SHAKEDOWN – Chapter III
Metal Bulletin presents the third chapter of this traders’ tale.
Arriving in Vienna, Serck gave the bank’s address to the cab. Hugo von Resch may have been a banker, but this was not some downmarket as a faceless international corporation. This was a private Viennese bank, squeezed into an elegant baroque building near the Stephansdom and the State Opera House, with nothing more than a discreet brass plate on the door to identify that this was the home of Stroheim & Co. Inside the door was no impersonal banking hall, but a paneled reception area, with an extremely attractive ice-blonde sitting at a desk. She whisked Serck into the lift and up two stories, where von Resch was awaiting him.
“Jason, what a pleasure to see you again so soon. Please, come this way.” He led Serck along a corridor lined with portraits and opened a heavy oak door at the end. Serck went through, into what was definitely not the glass box office of an American banker. He gazed at what seemed like acres of wood paneling and dark wood furniture. Again, the walls were laden with portraits of men, at a guess from the 18th century onwards. Von Resch saw the direction of Serck’s gaze. “Ah, some of my ancestors,” he said, waving his hand dismissively at them. Jamie Dimon may be the rockstar banker, thought Serck, but this was real class.
They sat in deep leather armchairs before a low table, on which was set out a coffee pot, cups and milk. Von Resch gestured, and Serck nodded. “Yeah, black, thanks.”
“So, Jason, what brings you to our lovely city? Have you some interests here, or is it purely a social visit?”
“Well, to be frank, I have an idea that I think may be mutually beneficial.” Von Resch raised his eyebrows quizzically. “I’m always interested to hear ideas, but what could a small Austrian bank have that is of interest to the major player in the metals business?”
Serck smiled. “You’re too kind, Hugo. But first, I’m intrigued about Stroheim. It’s not a name I’m familiar with.”
“Well, there’s no reason why you should be. We have never been involved in the US, so our name is indeed pretty much unknown over there. But we’ve been around in Europe for a long time. Some of these” – he pointed at the portraits – “are indeed my ancestors, although my family came to the bank a bit late, after the original founders needed some more capital for expansion.
“Actually, it was an arranged marriage, originally. My family were merchants, and had money, the Stroheims had the bank which needed that money. Maybe it was a marriage made in heaven.” He laughed. “History doesn’t record that bit – just the economic success of binding the two families and creating a dynasty that has endured. In fact, historically we have always looked east for our business. My forebears managed to insinuate themselves with the political power of the Dual Monarchy and the Empire – Metternich used to bank with us, by the way – and that gave them a great deal of support in financing trade with Russia during the 18th and 19th centuries.
“There was a time when our offices in St Petersburg were larger than the head office, here in Vienna. We built up good relationships during that period, with the Imperial Court and the landowning classes. But the generation at the turn of the 20th century were not blind as to what was happening in the world – unlike the European Imperial families (Austria-Hungary included) who buried their heads in the sand. So Stroheim were talking to Lenin while he was in Switzerland – well, we’re financiers, so of course we try to ride both horses at once. In fact, that sealed train you’ve undoubtedly heard so much about? At least partially financed by Stroheim money. It was a two-edged sword, or so they thought. Disrupting Russia would help the German and Austro-Hungarian war effort and close up the eastern front so they could focus on the west. Well, it half worked. Russia was disrupted, but what the two Kaisers hadn’t worked out was that it would spell the end for them, as well.”
Serck interrupted. “The law of unintended consequences.”
“Yes, a gigantic failure to see into the future. But for Stroheims, not so bad. Austria-Hungary was broken up at Versailles, and that killed several of our competitors. But we had a friend in Moscow, who was prepared to overlook our previous links with St Petersburg – as long as we were useful to him, of course – and that gave us a ready-made new business among the ruins of Europe. It wasn’t easy; routing finance into Soviet Russia during the 1920s and 1930s was a complex business, certainly frowned upon by the western democracies. But for the Stroheim bankers at the time, that wasn’t really relevant. They were financiers and traders; the old empires had gone, a new one was rising. I can just remember my grandfather speaking about it. For them, it was business as usual – funding developments in the east. They weren’t politicians, they had a job to do. And it worked. We built up very strong relationships throughout the new eastern Europe. After all, whatever the communists may preach, the reality is that they need capital just as much as anyone else, and their utopia doesn’t produce it by itself.”
“But what happened when the Soviet system fell, in the 1990s? Weren’t you swept out by the new broom?”
Von Resch shook his head. “Not at all. It was the same again, but just the other way around. The new owners of Russia still needed finance, and we could still provide it. Anyway, this time around I was there myself, and you would be surprised at how many of the same faces re-emerged after only a few months. They may not have been the headline figures, but they were still there, pulling strings in the background.”
The sky had been darkening and the lights of Vienna began to be visible twinkling through the window.
“We’ve got an hour and a half to two hour drive down to our estates, Jason. It’s probably time we should set off, before the traffic builds. We’re heading a bit south west, in the direction of Graz, in the Steiermark.”
They took a lift down to the garage under the building, where von Resch led the way to a dark grey BMW i8.
“Cool car,” remarked Serck, as he popped open the gull wing door. “Or maybe not so much,” he continued, as he fell backwards over the wide sill to get into his seat.
Von Resch laughed, and stylishly, elegantly, demonstrated the way to sit in the car then swing one’s legs in. “Just takes a bit of getting used to.”
Despite it being a late Friday afternoon not long before Christmas, the traffic was fairly light, and they made good progress out through the suburbs. Through his relationship with Elon Musk, Serck was familiar with the quiet running of electric cars, but it was still novel enough for him to comment.
“Yes,” said von Resch, “I do this journey on a Monday morning and a Friday afternoon, and this car is good for it. It’s pretty fast for the autobahn, and still quiet even at speed. I’m convinced of the future for electric and hybrid cars. I think it’s clear that’s where the industry is headed, and of course with my Arctic Mining hat on, it’s great for business.”
Serck kept his own counsel for the moment, and simply nodded his agreement. They had left the city by now, and von Resch swung up the ramp onto the autobahn in the direction of Graz. As he put his foot down, Serck could hear the sound of the petrol engine working along with the electric motor, easily pushing the car above a 160 kilometers an hour. As they drove south west, they chatted more about Russia and the changes there had been since the fall of the Soviets. It was clear from von Resch’s conversation that Stroheims were deeply involved with a string of oligarchs across a range of industries. It was also clear that he was himself personally well known to those people. And as well as being the chairman of Arctic Mining’s Swiss sales subsidiary, he was a full board member of the parent company.
Eventually, after about an hour and a half, they pulled off the autobahn and started following a quiet Landstrasse. It was fully dark by now, but in the beam of the headlights, Serck could see the land was heavily wooded. Another 20 minutes or so and they turned through a pair of massive stone gateposts and a followed a narrow drive.
“Here we are,” said von Resch. “Onto the estate.” The drive started climbing through the trees, the darkness pressing in on either side of them, until, breasting the top of a rise, a floodlit building appeared ahead of them. Serck made a double take. This was not just a country house, this was a genuine, five-star, central European castle, complete with turrets and towers, and, as he saw as the car swung onto the gravel square in front, wooden doors that looked as if they had been designed to stand a siege. As von Resch opened his car door, so the castle doors swung open and two men stepped toward them.
“Good evening, Carlo. This is Mr Serck. Could you get his bag taken up to his room, and we’ll have a drink in the hall before dinner.”
“Certainly, sir.” Carlo signed to the younger man with him to take Serck’s luggage, and led the way through the huge doors. Inside they came into a full-blown baronial hall, complete with roaring log fire. Carlo served them drinks, and they sat before the fire. “I’m afraid my wife and the children are away this week. She’s Italian, and they are visiting her parents in Milan for a few days. So it will just be the two of us. I’ve told them to cook wild boar, which I think you may enjoy.”
Serck sat back in his chair, drink in hand. He was a very, very rich man, but he knew when he was outclassed. He and his wife lived in one of the finest houses in Far Hills, New Jersey and a very smart apartment on Park Avenue. But this was a different league altogether; this was solid gold, generations-old European family money. This was class that only Europe could show. He swigged his drink. Still, he was going to have a good shot at using it for his purposes.