Eoin Butler's Q&A
AIFRIC CAMPBELL, former banker and author of On The Floordiscusses the high-flying world of investment banking
Your new novel is about a young Irish woman’s rise to the top of a major London investment bank. Is it autobiographical?I suppose you might call it “autobiographically informed”, given that this is a world I had first-hand experience of, as a managing director for Morgan Stanley. I wanted to bring that world to life in a novel, and I wanted to explore how a woman survives in such a male-dominated environment. But it is not the story of my career.
Investment banking is a tough career for anyone, male or female? Absolutely. By definition, a high-reward environment is a high-risk environment. It’s very difficult to get a job and, once you’re hired, it’s even tougher to stay ahead.
Yet women continue to be under-represented. Why is this do you think?There’s a perception that men want to shut women out in finance, but I would dispute that. I think [the under-representation of women] has more to do with women’s own ambition and their desire to cope with the level of stress involved. But that point gets drowned out in all of this talk about glass ceilings.
The book is set in the early 1990s. Why then?Because that was right before the maths geeks took over the universe. In those days, not everyone on the trading floor was an MBA. Lots of people still came from a market trading background. These were people who had left school at 16 or 17 years old. It was very intense. You worked very long hours. You didn’t leave your desk. There was lots of screaming, lots of shouting.
The popular perception of the market is that it is a place with a culture and morality vastly different from the rest of the world. Is that fair?There’s no doubt that it’s a bottom-line business. It’s driven by investors and shareholders who want returns on their capital. There’s always the possibility of swindling and fraud. But that’s the same in any business. When things go wrong, the issue is just as likely to be incompetence, negligence, technology as a factor in allowing people to make huge bets, and global connectedness in business, where one house of cards collapsing sets off a chain reaction.
Given what a bruising business it is, what motivates the high flyers?When I started in banking in the 1980s, the average new recruit was someone who was very bright and ambitious, but not necessarily very highly qualified. As the rewards became ever higher, it became a destination point for graduates. I was involved in hiring people and there was a very obvious shift in that people were now coming to it for the money. It became a very closed community, where money and its benefits were taken for granted.
A lot of people are satisfied when they’ve got enough money to feed themselves and to go somewhere nice for their holidays. Why are others driven to go so far beyond that?I remember in 1988 a trader on the floor next to me announcing out of the blue, to no one in particular, that “you need at least £6m to be able to walk away from this business”. Don’t ask me how he came up with that number. I don’t remember him having an expensive trophy wife or kids to educate. I think a lot of people stay in the business because it’s something they’re good at and they’re not qualified to do anything else.
When did you quit?It was 2000. I suffered post-natal depression. Was I working like a dog? Yes, but I wouldn’t go as far as to say that the job was a contributing factor. I’ve always thrived in stressful environments.
You use the expression, “working like a dog”. I can’t help noticing that this is your third novel in four years.Yeah, I’m one of those people who is happiest when I’m working. It doesn’t matter what I’m doing, I just enjoy being busy. Writing is a very different type of work from what I’d done before. It’s solitary. You have to really trust your own instincts.
The invention of the laptop computer was a pretty cruel twist of fate for writers, wasn’t it?The tool they use for work is also a source of infinite distraction . . . That’s why the laptop I use for writing is not connected to the internet. I have a special writing laptop that no one is allowed to touch. Otherwise I’m lost in cyberspace all day.
On The Floor, by Aifric Campbell, is published by Serpent’s Tail, £12.99/€15