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As we cross the Geneva head office of Edmond de Rothschild, the private bank and asset management group, on our way to lunch, Ariane de Rothschild opens a door. “I’ll just show you the birds,” she says.
We enter a room lined with display cases full of hummingbirds, stuffed in the 19th century for a French collection. Each bird is mounted on a branch, its breast feathers iridescent and its long bill poised as if to probe pollen from a flower. The birds look vividly out of place in this sober temple to the accumulation of great wealth.
Baroness de Rothschild recalls how she read about the dusty collection in a magazine, acquired it and had it painstakingly restored before moving it to this office. “I said it will be good for the bankers, and I thought they were going to make fun of me but they really like it. So I achieved what I wanted. I said, ‘Please can you open your minds to other things around you?’ ”
There is something of her hummingbirds in de Rothschild, a wilful, colourful creature enclosed by history and money. She holds the famous name by marriage, but has come to wield great, and controversial, authority within the family. A year ago her husband Benjamin named her chief executive of Edmond de Rothschild, and she has plunged into a legal tussle with his cousin David de Rothschild, who runs the separate Rothschild Group. The latter is the best-known of the family banks, and was formed from NM Rothschild & Sons, the UK merchant bank, and the French bank rebuilt by David after its predecessor was nationalised in 1981.
We exit the bank and she checks the route to the restaurant she has booked with a chauffeur who is waiting outside. Then we leave him behind and set off on foot, de Rothschild striding in a rolling gait with her shoulders thrown back. As we cross a street, I notice she is wearing unusual shoes for a private banker — purple pumps with metal skulls on the front.
“They are my eldest daughter’s shoes. [Alexander] McQueen, I think,” she says. “We are all the same size, same height. Five women in the house, so it makes exchanges quite easy. But then they say to me, ‘Mum, no, no.’ ” She imitates their protesting gestures at her offers. “ ‘Those are shoes for old people.’ ”
We bump into her assistant at another corner and de Rothschild takes further instructions. She has lived here for 20 years, since meeting Benjamin, son of the bank’s founder Edmond, while she was working on a financial trading desk at the insurance group AIG in Paris. But she still seems unfamiliar with this steady, conservative city on a lake, and more at home in New York or London, where she was earlier in the week.
“Bonjour, bonjour. Madame de Rothschild,” she calls to the greeters as we come through the first-floor entrance to the Chez Philippe grill, opened last year by Philippe Chevrier, a Michelin-starred chef and hotel owner who is a family friend. It is a light, Modernist space that feels more like a New York City restaurant than a traditional Swiss one. The de Rothschilds helped to fund it, and get a discount on meals in return.
As we sit, my phone dings with an alert: “Terrorist alert in Geneva.” I scan the news as de Rothschild examines the menu. The police are hunting for a link with the recent attacks in Paris. The loud restaurant chatter is unbroken — it takes more than a vague threat to disturb the Swiss bourgeoisie. I ask her what she thinks of Geneva, where she came at the age of 30 (she is now 50), and she tries, not very successfully, to give a tactful reply.
“I think it’s a fantastic city for children. The Swiss are really nice people: calm, considered, polite . . . It’s very conservative, so breaking the codes was a bit of a challenge. It was made worse because very privileged, very well-to-do people had a hard time understanding why I would work. I have to just stay in line and be . . . ” She pats the air, as if telling herself to keep quiet.
Is that hard for her? “They used to say to me — they still do — ‘You’re really not very diplomatic.’ They’d say, ‘Can you be, please, be more round on the edges?’ And I say, ‘I don’t know how to do that. I try. It doesn’t happen.’ ”
Who says that? I ask. “Everybody. Even my parents, since I was little, they’d say, at times, ‘Can you be a bit more . . .’ ” She gestures calmingly again. “And I say, ‘Look, I think it’s a waste of time.’ ”
De Rothschild gives an amused stare with her pale blue eyes, and it is obvious why people find her hard to resist. She has glamour, warmth, wealth, an extraordinary name, and a determination to ignore all obstacles. She also communicates in a tactile, vigorous manner. Even sitting in a chair, she often rolls her shoulders as if walking and flaps her hands, breaking off sentences as she reaches the final words and gesturing them instead.
She attributes this physicality to her childhood in Zaire, where she went to school — the French lycée, naturally — between the ages of nine and 18, after being born in El Salvador. Her father was German and worked for the chemicals company Hoechst, meeting her French mother in Portugal. (“Her father was from Alsace and he said, ‘Not one of my daughters will marry a German,’ so she ended up with . . .” She waves ironically.)
“In Africa, there is a lightness of being, probably because you have no choice. There’s a lot of poverty, misery, death, but people there have this joy of life. It’s very strong. You laugh a lot, you joke a lot, you have a warmth about you . . . I think, ‘You know what, we all have problems, good and bad [but] it’s a matter of posture, vis-à-vis life.’ ”
De Rothschild has ordered two salads and the first, a wedge of iceberg lettuce with bacon, walnuts and blue cheese, arrives along with my chicken liver mousse and two glasses of wine. Chevrier has known Benjamin de Rothschild since their teens in Geneva and they share an enthusiasm for fast cars and motorcycles. The menu is that of a New York grill with a Geneva twist — the ingredients are American, the style is French.
She and Benjamin met when the young Ariane Langner moved from New York, where she studied financial management at Pace University, to Paris for work. She was sent to meet one of AIG’s most valuable clients, and soon afterward a messenger arrived at AIG’s trading floor with a bouquet of flowers.
“I said, ‘No, it’s not here, must be for someone else.’ They left, and came back again with the flowers. They said, ‘No, it’s here.’ All the guys applauded. They said, ‘Finally, we’ve found somebody for her.’ It was so much fun. On trading floors you have no intimacy, so they said, ‘You have to call to say thank you.’ As I did it, they were all behind me saying, ‘Go! Go!’ ”
Mayer Amschel Rothschild founded his bank in the 1760s in Frankfurt and founded a dynasty through his five sons that reached to London, Paris, Vienna and Naples. The Rothschild banks are much less powerful than in the 19th century — Goldman Sachs and others dwarf them — but remain family-owned, with a rare mystique. It took time to realise what she had married.
“It’s seven generations, so the weight of history is heavy, very significant. The name is in the history books, so at some point you have to face that and say, ‘How do I live with it? Do I accept it or not?’ That part is much more complex than the money. There are a lot of wealthy people but there’s not a place, except maybe the African bush, where you say ‘Rothschild’ and people don’t say, ‘Aah’.”
She now embodies the name by running Edmond de Rothschild, rather than merely being the family shareholder. The move was prompted by a crisis over tax evasion and banking secrecy, which exposed Swiss private banks to scrutiny and fiercer competition in the mid-2000s. “The Swiss are very polite by nature and you are thrown naked into cold water. Getting them up to speed, to be more active, to challenge themselves, was a gigantic change.”
They tried another chief executive for three years, and then she and her husband decided she should step in. “I can’t give a better proof of my commitment as a shareholder . . . Two weeks after I started, Sunday afternoon, I came to work and I said, ‘Security, please open my office.’ That time they were laughing, almost joking at me. The following Sunday, I said, ‘Can you please open my office.’ Now they’re not laughing.”
She differs from her husband, who is a keen yachtsman and drives racing cars, happy to spend time relaxing. “He has a great distance, a completely different temper. I admire it because I can’t. I have to be totally hands-on. I think it’s a feminine thing, like with mothers and fathers. Mothers have to be taking care of the children, making sure.”
De Rothschild’s first salad is taken away as her second arrives — papaya with chicken, lime and soy. I have gone off the New York track by ordering noix de Saint-Jacques — scallops caramelised with lemongrass. She nibbles her food, but does not seem wholly engaged. “It’s papaya, I think chicken. It’s very good,” she says when I ask about it. She becomes even less absorbed when I mention her dispute with her French cousin by marriage.
The row is over whether the Franco-British bank has the right to style itself as Rothschild & Co and use the name Rothschild Group, rather than adding a first name or initials to make clear that it is only one branch. She insists that David de Rothschild broke centuries of oral tradition by adopting the Rothschild & Co name in September, which he denies. “One absolute family rule is that no Rothschild uses the name without characterising it. Just ‘Rothschild’ is not allowed, and adding the extra layer of converting into Rothschild Group. It’s not allowed,” she says.
Surely most people already regard the Franco-British bank, which specialises in mergers and acquisitions, as the main branch? De Rothschild gazes unblinkingly across the table at me. “Yes, but we are three times bigger. That’s the little detail that everybody forgets . . . The wealth business really performs, year on year. Make your space and don’t infringe on mine. This is not an immature or volatile decision, it’s business.”
She is not a Rothschild by birth, I say. Does David not tell her to mind her own business? “I’ve always said the Rothschild name belongs to Benjamin, not me. I say, ‘David, I’m not a Rothschild and I don’t pretend to be one but Benjamin is and my daughters are.’ I’m just the one taking the heat.”
Traditionally, the male Rothschilds either tended to marry Jews or their wives converted to the Jewish faith — as her mother-in-law did when she married Edmond de Rothschild. Yet Ariane de Rothschild has not followed the convention, and I ask her why.
“It’s an extremely long process and to go through it means that you truly have faith and I don’t know how to do that. It’s much worse to convert and not to believe. There are commitments in the Jewish faith: you will not lie, you will not cheat, you give money to the poor. I think by not being Jewish, you have to prove to be a Jew every day.”
Family arguments and religion are touchy matters yet she is quite unfazed by discussing them, such is her serene self-belief. We turn to her daughters, now aged from 13 to 20, and their ambitions, ranging from fashion journalism to working as a reconstructive surgeon rather than banking. “The third one says, ‘Mum, I don’t know what I want to do in life.’ I say, ‘Who cares? You have plenty of time.’ ”
This raises the question of who runs the Rothschild banks over the next few generations. The Rothschilds traditionally stick to male primogeniture and David de Rothschild’s son Alexandre is seen as his likely successor. She believes this tradition should be reformed, a topic she has discussed with Jacob Rothschild, the British financier who left NM Rothschild in 1980 after falling out with his cousin Evelyn. Lord Rothschild’s RIT Capital formed an asset management partnership with Edmond de Rothschild four years ago.
“Jacob says, ‘Ariane, this is the trend’ and I say, ‘That’s exactly why it’s interesting. How will you, or can you, alter the trend?’ ”
What is his reply? I ask.
“Jacob, contrary to me, is the greatest diplomat, so he looks at me in a very, very kind way and he says, ‘Oh, if you say so, Ariane.’ So I get no answer.”
She believes it, though?
“Of course. Many businesses have been passed to women within a family — highly successful, well-managed businesses. Definitely.”
As yet, none of her children is old enough to work at Edmond de Rothschild, but she wants them at least to grasp where their wealth comes from. “Tonight, there is a year-end drink with employees and my daughters always come to that. Sometimes I say, ‘I have to do a speech and I’m terrified.’ They say, ‘Go on, Mum, we believe in you.’ So I say, OK. I cannot disappoint them.”
The noise of the restaurant has diminished and we sip our coffee. One thing has puzzled me — she has what looks like a big diamond-encrusted nail twisted around one wrist. It turns out to be a present from her husband, a Cartier white gold and diamond Juste un Clou bracelet, which retails for $47,000.
The bracelet, designed in 1970s New York and described by Cartier as “the expression of a rebellious nature”, has been on her wrist for four years, through hospital and airport scans, because she cannot remove it. “I put it on and I don’t know how to unclip it. I would need to go to a store and I don’t want to, so it’s there forever,” she says lightly.
By this time, one of her daughters has messaged to say the police have put up a barrier near their home in the search for terrorists. I settle the bill, which includes the 5 per cent discount she is given for having invested in the restaurant. “Terrorists and trendy restaurants. Geneva is really changing,” she remarks cheerfully as we walk away.
John Gapper is the FT’s chief business commentator
Illustration by Seb Jarnot