry. I was not sure that I liked him. It was not that I disliked him, but after Rowan, to whom I was drawn immensely, I wondered whether or not we would get on. Little did I know how things would turn out and of the affection that I would come to have for this man.
Barry was a lawyer who had worked in Chase’s Trust department in New York. Perhaps it was for this that he was chosen for the job. Or perhaps it was because a more perceptive eye had seen that what was needed in Geneva was not diplomacy but a sledge hammer. Barry knew what had to be done and went about it with the determination of an evangelist assured that he was moving in the right direction because there was no other. No one was fired, but both Respinger and Larcier subsequently left the bank of their own accord, while Bloem, who had introduced Holzer to the culture of Private Banking, floated somewhere above in the clouds for a period, but left the bank a few years later.
I was hired with a view to taking over from Larcier to generate confidence in the investment management group among the marketing officers. The key to this was the Tuesday morning meetings when the Investment group would review developments in the financial markets and comment on the outlook through a review of the Private Bank’s investment policy. Hitherto, the marketing officers had only turned up at these meetings when they felt inclined to do so. Barry insisted on compulsory attendance, which certainly did not make him a popular figure amongst the marketing officers. The job in hand was to make these meetings lively and instructive, yet interspersed with touches of humor, such that the audience would eventually look forward to attending them. Barry always came to these meetings, and often Rowan, who had immense knowledge and understanding of financial markets, was there as well. Slowly, together with Diego Moretti, George Lobcowicz and other members of the investment management group, we began to turn things around. Financial markets were also favorable and, with more and more accounts coming under management, Geneva soon began to look like a bit of a success story. For this one man was essentially responsible and that man was Barry Geller.
His support for the investment management group was unstinting. Initially a hated figure among most of the marketing officers, his firmness on any number of issues slowly gained him respect and even affection from those who had previously been his biggest enemies. He worked equally hard with the back office where he was a key figure in the introduction of a new and very successful Private Banking software program. My impression was that among credit officers, compliance officers, computer people, indeed among all who worked in a ‘back office’ function, he was highly respected. Some of these people became his firm friends and kept in touch with him, not only when he left Chase but when he retired and finally returned to the United States.
At the time Chase Private banking had three regional loci: Europe and Middle East, which was headed by Geneva; Western hemisphere headed by New York, and Asia, which was headed by Hong Kong. For Barry, as for others, this meant management responsibilities that extended beyond those under his own roof.
Here, developments were less happy. Dealing with a Bob Lindell in Jersey or an Ossie von Gertz in Luxembourg, where it was his writ to do so, did not require the same approach or style as that used with marketing officers in Geneva. The investment culture in these regional offices was also often different from that of Geneva. In Luxembourg and Bahrain there was a gearing and trading culture with which Barry undoubtedly felt uneasy. Perhaps this was understandable given that one of his priorities was to prevent accidents. It was as if, for Barry, good investment was like normal sex and this involved straightforward bond and equity investment. Everything else was some form of sexual deviance. But he was flexible, for even in Geneva we introduced our own form of waywardness with the use of Convertible bonds as Bond proxies when they were selling, as Raymond Larcier used to say, at their investment value. Clearly this involved the question of the credit worthiness of the borrower, but once Barry saw that we were using such instruments responsibly, he did not bang on too much about whether or not Lucas Industries, Alex Brown or Jardine Strategic Holdings, to take some examples at random, fell into the Chase criteria for bond holdings. Or perhaps, in a temporary fall from grace, he thought, “Why should not the lazy bastards in New York take up some of the responsibility for controls, rather than leaving the whole burden to fall on me!” He was, for example, the first person to alert Howard Hallengren to the problems that later emerged at the Real Estate fund.
So my impression was that he eventually gained respect even in the regional offices. His biggest problems were with Bahrain, one of which concerned the production of “hand made” valuations. The seriousness with which he treated the issue – which had been rather overlooked by the Bahrain management – was fully justified when there were subsequent complaints from clients.
Barry also had an eye for management potential, as when he took George Lobcowicz out of the investment management group and propelled him up the management ladder. It was a risky decision to take on someone so young and inexperienced, but the decision was not mistaken.
I sometimes heard the comment that Barry had no understanding of Private Banking, would not be good with clients and ‘did not understand Geneva.’ This was a strange comment to make of someone who, prior to joining Chase, had been involved in solving ‘family office’ type problems of one of the great estates of England.
Furthermore, it was not Barry’s first priority to see clients, but when he did so, I never heard that they went badly. Indeed, rather to the contrary. A Spanish family that I knew held him in great affection and always asked to see him whenever they came to the bank. As for understanding Geneva, my impression is that he knew much more about the city than most of us, and not only about its restaurants. He was convener of, and played an important part in, the American lawyers group in Geneva who had close contacts with the Genevan legal community. Most of us who thought that we knew a lawyer or a law firm or two would have been hard pressed to come up with names, if asked to do so. Barry also had great affection for Switzerland and travelled throughout the country both before, but particularly after, his retirement. It therefore seems appropriate that, when the time came, under his father’s instructions, his son, Michael, scattered his father’s ashes at the Rochegude and Furka pass.
Barry’s judgments were always firm, fair and constant. When he moved back to New York and found himself reporting, for some issues, to a person who had formerly been his management equal or inferior, it did not affect his judgment of the person concerned. He showed no rancor or resentment, accepting whatever situation he was placed in with dignity.
He was not someone born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Indeed, his wife once said to me that without the Democrats and their influence in New York, “we would not be where we are today.” I assumed that this made Barry a Democrat of the ‘come what may variety’. When I once alluded to this earlier conversation, he replied somewhat sharply, “I did not say that” and here, I guess. his politics parted company from those of his wife. He was fiercely independent and in U.S. elections usually sought out an independent candidate, one being Ralph Nader. He may never have voted Republican, but certainly did not always vote Democrat. Very early on he described Barack Obama to me as a weak man, which annoyed me considerably. But, as the Syrian crisis developed, I thought, damn it, Geller has got it right again.
He always stood firm to principle, to what he thought was right, even though this meant going against the grain, being politically incorrect and, as once happened in earlier days in New York, threatening his future career. Thus, in later life, when he returned to Geneva to work with American Express, the first job that he was given was to produce a report on the bank’s trust operations. The report, when it came, was pure Geller. He recommended that they be wound up, even though this meant that he was writing himself out of a job. Luckily the bank had the good sense to keep him on and made him acting General Manager, to manage the bank in the absence of the General Manager who was often travelling.
Barry was also no lover of gossip, preferring to make his own judgments on people. Thus, when I mentioned to him that a former General Manager of Kleinwort Benson in Geneva was joining American Express, I was about to give my opinion on the gentleman concerned but then thought the better of it. But Barry obviously read my facial expression well. For some weeks later when I saw him driving down one of the main roads of Geneva, he pulled up at a traffic light, rolled down the window of his car and shouted across to me: “He’s out!”
It was probably events such as these which made me ask him – the last time that I saw him – whether he thought that there was a fundamental difference between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, that the former were straight and moral and that the latter were tricky. I should have had the foresight to realize that the answer, when it came, would not be of the type “you may have a point”, or “on the hand…on the other hand”, but something that was pure Barry: “Robert, don’t generalize.”
A friend of mine once said that when at Chase I lived under Barry Geller’s petticoats. There may be some truth in this statement – that I lived under a kind of Geller dispensation – but not much. I discovered on one occasion, however, that Barry used to take my client visit memos home with him in the evening, which he then read to his wife after dinner. They evidently found them entertaining. But there were limits. On one occasion I had begun a client report memo with the words “Mr. X, who looked as if he had stepped out of the film set of Last Year in Marienbad visited the …” The next morning I received a note in the internal mail: “Robert, this is going too far. Rewrite the memo, send me a copy and replace the original in the file with the adjusted one.” I have no recollection, though, that I rewrote the memo or that he asked to see it. So the Marienbad memo remains deep in the archives or, which is much more likely, was destroyed by a shredder many years ago. Dispensation or no, however, it is perhaps also only correct to record that, not so many months after Barry returned to New York, I was fired from the bank!
Barry’s home life must have been not without its difficulties. He stood loyally by his wife for many years, in what must have been very difficult circumstances. When she died, he had the good fortune to meet again his love from college days, but he had this encounter cut short when she died of cancer. It was this lady, I think, who encouraged him to write poetry, something he continued to do when he moved back to New York where, with neighbors in his residence, he formed a poetry group.
I kept in touch with Barry – rather loosely with the occasional e-mail – when he moved back to the United States. I think that he was happy to be in the residence he found in upstate New York and in touch with family and friends, particularly, perhaps most of all, his granddaughter of whose achievements he was extremely proud. He always replied promptly to my e-mails, but when he did not do so earlier this summer, I guessed that something was up. And it was, for a week or so later I heard from his son, Michael, that his father had died.
How does one sum up? It is difficult to find words to do so. But one thing is sure, I will never forget Barry.