One obstreperous City gent taking a swing at another as their world explodes around them.
It sounds like a screenplay of an Ealing Comedy of the 1940s designed to boost the spirits of war-torn Britain.
It was in fact the less edifying drama being played in public at an employment tribunal this month as Patrick Evershed, one-time fund manager of the now defunct New Star Asset Management, accused his old boss, John Duffield, of bullying.
This is not a modern tale of investment banking and billions lost in esoteric derivatives by traders living a champagne-filled existence of private jets and parties.
This is a story of two intemperate septuagenarians in the sunset of careers that have made them rich managing money for clients.
Mr Evershed accuses Mr Duffield of browbeating staff in 2008. It was the height of the financial crisis and just months before New Star was sold for £115m to rival Henderson, a sorry end for a company that three years before had been valued at £1.5bn.
Mr Evershed and Mr Duffield both come from a vanishing part of the City – two English blue-bloods surrounded for much of their lives by wealth. Mr Evershed, a staunch Tory and scion of both the eponymous brewer and law firm, was tutored at home and studied economics at Trinity College Dublin.
Mr Duffield – a doctors’ son educated at Harrow with an Oxford first in biochemistry – was for a while married to Vivien Clore, the Sears retailing heiress. He has made several fortunes, not least netting about £200m from selling Jupiter, the fund management group he founded before setting up New Star in 2000.
Neither Mr Evershed nor Mr Duffield are flashy. While Mr Duffield in 2002 was making much of always wearing the same Marks and Spencer jumper and driving a Ford Mondeo, Mr Evershed was holding up a 1970s photo of himself roadsweeping in Westminster during a strike. He was wearing the same tie 30 years later.
Now Mr Evershed is suing New Star for constructive unfair dismissal. A Court of Appeal ruling last year also allowed him to bring whistleblowing claims, which means no limit on potential damages. But any winnings will be offset by legal costs.
Mr Evershed doesn’t even get to confront his opponent directly. Mr Duffield is not appearing in court – “he is very much Banquo’s ghost,” says a court attendee – and Henderson is picking up the tab.
The best that onlookers will take from the case is a story of insults, ill-tempered outbursts and misplaced humour. Mr Evershed admits he called a colleague a “vile little runt”. But he claims Mr Duffield prowled and growled, humiliated managers and destroyed their morale, calling them “morons” and “criminals”.
Theodora Zemek, the bond fund manager who left New Star abruptly in 2007, says the “appalling” atmosphere at New Star was “like a Hitchcock film”. She said staff operated “in a context of terrible fear and paranoia”.
New Star’s lawyers counter that Mr Duffield’s comments were light-hearted banter.
Perhaps Messrs Evershed and Duffield have more in common than they would like to admit in court. Both seem to relish a good legal set-to and neither backs down easily.
In 1990 Mr Evershed won an employment tribunal case against Framlington and threatened action against another former employer Rathbones in 2002.
Mr Duffield sued Commerzbank for wrongful dismissal, winning millions in an out-of-court settlement, and during the 2002-4 split capital investment trust scandal he threatened action against the Financial Services Authority.
Mr Duffield well understands the “psychological levers of fear and greed”, says another ex-colleague. Mr Evershed claims Mr Duffield had told how he kept Commerzbank directors waiting while receptionists turned up the heating because it was “easier to negotiate with people if they were feeling uncomfortable”.
Mr Duffield’s management style still inspires devotion as well as dread. Ms Zemek says Mr Duffield was “very Jekyll and Hyde”. “There were moments when John was extremely charming and moments when he was totally the opposite.”
Many former New Star staff, including Stella the secretary whom Ms Zemek said was left in tears by Mr Duffield, work at Mr Duffield’s newest enterprise, Brompton Asset Management.
The terms at New Star – shares in the company and few controls – attracted some of London’s best-known but individualistic fund managers. Mr Duffield’s daily presence, removing managers when they tripped up, was part of the deal.
The case shines some light on investment management, but New Star’s culture allowed managers unusual freedom. “Few groups are as colourful and most impose more process and bureaucracy. We don’t have those kind of jokes,” says a rival.
In the end, the case is more likely to be remembered as a tale of two old roosters who, like the best stars of stage and screen, showed little appreciation of their full comic potential.