I can pinpoint the moment I realised that the City wasn't going to be for me. It was 9 January, 1993, the day I started work at Credit Lyonnais Laing, the stockbroking firm where I had accidentally got myself taken on as a trainee investment analyst. It took just one afternoon spent twiddling my thumbs at my new desk amid the bedlam of the dealing floor, ignored by my new colleagues and traumatised by the sight of so much computer equipment. I resolved to leave as soon as I could.
Indeed, it was three months before anyone could think what to do with me. After nearly six years, two jobs and another bank, I finally managed my escape. By then I had somehow climbed on to the corporate finance treadmill at Flemings, where I was too busy churning out presentations to work out how to climb off. My chance came when my team was disbanded. Faced with having to join a new team or a new bank, I chose neither. Eighteen months on, I still offer up daily thanks for my deliverance.
By taking that decision, I joined a growing band of refugees from the City. They come from every level: ex-brokers, ex-bankers, ex-traders who have swapped the big salaries, bigger bonuses, fast cars and first-class travel to try their hands at careers as writers, farmers, entrepreneurs - almost anything you can think of. Outsiders, steered by the media to regard City bankers and brokers with fascination, envy and disgust, might well be baffled.
The answer to why so many are fleeing the City lies in its dramatic upheavals over the past decade. Big Bang, the deregulatory reforms of 1986, captured headlines at the time but the revolution raged on throughout the 1990s. Faced with intense competition from foreign banks, the demands of new technology and the globalisation of financial markets, the City responded by becoming better managed, better qualified and more professional.
At the same time, constant changes in bank ownership and unseemly fights for market share have changed attitudes and working practices, undermined loyalties, exaggerated expectations and heightened internal politics. In practice, this has meant for many City workers a relentless routine of 14-hour days and working weekends. The long lunch is a distant memory for veterans. For most, the midday meal is now a bolted sandwich at the desk. While the popular perception of the City is a gung-ho, work-hard, play-hard culture, the reality is work hard, work hard ...
'Sure, I'm earning more than I can spend,' says one banker, 'but that's because I don't have the time to spend it.' He plans to work in the City for another year or two, stashing away a fair bit of his six-figure salary, then get out. Why? 'I just don't have a life at the moment and I don't want to burn out in my thirties.'
He is not alone in this view. For many of its workers, the City no longer represents a career but rather a tour of duty. Enter in your twenties, earn hundreds of thousands of pounds, then get out - before you burn out - about five years later. Headhunters see this development at first hand. 'A lot of people are thinking about what's important to them in their career,' says Aliza Blachman O'Keeffe from leading firm Spencer Stuart. 'They want to have fun like the people they work with, believe in what they are doing.'
When Arabella Cecil and I met as colleagues at Credit Lyonnais Laing, she was a highly rated food industry analyst, a rising star of the firm. She had joined as a lowly desk assistant two years after leaving school but by 1995, at the age of 27, she was being paid pounds 120,000 a year for heading a team of eight analysts based all over Europe. I remember her working terrifyingly hard. She wasn't happy, she tells me now. 'I felt there was something missing in my life but I didn't know what it was. I had my priorities all wrong.'
The death of a close friend in an air crash just hours after she had seen him prompted a radical rethink. 'It just brought home to me that you may not have all the time you think.' Her escape scenario did not extend beyond going to Guatemala to learn Spanish, but she then travelled to Bolivia, where a chance encounter with the Associated Press bureau chief led to her staying on for a year. She worked first as a photojournalist, then joined the team that produced the Oscar-nominated IMAX (wide screen) film Amazon.
Today she has several other film credits, runs her own IMAX production company, Gravity Pictures, and travels frequently to America. She says she finds the fulfilment in her work that she did not get in the City. 'The great thing about working in film is that, in some small way, you have the chance to inspire people,' she says. 'You could never do that with a broker's note.'
Cecil left voluntarily but Jan McCourt did not, yet their stories have much in common. Until three years ago, McCourt was a syndicate manager at Dresdner Kleinwort Benson (DKB). At weekends he would go home to a farm on the Leicestershire-Rutland border, where he and his wife kept horses and a few Dexter cattle. With 15 years of City life under his belt, McCourt reckoned he would work another 10 years before he could contemplate giving up the City and living on the farm full-time.
Then in August 1997, he was made redundant. At 37, he knew it would be hard to find another highly paid City job. He also knew he never wanted to work in the City again; he'd had enough. 'In the '80s, it was very exciting. We worked hard, drank hard and travelled hard,' he says. 'But by the end, the market was a very different place. Individual relationships no longer counted as much. When you needed help with a difficult piece of underwriting, it was no longer enough to track down a friend from another bank in a nightclub in a foreign city and get a verbal agreement over the phone. Everything became far more cut-throat.'
McCourt's immediate problem was what he should do with the farm. Without his City salary, he would have to turn it into a commercial operation or sell the home he loved. By the time he got home that afternoon, he had made up his mind. Today he runs a thriving rare breeds and speciality meats business. He does his own butchering and has recently expanded into pre-cooked meals.
'At the time, the redundancy seemed a terrible blow,' he recalls. Swapping the Saab 9000 and the racing-green Jaguar XJS for a yellow ex-BT metro van was easy, but taking his eldest child out of private education was less so. 'But with hindsight, although we still struggle financially, it was the best thing that could have happened. The big advantages are spending more time with the family, having control over what I do, and feeling part of the real world.'
In the headlong win-at-all-costs scramble for market share, competition between banks has become extraordinarily ruthless. and this extends to the way bankers treat their own colleagues. Perhaps this was inevitable, given the enormous sums of money being made and the breakdown in traditional company loyalties. It was this that lay behind John McLaren's decision to quit the City and become a full-time writer of City thrillers. His third novel, Black Cabs, was published at the end of last year. 'What I hated most was the politics,' he says. 'The actual giving of advice could be quite rewarding. But the whole environment was intensely political.'
McLaren had never intended to become a banker. He had begun his career as a diplomat and ended up in the City after a secondment to the Tokyo office of Baring's in 1981. 'When I left university in 1973, nobody I knew would have dreamed of going into the City,' he says. 'At the time it was regarded as much like estate agency - full of rather thick people who looked good in a suit.'
Today, although the City is seen as a place for clever people, the nature of banking remains the same, he explains. 'However nice their suits, investment bankers are basically hustlers. I hated the idea that the people I dealt with might view me that way.'
If McLaren had a Damascus moment, it came in 1995 when he found himself at a Morgan Grenfell lunch surrounded by lawyers and accountants discussing the latest deal. He had come straight from a private breakfast meeting with a friend in the music business. The contrast between the two events could not have been more startling. 'My friend in the music industry probably earned a fifth of what the bankers and lawyers earned, but I found myself thinking, who's having more fun here?'
It is more than just working conditions and relationships that have changed in the City. So, too, have the institutions themselves. Even in the early '90s, many of the more traditionally minded banks, like the ones that I worked for, seemed to wear their lack of proper management as a badge of honour. Indeed, conventional City wisdom had it that brokers and bankers were far too mercurial to be conventionally managed.
Today such attitudes, like the organisations that held them, are history, and strong management is now seen as essential to the success of any international investment bank. In part, this has been a response to events in the wider market. The collapse of Baring's in 1995 and of LTCM in 1998 highlighted the need for sophisticated risk-management systems, and stricter regulations have imposed new responsibilities on banks to ensure they have adequate compliance procedures.
Mergers have put unprecedented demands on personnel management, but other forces have been at work. Well-run US banks demonstrated to a complacent City the value of proper management. A new breed of bankers emerged in the '90s; they had been drawn into the City in the boom days of the meritocratic Thatcherite '80s and showed scant respect for the comfortable arrangements of the old order.
'There's no doubt the City became far more professionally managed during the '90s,' says Jesse Norman, 37, who until 1997 was an assistant director in the corporate finance department at BZW. He now divides his time between studying for a PhD in political philosophy and running Wide Learning, the web-based financial training company he co-founded.
'In the past, very little attention was paid to career planning, professional training or risk management,' he says. This suited him rather well. As a bit of a 'square peg in a round hole in the City', he says, the 'loose management' at BZW provided him with a level of freedom he would not have had at CSFB, the new owner of BZW. Certainly, it is hard to imagine investment bankers today having the time, or the inclination, to edit a collection of essays on the conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott and co-write a book on the Polish privatisation programme, as Norman did while at BZW. But he is in no doubt that similar 'exotic and unusual characters' would find it hard to survive in the City today.
The increasing professionalisation of the City is a theme that James Scrimigeour, 32, is quick to take up. When he was made redundant by DKB in 1998, in the wake of yet another round of restructuring, he ruled out looking for a City job. He chose instead to team up with a former colleague to found The Chair Company, a London-based retailer of low-cost designer chairs. He recalls that when he started in the City in 1986, straight from school, a book would be set up on Fridays as to what time a particular colleague would return from lunch. 'It was never earlier than three.'
Scrimigeour managed an equity derivatives sales team. 'There's no way that would happen these days,' he says. 'The market now is dominated by a new breed of highly qualified, dedicated and focused professionals. You have to be serious Eurotrash with an American business school degree to work in the City.'
Simon Franks also regards himself as a victim of the growing professionalism. As a fixed-income arbitrageur at Paribas, the problem for him was that the markets he worked in changed radically. By his own account, he was something of a City whizzkid, earning bonuses of half a million dollars in his early twenties. In the '90s, however, the derivatives market became much more sophisticated. The spreads - the differences between buying and selling prices - narrowed until it became virtually impossible to make profits. 'In the early '90s,' he says, 'the institutions were getting their faces ripped off. But once they got smarter, things got much tougher.'
By then Franks had saved enough money to start his own business. In 1998 he founded Redbus, a film distribution company that he intends to build into the leading supplier of video-on-demand. Among his backers are Cliff Stanford, founder of Demon Internet. Although he says he enjoyed his City days, Franks is far happier with his new lifestyle and, judging by the size of his Covent Garden office and the presence of a senior City PR man throughout our conversation, he is doing very nicely.
No examination of the exodus from the City would be complete with mentioning the dot.coms, although these may have lost some of their lustre of late. Andrew Weir quit a pounds 100,000-plus job at DKB for eBookers.com, and Paul Hammond moved to digitalbrain when his bank closed. Both went from working ludicrously long hours to, well, working ludicrously long hours. The difference was in what they felt they were achieving; rather than working in an environment that was about little other than money, they felt they were building something in a far more pleasant environment.
Although most of the City refugees I talked to say they miss the money, not one would choose to go back into banking. Each in their own way testifies to the extent to which the City changed through the '90s. For better or worse, it has long ceased to be a place simply for 'men who look good in suits'. Bankers have had to become far more focused and committed, and the square pegs in round holes, those with unfulfilled creative urges and those who lack the right qualifications are finding it harder to survive.
There will be a lot more City refugees, out of choice or otherwise, before this revolution is over. It is already turning out to be a bumper year for consolidation among City banks, with Flemings, Schroders and DKB all facing upheaval. Many of those who find themselves out of a job as a result will leave the City for good. Similarly, any prolonged downturn in the markets is bound to lead to job losses as second-division players review their commitment to investment banking. But nervous City workers can take comfort from the experience of so many of their former colleagues. Leaving the City may be the best thing that could happen to them.
A DAY IN THE LIVES OF JAN McCOURT
ON NORTHFIELD FARM
2.00: Wake up to help pig with farrowing.
3.00: Back to bed.
5.50: Alarm. Listen to Farming News.
7.00: Check e-mail.
7.15: Check farmyard.
8.30: Feed animals.
11.30: Drive to abattoir to collect carcasses.
13.00: Eat cooked lunch with five full-time staff.
13.30: Deliver meat to Hambledon Hall and other restaurants.
14.30: Farm repairs, deal with any crisis, paperwork - if time.
19.00: Snack supper.
19.30: Paperwork (customer orders, bills, compliance with regulations).
7.15 Breakfast at desk; check overnight bond positions.
7.45 Morning meeting on sales and trading.
8.00 Syndicate department morning meeting.
8.30 Corporate finance morning meeting.
9.00 Second breakfast.
9.15 Meetings and phone calls with clients, colleagues, journalists, other banks.
12.00 Lunch out with clients or in Roux Brothers' in-house canteen.
14.30 Paperwork, meetings, phone calls.
18.00 Departmental meeting to review day's trading.
20.00 Return to office to finish paperwork.
21.00 Pub with colleagues.
22.00 Taxi home. Light supper.
A DAY IN THE LIVES OF JESSE NORMAN
IN THE LEARNING ZONE
3.00: Woken up by daughter, Nell (two); she goes back to sleep; I toss and turn, then go down and read e-mails.
5.00: Back to bed.
7.30: Breakfast with kids: Nell plus Sam (four) and Noah (one). Usual struggle for airtime and control of Sugar Puffs.
9.00: Take Sam to school.
9.15: Work on PhD thesis. Read, think and drink lots of tea.
15.00: Drive to Wide Learning's offices in Clerkenwell.
15.30: Client meeting: major commercial bank looking to use our learning content to train recruits. Discuss their plans and custom work required.
16.30: Out for quick coffee run.
17.00: At desk. Talk to head of sales about new business prospects. Meet product, technology and operations people to discuss developments.
18.00: Interview potential recruit for US operation.
19.00: Sprint down to get car before lot closes. Drive home.
19.30-20.30: Read to Sam and Nell; dinner with wife, Kate.
21.30: Final e-mails, read a thriller in the bath
6.45 Get up, dressed, etc; tiptoe out past baby Sam's room.
8.25 Northern line gets me in late; frantic breakfast at desk; skim papers and screens.
8.30 Morning meeting to review progress of markets/deals.
9.15 At my desk in Corporate Finance; talk to clients, review marketing pitches, negotiate use of internal team resources.
13.00 Quick lunch in canteen. My 6'5' and pencil-thin colleague Wade has his usual four-course meal.
14.00 Client presentation.
17.00 Brief team meeting on the client's reaction and follow-up work. Discuss other projects in hand. Load up on the latest internal gossip.
18.00 Review tomorrow's pitch slides. Call a quick meeting to get them fixed, review the financial analysis.
19.00 Order in pizzas.
22.00 Home and bed.