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Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Axa Chairman Anthony (Our Tone) Hamilton
And the Secrets of CEO (Our Hen) de Castries
Says "We're really wide boys"
Penge's Hamilton Palace project starts soon

A Feature Interview with Dan de Lyon

I meet Anthony Hamilton, Axa's chairman, at my club in Pall Mall. I inveigled Our Tone into accepting my invitation to lunch, rather than the other way around. Then I don't have to be beholden to his hospitality. The club affords a decent meal and a quiet place to talk.

We both settle for a chilled cream of leek soup to die for, and follow it with roast pheasant in a Shrewsbury sauce. So often you get pheasant plain-roasted and dry but I think you need a good wine sauce, and my club's chef does us proud. Our Tone says it makes a change from the Savoy Grill. He goes there most days to have fishcakes, washed down with his own squeezed seaweed juice. When he thinks the waiter isn't looking-which of course he always is-from an electroplated silver flask he pours this nutty concoction into his glass, surreptitiously.

I make sure to order a decent wine, a youthful but smooth Burgundy that would impress any run-of-the-mill bureaucrat and bean counter, which is what Our Tone really is. I know the club's cellar well, so it's quite reasonably priced. As it turned out, this mellifluous wine may have unleashed the torrent that was to cascade from the horse's spout.

Flamingos Will Bring Class Action

"Work should soon start, at last, on my new house in Penge. Hamilton Palace I'm calling it," says Our Tone. Long the butt of unkind jokes, he says Penge now resembles Pimlico, if not Belgravia, for those who want to get out of the hurly-burly of central London.

Our Tone digresses with some history I didn't known before, "You see Penge used to be within the parish of Battersea, which long ago was part of the endowment of Westminster Abbey. The word Battersea is actually a corruption of St. Patrick's Eye."

I must confess, I had never credited Our Tone with any such esoteric erudition.

"Work hasn't started yet. That's all I can say for now," says Our Tone. However, a moment after commenting on his delayed erection, Our Tone then divulged that after all he had more to say. "I do have more to say," he said. "After all."

Our Tone smirked, and added suavely-Suave qui peut!-that work on Hamilton Palace will start soon, and it will be an even more grandiose mansion than previously envisioned.

"That's because I'm Life Confident," says Our Tone. "Of all the things I can say about myself, and there are indeed many, far too numerous to count," he adds, "in the Life Confidence department I'm Number One. Be Life Confident! That's the Axa motto. Lie-Con! for short. I go around all day saying to myself Lie-Con! Lie-Con! And to everyone else. Funny thing is though that some people think I'm a bit of a fanatic."

Our Tone paused and then added, as he does slowly, unmercifully, and with oppressive frequency, his joke-notification alert, "Ha ha!"

Our Tone wants to disarm critics who may say that Hamilton Palace is vulgar or just plain common. He says it will be a palatial bungalow-hence, Palace!-of almost five thousand square feet. On the lawn of Astroturf, two giant flamingos will stand proud. Cast by Claus of Innsbruck. In pink plastic. To Penge, he insists, they will bring class.

Buyer Beware! always trumps Be Life Confident!

After more chitchat over lunch during which he boasted, tediously, about his stamp collection, we repaired for coffee to a quiet corner in the library. On the way there he told me that Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke, Helicopter Ben, makes him think of his nineteenth century stamps from Heligoland. After that one I couldn't possibly escape being drubbed by another Ha ha!

Our Tone packs his coffee with as much of the club's rainbow sugar as he can get into his Royal Worcester demi-tasse with only a little spillage. Fortunately, my club brings coffee in a silver pot and not just by the cup, and they bring plenty of sugar too. So Our Tone can make his coffee into something like crystallizing honey, which he consumes with his spoon.

Remarkably, Real Tone, as I now came to perceive him, then seemed to feel he had to do an about-turn, a volte-face, a Damascene conversion, to pour forth inner thoughts of a kind most people expect to remain inner. Almost dolefully, as if measuring out his life with yucky spoons, Our Tone says the thing about Hamilton Palace is it will also give him personally some fulfillment, and class.

"You know," he says, full of rue and also a little melancholia, "I have to confess, and I've never done this before, I never really did feel comfortable about Lie-Con. This Life Confidence business is really a load of rubbish. Lie-Con might just as well stand for lying and confidence tricks.

Our Tone confessed that a few years ago Axa got the record fine for misleading advertising: "We misled a couple of hundred thousand mostly elderly people into buying overpriced life insurance and savings plans on the basis of celebrity advertising that was all bollocks.

Of course, we pretended it was a mistake. Mistake, my foot! We don't make mistakes like that. Lying and confidence tricks, you see! In any case, the fine might have been a record, but actually it cost us no more than what it took to send a single letter to each person we ripped off!"

Our Tone went on to tell me that most of the time they keep one step ahead of the regulators, but the FSA in London (Financial Services Authority) hit Axa with a hefty fine for palming off sub-prime mortgages onto customers for whom they weren't suitable.

"Look at it like this," continued Our Tone. "When Axa says Be Life Confident, it's a Potemkin front. To paraphrase the great Oliver Wendell Holmes, The more we speak of our honor, the faster you must count your spoons! … The general public really needs to know that Buyer Beware! always trumps Be Life Confident! But we're pretty good at fooling the unwashed masses. And, most of the time, the regulators."

"You know, before Axa came up with the idiotic, trigger-happy Be Life Confident! slogan, we used to have one that was even more embarrassing and incompetent: You only have to Axa! Trouble was, too many people said, You only have to get fucked! I hate that obscenity but that really is what people used to say."

Our Tone says you don't have to take his word for the structural dishonesty and incompetence throughout the financial industry. It's common knowledge, with a new full-scale fiasco coming out year after year. Then ensued another pause before Our Tone finished on this subject, "Really, you see, we're just a bunch of wide boys! … Yes, wide boys!"

Before moving on from this self-deprecating display of honesty, Our Tone spluttered his joke-notification variant, "Huh! … Double huh!"

Our Tone Spills the Beans

I asked Our Tone what he thought Axa should do in the way of a corporate slogan, and he was remarkably forthcoming.

"It's easy," he says. "The slogan, if we have one at all, ought to be, You can trust Axa! Of course, you can't trust Axa. That's exactly what you can't do. That's why we don't have it. We'd need to have a promotion with Our Hen's mug shot alongside You can trust Axa! As you know, he's the boss in Paris, Henri de Castries-rhymes with pastries. That way he personally would have to be the corporate face of trust and honesty. He'd have to convince people that he personally would hold his employees responsible for his own image of integrity.

"Of course, we'd also have to set up something like an ombudsman's or an ethics commissioner's office so as to pretend to have credible independence. Some banks have this kind of setup. One thing I can tell you for certain is that Our Hen is hopelessly out of his depth in providing the leadership to deal with the most elementary questions of corporate morality. In the final analysis that means he hasn't got what it takes to lead a multinational financial corporation in an age of worldwide corporate malfeasance."

The club's waiter arrives with a fresh pot of coffee and he can't contain his surprise upon seeing that the normally ample supply of rainbow sugar has been entirely consumed. With the deference of Jeeves at his most obsequious, he removes the sugar bowl. Then he returns with a silver rose bowl, like the one my club has in the front hall, containing perhaps a gallon of rainbow sugar.

"The way the industry currently operates is the opposite of what's required for a reputable corporation," Our Tone continued after another couple of nonchalant spoonfuls of his coffee-treacle. "Instead, we get lawyers to stonewall claims. Even the entirely legitimate ones if we can obstruct the claimant till he quits. If we pay out on one in ten of those, and the other nine go away, Axa wins. Of course, it's easy to pay off small claims and you have to pay out on most of the very big ones because the claimant has enough at stake to take a case to court. But there are numerous valid intermediate claimants who get shafted because it pays us to have our lawyers wear down the client's ability to pay his."

"Fortunately for Axa," Our Tone continued after more slurps, "we live in an age in which personal morality is relative, although not of course to the extreme extent that it was in Hitler's Germany. We can hire lawyers to do our dirty work, and some of it is frankly unsustainable ethically, but they have no problem going home to their spouses and children as if they were reputable members of the community.

He said that in all honesty--funny word for him to use, actually--he had to admit to some feelings of guilt about some aspects of his operations, which he supposed was why he was telling me all this. He thinks there must have been at least some people at Lehmans, and City Bank and Goldman Sachs and RBC and the rest of them who wrestled with their conscience before the implosion, but said and did nothing when they could and should have done so. Such, of course is the state of our society and incompetent regulation that they kept their ill-gotten gains and didn't go to jail as they should have.

Our Tone pauses for breath after blurting out so much ghastly truth elicited by his own seemingly new-found integrity.

Axa in Shady Lane

"It's called bad faith insurance," then continued Our Tone. "Of course, the claimants we screw are generally not very vocal. So there's seldom much downside for Axa.

"Let me tell you by way of example about the rare troubles we ran into in the US. The most prominent was a seemingly great ploy by our mutual fund subsidiary, Alliance Capital. Unfortunately, we got found out and the SEC hit us with a quarter billion dollars by way of penalties and disgorgement. A quarter billion dollars!

"Then there was our attempt to set aside the agents' benefits when we took over the Equitable insurance company. We ended up settling for about $70 million when it became obvious we'd run out of stonewalling. We might have won that one by attrition but there was a chap out in California who had the bit by the teeth."

Our Tone says Axa's lawyers pulled every trick in the book to avoid paying up. Apparently--not what Our Tone actually admitted--it seems it was another real-life Erin Brockovich story, as in the movie with Julia Roberts.

A couple of years ago we got caught out yet again and the US financial regulators fined Axa Advisors for inappropriate diversion of customers' money and conning them with misleading sales literature.

"You know, Our Tone continued, "like everyone else we boast of our prowess in wealth management. Well, it's a good thing more people don't know about the family trust one of our subsidiaries managed from 1928 to 1996. They started with the equivalent of about US$100,000. At the end of almost 70 years they paid out less than $30,000. Then we pretty much successfully got the beneficiary to go to hell when he complained."

According to my calculations, the starting capital would have bought about 50 houses like the one George Orwell lived in near Notting Hill. The ending capital might have bought a basic mid-size car. Or a garage to put it in. But not both. Amazed, I asked how that was possible unless there had been catastrophe specific to that trust during the Great Depression. "Oh no," he said. "They came through those years all right but after 1945 we just kept on buying gilts, mortgages and debentures, and of course the pound collapsed too."

Actually this chap was luckier than he might have known. According to a report from Reuters I found about fines imposed on Axa for levying needless fees, they managed by that process to reduce one account to zero!

Our Tone takes on the Frogs

Now Our Tone's volubility gathered speed. Evidently, you can never get Our Tone to shut up once you get him going down the reminiscence trail--that long, dreary, shady memorial lane of a life not fully satisfied. "Maybe I shouldn't say this but I think I will anyway," he says.

"I'm retiring soon, so what the hell! The trouble with Axa is those festering frogs," he rants on. Sensing a politically incorrect gaffe, Our Tone hastens to say that he has an affinity with the French and his best friend is French. That's his miniature French Poodle called Rolex, which Our Tone thinks is a French brand, although of course it's Swiss French! Rolex is his Watch Dog! (Ha ha!).

He can't abide the pompous and ludicrous ENA e-nark attitude in Axa's management. And their ideas about the duplicitous, thieving Napoleon as the hero they seek to emulate: aggrandizement for the sake of power, and the end justifies the means. Reminds one, he says, of Enron-a difference in degree, but not a difference in kind.

"You know," lectures on our Tone, didactically, "you have to understand where these people are coming from. The textbook illustration is what Our Hen's friend Dominique de Villepin says about the Battle of Waterloo. According to him, it's inexplicable that the English won the battle! For the French, he says it was a defeat which gleams with the aura of victory. … Really! These people are Jesuitical twits … Of the first water. Put that, you see, in the context of Be Life Confident!"

Secrets of the Cunt of Monte Cristo

Our Tone paused for coffee-treacle before pulling out more personal detritus. After the pause, he continued with indiscrete and truculent observations about Henri de Castries (rhymes with pastries, he keeps saying), Axa's French CEO, Our Hen as the English call him. When they're being polite. Our Tone says Our Hen was actually the model for Alistair Deacon in the sitcom As Time Goes By, starring Judy Dench.

Of course, Our Hen has his French chateau and Our Tone will soon have his palace. But it's unlikely Our Tone really believes Hamilton Palace, however grandiose, will come within a million miles of matching the Chateau Castries.

Our Tone now pulled out a soiled and dog-eared clipping from The Financial Times. After a two-hour interview with Our Hen over a hogger's lunch, Adam Jones wrote a fawning article for the FT on January 25, 2008. In it he disclosed that Our Hen now goes out with a chaperone. Even in daylight. And he's prone to giggling.

"I begin the interview," writes Adam Jones, "by asking about his remarkable family tree, which groans under the weight of achievement." However, there's no mention of Waterloo Two, the Great French Disaster in 1954 that was the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. A certain Christian de Castries was the commanding officer presiding over the defeat that booted the French out of Indo-China and led to the Vietnam War. Another one contributed mightily to the financial meltdown that destabilized France at the time of the French Revolution.

Our Hen has no qualms about criticizing the morality of others. Adam Jones, again: "I think Mitterrand was a guy with a vision but totally amoral," continues de Castries. He is even more scathing about Jacques Chirac, the president who came next. "Chirac was a combination of the two worst things: amorality plus absence of vision."

According to Our Tone, Pastries (as Our Tone refers to him when taking flight) personifies Axa's shallow and misleading corporate slogan, Be Life Confident! He's the corporate persona, and vice versa. "Of course," continued indiscreetly Our Tone, leaning over and with a slow, lowered voice--sotto voce, in fact, "I think of him as Moody Hen. Ha ha! Moody Hen! You know, Broody Hen, Moody Hen! … Ha ha! A real study in the pseudo-noble French e-nark technocratic windbag. He's right up there with all the narkertiques he despises. … Talk about pots and kettles!"

After yet another dyspeptic pause and another spoonful of coffee-treacle, Our Tone blathered on, "Of course you'll have heard that his enemies think he's such a prick they call him The Cunt of Monte Cristo! Ha ha! Moody Hen, The Cunt of Monte Cristo! … Ha ha! … Ha ha! … Moody Hen, The Cunt of Monte Cristo! … Ha ha!"

Taking flight now, Our Tone continues, "It was our pompous donkey Donald de Chalfonts-Bleeding who came up with that one: Moody Hen, The Cunt of Monte Cristo! … Our Don--short for Our Donkey! Well, that was one thing Our Don was good for."

Gathering speed approaching a convulsive spasm, and evidently deleting expletives only with great exertion and difficulty, Our Tone now fulminated, "Our Don's thing is cutting costs by firing people and then telling them it's for their own good! Same attitude with anyone else that gets in his way--that's the Axa way we don't want you to know about. Ruthless! … Brutal! … The end justifies the means, in the hope that doesn't involve actually getting found out breaking laws and regulations."

Fulmination ended, there ensued a long pause. "Our Donkey! … Huh! … Double Huh," added Our Tone in evident disgust.

"You know," continued Our Tone, "when all's said and done, there was one person who really got the measure of Axa and French corporate governance in just a few words. That's the French economist Corinne Maier, in her book Bonjour Paresse [Hello Laziness - The Art and the Importance of Doing the Least Possible at the Workplace]. You know what she said? The corporate culture is nothing more than the crystallization of the stupidity of a group of people at any given time. The only thing she missed in those few words that I would add for Axa and most of our industry is the crystallization of greed."

That sounded to me like a pretty good definition of what wide boys are all about. The only other thing my club's waiter might have added was the crystallization of rainbow sugar--and its subsequent re-liquefaction in coffee by exertion of Our Tone's biceps.

The Aspiring Poet Laureate

After his intemperate diatribe against the frogs, Our Tone lowered the decibel level and went back to talking about Penge. Quite an inadvertent comedian is Our Tone on the subject of Penge. When you keep him from inanely stuttering the Tone-Groans about Lie-Con he doesn't believe in anyway.

"I love Penge," says Our Tone, with supreme unction. "My Vienna, city of my dreams. My Bogotá. There I shall uphold my nouveau ancestral right to bear arms. Maybe I should add the droit de seigneur to bare naked ladies! Ha ha!"

It's no exaggeration to say you can't shut up Our Tone once he gets going.

"I've written a song," he rambles on with childish enthusiasm. "The tune is The Northern Lights of Old Aberdeen. Personally, I've never traveled much beyond my old family home in my beloved Balham, which is equally dear to my heart as Penge. We cognoscenti say it as two distinct syllables, Bal Ham, Gateway to the South! I think I capture the poetic sentiment of a traveler in foreign parts, yearning as nostalgically to return to Penge. I won't belabor you with all of it. I'll just recite the chorus:

I've been a wanderer all of my life
And many a sight I henge.
God speed the day when I'm on my way
To my palatial home in Penge.

"I think I could be the Poet Laureate!" Our Tone then declares, evidently demanding to be taken seriously. "That would fulfill all my life's dreams! I can't understand a word the chap writes that we have now. I can't even pronounce his name!"

No wonder people sometimes call Our Tone Semi-Tone! He was stuck for an answer when I asked him what the word henge means in the context of his pseudo-poetic ejaculation. That question shut him up. Until, after a long pause and in his own proprietary porcine way, he grunted, "Duh!"

Out again on the pavement of Pall Mall, Our Tone got into his taxi, sniggering over what he thinks is erudite humor and poetic prowess. I sense a deeply insecure man behind the disarming toothy smile, a man struggling with delusions of his adequacy as a human being. Presumably a good time-server and yes-man promoted because of a certain naïve bonhomie.

As I write this, I find myself imagining Hamilton Palace--a bungalow in Penge to compete with the chateau where Our Hen hangs out his giggle. And I envision Our Tone dreaming of his flamingos on the Astroturf. Cast by Claus of Innsbruck. In pink plastic.

xxx

The story above is a satire or parody. It is entirely fictitious.

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