Florian Meister: As investment banker he moves 1.4 billion euros, as alpine farmer 40 cows
I meet Florian on the way to the Weitenbergalp in the Pfunderer Mountains in South Tyrol, Italy, to talk to him about his life between extremes. As agreed, I arrive before 12 o'clock in the morning. Afterwards he spoils his guests with homemade cheese, South Tyrolean specialities and other delicacies. Florian shows me beautiful alpine pasture and gives me insight into his life.
We sit undisturbed on a meadow with a fantastic view of the mountains. Since 2004 he lives from June to September on the alp. He had a steep career as an investment banker behind him, which he quit in 2002 because he no longer found it solid. He has been working as an investment banker again for many years, but now in the field of social, sustainable development funds alongside his work on the Alm. He is Managing Director of Finance in Motion.
Barbara: Florian, an investment banker like you, who has been financially free for a long time and who is at home all over the world, is not necessarily assumed to be on a mountain pasture. You could lead a more comfortable life. Why are you working as an alpine farmer?
Of course, life on a mountain pasture is a contrast to my life as an investment banker. I love these contrasts. They run through my life. I've always found it exciting to be with people who lead a different life, ask different questions and have a different way of seeing things. Most of my friends are not active in the financial sector. Why did I become an alpine farmer? The mountains have always been very important to me. After my studies in the US, I worked one summer at the Watzmannhaus, a DAV hut. I grew up on Lake Maggiore, on the edge of Piedmont. We looked at the second largest mountain in the Alps, Monte Rosa. I like that in the mountains so much is insignificant, which we normally think is important. The greatness and beauty of nature reveals itself, man with his arrogance becomes small. There are other laws here. On the alp my perception for the small things becomes sharper. I perceive nature much more strongly, the weather, the light, the sun as it stands, the animals how they move, how they feel, the flowers how they bloom and the first frost on the grass. In the cities our senses cannot be so open. We are constantly exposed to stimuli, have to filter out many things, because otherwise we would be overwhelmed. I enjoy the peace and quiet on the alp very much and never feel bored. Sometimes I have the time to grab a book. Concentrating on the essentials does me good here, less instead of more. What I particularly like about my work here on the Alm is that we manufacture our own products. As an investment banker, I have little to do with real products. Money is abstract. But on the Alm we make our own cheese, our butter and also sell milk and yoghurt. It makes me happy to make and sell a product myself. And when I see a hiker or biker enjoying food with us, it fills me with joy. When I return from the Alm to my everyday life in Frankfurt, I am much calmer than before. On the Alm, I don't even notice it. In Frankfurt I then see in astonishment how my colleagues act stressed and hectic. An acquaintance who lives in the country as a self-supporter once came to visit me in Frankfurt. He said to me in astonishment: "Nobody in the city looks at you and talks to you. I replied: "Oh Gottfried, you walked around barefoot on the Main. Everyone who sees you barefoot thinks you're a bum or crazy." That's how we are in the city. We protect ourselves with a strong filter that sorts out many things and doesn't allow them. In the city, you can't get as involved with the crowds as you can on the mountain pasture. I noticed that myself. When I came back from the mountain pasture, I looked directly at the people in the first days. But it did not last long until I was back in my old routine and no longer looked into their faces. That's a pity, but that's how life is in megacities. It's not really fair to people.
Barbara: Even if such a mountain pasture life sounds relaxed, a lot of work has to be done. You have to feed the cows and pigs, process the milk into butter, cheese, yoghurt and cream and manage the guests. And you live and work in a very small space with 4 alpine helpers. Aren't conflicts inevitable?
Yes, there is a high potential for conflict because our work is interdependent. Especially at the beginning of the Almzeit it is not always easy, when the cows are just as unfamiliar with the surroundings as we are, the amount of milk is great and work has to be done, which becomes less in the course of the summer.
Barbara: In Switzerland, there is a helpline that helps alpine farmers when someone has left the team in a dispute, the milk has to be processed urgently and a work aid is needed quickly. Have you ever had to call the Almnot telephone?
No, thank God not. Of course I check beforehand whether someone is suitable for mountain pasture life. However, this cannot always be determined in advance. Most quirks and difficulties only appear after weeks. Every employee must be aware beforehand that mountain pasture life is very extreme. You have to take yourself back and let five be straight. Otherwise it won't work. Also the openness to talk about tensions without restrictions, a certain ability for self-criticism and reflection are an important prerequisite. We meet once a week to talk about everything. Everyone tells us how they are doing and about the necessary changes in work processes. The conversations are often short, but sometimes they last hours. There have also been tears. Of course, I have also been annoyed by one or the other. But most of us have a wonderful time together and have a lot of fun together.
Barbara: When we look back at your life. Already at the age of 21 you finished your bachelor studies in the USA. Your very steep career began at the age of 26. Have you always wanted to become an investment banker or did that happen?
When I became an investment banker, almost nobody knew what that was. That was like many things in my life "coincidence". At the beginning I had worked for half a year at the reception desk of a luxury hotel in Munich. I enjoyed giving the guests the keys and doing the check-in for them. I served a lot of wealthy people there, but only got a little more than 1000 Marks gross myself. That motivated me to want to earn more. It was clear to me that this was not possible because even my bosses didn't earn much although they worked a lot.
Then I went to a big American brand manufacturer in Frankfurt. After one and a half years I realized that despite my studies I knew little about the financial world. I wanted to work in the core business, where money is really earned and profit or loss is realized. I also wanted to see more of the world. That's why I went to London to work for a consulting firm that focused on the preparation and follow-up of mergers. You were a consultant, but you were already close to an investment bank. In London, however, I realized even more that I had far too little idea and registered for the MBA course in France. That was in the late eighties when the job market for German-speaking investment bankers was booming. The whole world thought that after the fall of the Berlin Wall in Germany combined with the reconstruction of East Germany, the post would be out there economically. Because of the companies' prospect of opening up new markets in Germany, they particularly courted the German MBA students long before we even had our degree in our hands outside of Paris. An investment bank that had just started in New York and was known for having the best ideas and contacts was very interested in me. She had immediately received a huge investment from a Japanese banking group just to get them to hold 20 percent of the newly founded company. I was particularly interested in this company because it was so new and grew so quickly. I enjoyed working in new companies that were flexible and where I could make a difference.
Barbara: So what ultimately made you such a successful investment banker?
I brought with me a certain impatience, a curiosity, a nose for where I can use my skills. I knew that I could best develop them in investment banking. It also fascinated me to travel a lot, to sit in the plane in front and in exquisite airport lounges, that cars were waiting for me everywhere and especially that the job was very, very well paid. I was also motivated by the fact that if I could get a couple of years fully into it, be financially independent, I would have so much money to do only what I like. The possibility of this financial freedom was an enormously powerful engine. The industry also impressed me a lot because it is at the hub of power and can make a difference. At least that's how it was in the beginning. After a few jobs, to which large, established investment banks had poached me, I then had a lot of fun in a bank that I opened in Germany in 1999. She was very respected and mixed up the market with other points of view. There was an entrepreneurial, young, committed and open atmosphere. That was the time when big hostile takeover battles were fought out, like VodaFone buys Mannesmann. We were also involved here. The good time I had there came to an end when a French passive majority shareholder sold his majority stake in my bank at a very high price. I made very, very good money because I had options on shares. The timing was ideal. Because shortly afterwards, the Internet bubble burst. Although I and my team were welcomed with open arms by the majority shareholder, we wanted to get things moving again in a startup. Despite the market turbulence, there was still a hot market for the investment banking teams. We then went to Lehman. I had a very good and fair offer. I was able to take my whole team with me, even the 55 year old receptionist whom I had poached from a former employer, who had grown close to my heart and for whom I felt responsible. I was very grateful for that. But I didn't like the corporate culture there. The main people working there were Ja Sager. Warning signals about certain activities also in the German area, which I pointed out to them, were not gladly heard. It was about Lehman's large holdings in the media sector. I said: "I don't feel comfortable with that. It doesn't seem louder to me. The businesses we are entering are not self-explanatory." But I was completely left out, although I was a head of Lehmann's German investment banking. We all know what happened to Lehmann in the end. At that time, however, I had already left the company 7 years earlier.
Barbara: In the course of time, as you hired more and more staff, had to entertain them and make high profits, you suddenly questioned everything. Why?
I kept asking myself whether what I had to do to get a client back or a mandate paid really made sense. I noticed that what was expected of me no longer suited me. When we expected growth in transactions that we were either supposed to market on the stock market or advise customers on the sales side, I often thought to myself, "That's very brave. I also wondered whether all this would go so well, whether it would go on like this in the next 5 years and whether the valuation we are making would be valid at all. Five years later, many of the companies we floated on the stock exchange were no longer in existence. I also questioned the meaning of the products we were pushing and asked myself whether all this was still really meaningful for humanity. We were also approaching the bubble at the end of the nineties, when growth was above all else. A friend of mine bought a mobile phone sales company and then wanted to sell it on the stock exchange or to a strategic buyer. He then showed me two evaluations from competitors of mine with the offer to participate in the project. I told him: "Take one of them, but leave me out of it. I myself don't even see half the value." The price and sales expectations were completely exaggerated. It was a very good deal for my friend. Only for the investors not, as I had it in the feeling. The company later went down the drain. Today the company no longer exists. I have always doubted constant growth. I was the only one of seventy students in the finance course of my MBA studies. I asked the teachers quite insistently why stocks should always yield more than fixed-interest investments. I didn't want to get that. I already believe that equities are correctly priced and yield a higher return than bonds. But a fundamental scepticism about the sustainability of corporate investments, such as shares, has always remained. You can't afford my attitude in investment banking. You have to believe that the world is always growing, that stocks are always going up. Skepticism like the one I have is not the order of the day in the investment industry.
Barbara: Then why did you finally quit?
This skepticism has continued to breed in me. The tension between how I should present myself to customers, what I should have sold them and what I thought was right and acceptable became too great. At some point I could no longer reconcile my work with my conscience. In investment banking, one decision is supported by many. That is professional. You don't get into the emergency situation that you alone have to sign off whether 59 is justifiable for a share. Especially in these meetings I noticed that I was different from the others. After weighing up three or four opinions as to what a company would achieve in four years for a profit, I usually found myself at the bottom end. My doubts about this world trimmed for constant growth matured. In investment banking, as someone who warns, you have no chance. If you manage a hedge fund, that might work. But when you're advising board members of large corporations, they don't want to hear: "Dear board member, they have a lot of money and want to build a new business, but prefer to wait another five years. They're paying too much for it right now." Because they usually want to act immediately, report successes immediately. If you're too solid, as an investment banker you won't get into short-term business. But the investment banks only look at short-term transactions. Every few months, they checked whether I had a new mandate, whether I was worth my bonus, and they added the constant evaluations of my performance. I couldn't say I built up a lot of goodwill with clients, but I didn't sell anything. I then felt that the time was ripe to leave. I was close to burnout. My battery was empty. The work was extremely hard and no longer fun.
Barbara: Especially at the beginning, you often worked until 10 pm, mostly on weekends, travelled a lot, came home late and left early in the morning at 6 pm. Did this revision also make sure that your battery was empty?
Working a lot was less of a problem, and that's also the case in other industries. Here on the Alm it's no different. The farmers here have been awake for a long time at six and work until late in the evening. The great pressure to perform was a burden. I was highly paid, earned a lot of money, had to maintain a team and drag the business along for it. I had very high goals to achieve in a market with brilliant competitors against whom I had to do business. If we didn't get an important deal, it was customary to call a meeting in which we intensively asked ourselves why this business passed us by. It was always about large mandates, such as a privatisation or an IPO, which are only awarded a dozen times a year in Germany. That was unbelievable pressure. Thank God I never raised my standard of living or my running costs. Because that would have increased the pressure even more. Like my colleagues, I did not buy a yacht with a berth that costs 2,000 euros a month alone, two holiday homes and three cars. I always remained very down-to-earth. In the end, I didn't want to change to another bank anymore, I didn't want to continue doing something I didn't believe in. I haven't had the material necessity to make compromises for a long time. My most important motivation in life was never money, but learning, seeing and experiencing a lot. Above all, freedom was always more important to me. And in this field of work I no longer felt free. The question of whether it made sense for me to do what suits me and not to bend myself let everything else fade into the background. I wanted to surround myself with honest people, with people I really appreciate and fill my calendar only with freedom.
Barbara: You went on a trip around the world. What did you do and where were you?
At first I travelled a lot alone, partly with friends and with my life partner. I was a lot in the mountains, in Patagonia, did the Transalp from north to south and south to north. My travels were very sport and nature related.
Barbara: For many years you have been working as an investment banker again, except when you are on the mountain pasture from June to September. Why are you back in investment banking?
One day a friend who is very successful and well-known in the field of development funds asked me for my advice. At that time, I started working with development funds, first as a consultant and then as one of the managing directors. Three years ago I had the opportunity to found my own company. Now we have a beautiful flourishing company that has specialized in this niche with about 100 employees. We set up development funds, for example, which provide loans to selected banks, some of them microfinance institutions, and promote small institutions, growth in small and medium-sized enterprises. The funds also help countries that are very unstable, urgently in need of support, have not been advised by the big agencies and in which no one dares to invest because governments change quickly, are bribery and difficult to assess. Normally no investors go into such countries. We can use our funds to support useful and urgently needed projects in these countries. If, for example, a vegetable grower gets a cold store in this way, he may be able to sell the harvest, which he would otherwise have to sell quickly to a trader at a low price, even on a nearby market over a longer period of time. He gets a microcredit and does not have to pay any loan shark enormous sums. The large microfinance fund that we were the first to take on in our new company, a historic mandate, clearly stipulates in its loan agreements that no loans above a ceiling of 5,000 euros may be granted, even though it is 800 million in size, so that only small entrepreneurs can benefit. There the capital from the western countries can support good projects, which really serve the people there and also here, with us, bring yield for the investors. Another focus is renewable energies. For example, we are currently setting up a new fund for renewable energies in South Eastern Europe. We are now also starting our own research activities in order to address new social issues at an early stage, so that we ourselves can bring ideas to potential sponsors such as the EU or development ministries. We set money with the aim of bringing about social and political change. We have local offices in the countries and have the credit cards submitted to the banks for spot checks, in addition to other checks such as our own software in which they report quarterly sub-loans and general quarterly information about the institution. I like the fact that there is plenty of capital in our country to lead where it can be used in a meaningful and helpful way and where jobs can be created.
Barbara: How do you experience this financial freedom to no longer work and earn a living?
Financial freedom is also bewitched. You have the possibility not to work from one day to the next, or to sit in the plane and fly around the world. With the savings, but can also come worries if you are not vigilant. I know of people who get a nervous breakdown about it, even though they are so rich. But I also know farmers who get half a nervous breakdown because they can no longer cope with the cows. Ultimately, everything is a question of attitude. Financial freedom is a good building block, but it's no guarantee that you can really enjoy it and feel free inside. One can also wear oneself out with this financial freedom and stress just as much as before. It is not a panacea. Even then it is important to keep your temper and not to be too sure of material prosperity. Because nothing is safe. I can also wake up tomorrow and am back to zero. It has always been important to me to expand my abilities so that I can get up again when I fall down.
Barbara: Even on the mountain pasture it seems to me that your entrepreneurial thinking, your sense of optimization does not sleep. Is it difficult for you to let five be straight?
I love doing things a bit faster than yesterday. I am happy when I have found a new trick to make butter more effective. I am happy when I can optimize things. Optimisation is already a strong driving force in me. My long-time alpine colleagues sometimes say: "Florian, let it go for a change." It is difficult for me to avoid entrepreneurial thinking. It's fun for me and it's invested in me. Since I've been older, I've become more relaxed. I take more interest in others, wondering whether what I do really helps others. I have accumulated a lot of money and will not consume it all. Also the optimization mania is gone. I become more mature, like to make others happy. Always getting the best out of everything is becoming less and less important to me. The craze for optimization also raises the question, why? Is it optimization for its own sake or to give me more freedom, more leisure time, more choice? In the past, this sometimes went so far that I was forced to optimize my leisure time. At the moment when there was no more increase, I felt a void. I think we should look less at the gain, at the increase, than at the moment of enjoying and being satisfied. To enjoy being together with the people who are important to me has become more important for me. More and more people will have to follow the delusion of growth, of optimising, of experiencing happiness through these kicks, and will no longer be able to find new values for their happiness. I have left this trajectory of more and more money, more fun, more responsibility, more growth, but I am still in a learning phase.
Barbara: You had an accident. During a ski tour down to the ski depot the quadriceps tendon tore and after the operation and first recovery it tore a second time. You could barely move for six months. That must have been quite a challenge for such an active person and doer as you to be shut down like that.
That was a wake-up call, a warning that showed me that life not only provides for growth in abilities and freedoms, but that it is also necessary to deal with reduction, limited resources and diminished abilities. It was repeatedly questioned whether I could still walk with my left leg. Dealing with it was a challenge, a learning process. When I was able to cycle again for a few days between the two tendon tears, I whistled to myself. It was a feeling of happiness to be able to move in nature again. For me this was no longer a matter of course. I perceived it much more intensively. Sitting on the bike is actually the most normal thing in the world, but for me it was special. When something doesn't work like that anymore, you become more grateful and see it with different eyes.
Barbara: Our entire economic system is based on steady growth, although this is not possible and cannot be extracted from the earth. We are not used to dealing with limited goods and resources, or with reduction. Do you have any idea how we can solve this?
For decades we have been living in the illusion of a constant upward trend. We are shaped through and through by the upward trend. Upwards with the standard of living, with the salary. It's never enough for us. We want more leisure time, more relief. Everything should become ever more, ever better. What is needed in the long term is a change in values that is no longer geared to growth, but to sustainability, which relies more on the local exchange of trade and on services and controlled financial markets. The perversion that we are seeing today in the financial markets is possible, among other things, because the capital markets have positioned themselves globally, the anonymity of the traders is extremely high and there are no limits set to them. But it would be very important to set limits for them. The reward, which can be skimmed off for a new idea in view of the immense sums of money to be invested, is so great that unscrupulous people are always looking for ways to play tricks. Strong regulation is urgently needed here. I believe that globalised capitalism needs a stronger state and corresponding rules and stricter laws for the banks too. I believe that the separation of commercial banking activities from investment banking activities makes sense, that strong regulators should question the added value or clarity of new products. And I think it would be good to introduce transaction taxes in the markets to bring some friction into fast trading. Fast trading and fast asset revaluations lead to misjudged risks and often end up in emergencies. Important market participants get into distress and the state, and thus the general public, has to come in. Transaction taxes also make sense in order to build up financial reserves for necessary rescue operations.
Barbara: So do you think that mankind will have to say goodbye to steady growth in the long run?
Our whole society is more or less addicted to consumption. We have been socialised accordingly and have forgotten to listen to essential things that are not as loud as some advertisements. I never had a need for excessive luxury and consumption. In a world trimmed for growth, we no longer rejoice in ourselves and our fellow human beings, but seek joy and happiness in material things. The more one distances oneself from oneself and sells oneself for money, the more one derives one's value and happiness from money and consumer goods. But that does not go well for long. There are so many values that are not connected with material growth and yet make you happy. The same amount of product can be more fun if it happens in a local exchange and gets more appreciation, as in our alpine pasture, when someone appreciates our cheese. We have to discover a new value not only personally, but also socially, and appreciate the small, simple things more. Nothing is taken for granted. Perhaps at some point other values that enrich us, such as a family that you can rely on, good neighbourliness and being socially integrated, will count again.
Barbara: Thank you Florian.