Rudolf Wötzel was a roaring success in investment banking. Until 2007, he was head of M&A for German-speaking countries at Lehman Brothers. He’s also held senior roles at UBS and Deutsche Bank.
Wötzel made up his mind to quit banking during an Alpine hike from Salzburg to Nice in 2007, shortly before the collapse of the US bank. Today Wötzel, 49, resides in a lodge near Klosters in the Swiss Alps, where he writes, gives seminars and runs a pub. We spoke with the dropout about his life in investment banking and why he left it all behind.
How did you get into M&A?
For the most part, I chose M&A because it had the best reputation and the best career progression. I started with the US consulting firm Booz Allen. I never asked myself what my interests and skills were. And I had no sophisticated understanding of what different jobs there were in a business. You don’t get taught how to build a career, so you just go by the glossy brochures and the company’s image.
The turning point came in 1989 with German reunification. At that time we had completed many projects for the Treunhandanstalt, the organisation tasked with privatising state-owned enterprises in the former East Germany. It was basically M&A work and because of this I fell into the M&A business. In addition, Booz ran a kind of acquisition-services M&A boutique, where I stayed until 1995 when Booz closed it down.
Why was that?
The personality types in investment banking and consulting are quite different. In consulting, there is a much wider range of personalities and characters with their own interests outside of the workplace. But in investment banking, everyone conforms to the same culture. This is also reflected in their graduate recruitment: The banks are rigid in their training – they are mostly after finance graduates.
But banks also pick people with a scientific or mathematical background
Absolutely. But they focus on certain universities. By contrast, in consulting, the best graduates come from a broader range of disciplines: theologians, physicists, linguists. They look for intelligence, entrepreneurship, creativity and curiosity. By contrast, investment banks want people who can toe the line.
Which universities do the investment banks target?
At Deutsche Bank, it was the European Business School (EBS) in Oestrich-Winkel in Germany and the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland. Then of course the London School of Economics, and INSEAD in Fontainebleau, near Paris. They only sporadically recruited from normal colleges, like Mannheim and Cologne, if at all. EBS graduates are much more homogeneous than those of a German public university.
At which point did you decide to quit investment banking?
As a banker, by your mid-40s you are one of the old guys. Compared with US investment banks, German ones are a bit gentler, but Lehman Brothers was one tough cookie. There was an exclusive focus on bonuses, which was preached by the executive board. This baffled me and quite simply I wasn’t happy. My job was no longer about solving interesting tasks.
In addition, my M&A job was expanded to a broader client-relationship role for investment-banking products. I soon discovered that I’m not a product pusher. After the internet bubble burst, revenue targets were increased by 30 percent each year. I eventually knew that I couldn’t continue to work like this. My bond with the bank and colleagues got weaker and weaker as time went by. I was leading a mercenary existence, which made me frustrated.
How did you transition from working in M&A to living in the Swiss Alps?
First, I crossed from Salzburg to Nice in the Alps, and I wrote a book. I've gained distance from investment banking and gained self-reflection. I’ve also done other things: I’m not only running a pub in the Swiss Alps but I’m also an author and I give lectures and seminars. I find my new responsibilities very inspiring and motivating.
Having these broader responsibilities is much more satisfying than being a little cog in a big wheel on an M&A deal. Today I am more of an entrepreneur, so I have a different relationship with my eight employees at my pub. I feel more like their patron, someone who looks after them in a holistic way, rather than just controls compensation budgets.
When you start your first job as a young person, compensation should only be of secondary importance. The more important questions are: How international is my job; what’s the culture like in my organisation; how is my relationship with my boss and the team; and which career paths do I have? Twenty years later, however, and it’s all about bonuses. Investment banks are educating their people in a very wrong way.
How should the investment-banking industry reform itself, particularly in terms of the careers it offers?
I don’t understand why banks don’t see the current crisis as an opportunity to explain to the public what they actually do. Most people don’t know what an investment banker does. The average person thinks i-bankers spend their days wasting money, and their nights at the whorehouse. These are the prevailing stereotypes.
Second, banks must understand and instil the intrinsic motivations of new employees, and not just motivate them with money. Third, they must better absorb the cycles of the investment-banking business. During my time at Deutsche Bank there were seven consecutive quarters in which 10 percent of the staff were fired. After two years like that, you can forget about motivating people without money.
How should young bankers develop their careers?
I would tell them: You'll be pigeonholed into working on financial models from morning to night. So you should be confident enough and have the backbone to demand that you also get an overview of the entire process. In addition, you should be intellectually curious. You have to understand that during the course of your career completely different skills will become important.
I've seen it happen time and again that young people succeed up to associate or even vice president level, and then suddenly they get stuck and frustrated because they fail to understand that other things are suddenly as important as managing projects. Young people must develop a feel for particular job requirements at different levels. It’s also vital to develop a specialisation in which you will be recognised as competent and valuable – for example, specialising in hostile takeovers. And one last tip from experience: you have to learn to say no sometimes, and make it amicably clear what works and what does not.
Did you work horrible hours in M&A?
There’s a lot of competition as to who works the hardest and does the most hours. While there’s clearly a diminishing marginal return for doing additional work, I don’t know anyone who succeeded in banking because they worked too little. You can organise your life so that you keep most weekends clear, but of course there is no such thing as a 40-hour i-banking job.
Face time is a real problem in banks. People come to the office at 10am – before anyone else arrives – and stay until 2 the next morning, so everyone can see how long they work. Working hours are strongly influenced by the head of department and whether they have a balanced family life. If the boss has a family and is not a workaholic, there’s a different spirit in the team. If he stays at work until 3am, then no analyst dares leave before him. We have even had cases where an over-worked intern ended up in hospital after two weeks in the organisation.