Beating the boys at their own game
Interview with Robin Saunders, head of principal finance, WestLB
The Guardian, Saturday 28 September 2002 01.47 BST
Robin Saunders has no time to sit and talk. A reluctant interviewee, she prefers to answer questions on the run, while walking through the smart Soho headquarters of the Football Association this week.
Clad in black, the extraordinary deal-doer is dodging cameras at a press conference hastily convened by the FA to celebrate the signing of a deal many thought would never be achieved. Saunders, 40, has just pulled off another block-buster.
The American is the mastermind of the £426m loan for Wembley, the world's most expensive stadium, which is already two years behind schedule and millions of pounds over budget.
After clinching probably the most complicated deal of a decade-long career in the City, the head of principal finance at German bank WestLB briefly lets down her guard to admit to being "elated".
One of the City's highest-profile financiers, Saunders is a rare example of a woman who has made it to the top in the City. It has made the formally trained dancer very rich. Although the size of her pay packet is undisclosed, few doubt it contains millions of pounds each year.
Saunders has made her name as the banker to the clients many other financiers turn away. They include Bernie Ecclestone, the Formula One boss, and Philip Green, the flamboyant retail entrepreneur. Both are no longer just business associates but friends.
All her deals have one thing in common: high profile with risk on a scale that some bankers regard as potentially deadly. However, it is not a story of complete success. She tried - but failed - to take over Railtrack. Ditto BT's fixed lines. Like her successes, her failures are done under the very public gaze of the City, where the audience is often sceptical about the motivation of a woman who is still regarded as an outsider in the clubbable financial world.
The failures do not faze her. "Lots of bankers try to complete thousands of deals that never get completed. I'm not the slightest bit bitter about not having succeeded [in all the attempts]," she says.
The latest deal, financing Wembley, is the most daring and publicity grabbing of all the 30 or so she has clinched since arriving at the staid German bank four years ago. This irritates Saunders.
"Everybody accuses me of being a headline hog but it has been exactly the reverse. It's very irritating that people keep accusing me of wanting headlines when I never speak to the press. It's very frustrating," she says.
The mother of two-year-old twin daughters, she is regarded as a shining example of how to thrive in the macho culture of the City. She agrees that it is harder, as a woman, to succeed in the City than it is on Wall Street. Tantalisingly, she "would rather not say" why she believes this to be the case, no doubt for fear of shocking the boy's club with her forthright views.
Left without a seat at the packed press conference, she laughs when a German television reporter asks the FA how it feels to have called in the Germans to fund the stadium where at the last game in October 2000 England lost by a goal to the old enemy. To her, the deal is not about old rivalries, it is just a deal - another way to make money for her German employers.
"We're in the business to do transactions," she says. WestLB is the third bank to try to finance the controversial stadium that suffered enough set-backs to put it on a par with the millennium dome fiasco. Lehman Brothers, the Wall Street firm, and French bank Société Générale, are also helping WestLB and will aim in the coming weeks to find other financial firms to join a loan syndicate.
Previous attempts have failed and some in the City are yet to be convinced that she will succeed in off-loading the risk of the loan into the wider financial market. A more ambitious plan for Wembley, with a hotel and visitor centre, failed to receive City backing in 2000 when Chelsea FC boss Ken Bates ran the Wembley project.
Then Barclays spent months working on a loan for the current, scaled-back version of the Norman Foster 90,000-seater Wembley until WestLB blasted on to the pitch in the spring.
Saunders says she was invited in. Her team only started to work on trying to crack the financing after being approached by Multiplex, the Australian construction firm, with the contract to build the stadium. "They told me at the time they had seen what we had done and that we had done transactions that others had turned away," she says.
Her field of financing is known as principal finance and also involves securiti sation - using the streams of income generated by business to support a loan. "The expertise we have is for structured finance. It involves complexity," she says.
This complexity means that WestLB makes more money than on more simple, traditional deals. Saunders - who receives a bonus based on the deals - insists that the clients do not get ripped off either.
It is a business that was synonymous with Guy Hands, the former Nomura banker, until Saunders came on to the scene with a widely reported ambition to beat Hands at his own game.
Most banks have such operations. It is just that some are higher profile than others. Saunders and her team arrived en masse at WestLB in July 1998 from German rival Deutsche Bank. They met while working together at the London branch of Chemical bank, long since integrated into US financial firm JP Morgan Chase.
Saunders says she came to the City in the early 1990s to avoid the recession in the US. It also suited her because she had just got engaged to fellow financier Matthew Roeser, now at Commerzbank.
Hiring Saunders and her team was a bold move by WestLB, a bank that will continue to be funded by the taxpayers of the German state of North Rhine Westphalia until 2005, when it has to give up its state guarantee to comply with the demands of the European Union.
There is speculation that Saunders will have long flown the nest by then but she makes it clear that she has no intention of leaving. She will, she says, even be at WestLB when the FA cup final is played at the new Wembley, all being well, in 2006.
Born in North Carolina but brought up in Florida, Saunders describes herself as a team player, a member of a 30-strong group of financiers. When asked about the lengthy process of negotiating the Wembley transaction, she talks about key colleagues - Tim Nathan and Neil King - on the deal and the "ethos of our team".
"The team works well together," she says. Even so, it is Saunders who is perceived as the star, something that is rumoured to upset her bosses in Dusseldorf.
Her profile is not just for her deal-doing. Earlier this year she threw a lavish bash in Florence. It was triple-whammy for her 40th birthday, 10th wedding anniversary and the baptism of their twins. The extravaganza is said to have cost as much as £300,000. Saunders only says: "I don't know what was spent on those parties."
Just weeks before she had celebrated the 50th birthday of Bhs boss Philip Green - her friend and client - at his £1m toga party.
With her party hat on, how will she and her team celebrate the Wembley deal? Saunders insists the margins from Wembley are too tight to do anything too lavish - despite the fact the banks and lawyers are said to be making £80m in fees. "I think we'll have a modest dinner," she says, admitting that partying is not the main thing on her mind right now.
After yet another sleepless night putting the final touches to the Wembley deal, Saunders says: "I just can't wait to sleep." Hardly the party animal.
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