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The cleverest man in the City of London

07 January, 2016Wioleta Banach

With the annual Henry Grunfeld Lecture just around the corner, and the opening of the brand new Henry Grunfeld Library at the Lovat Lane campus a couple of days before that, we thought now might be a good time to take a closer look at the life of the man who became one of the most influential figures in the post-war City of London.

Born Heinrich Grunfeld in 1904 in Breslau, in what was then part of Prussia, Henry Grenfeld spent his childhood in Berlin. His family were wealthy industrialists with a successful steel business and interests in the chemicals industry. He was only 20 when his father’s death left him in sole charge of the family firm. He quickly made a name for himself by turning the company’s fortunes around, which had struggled in post-WWI Germany’s economic climate.  He was also involved with trying to resolve Germany’s banking crisis of 1931. However, his Jewish heritage was an inevitable issue in 1930s Germany.

The family business became a target for the regime, which was confiscating the property and assets of Jews. In 1934 he was arrested by the Gestapo and held for more than two days, only securing his release thanks to his honourary role as Consul of Spain. Shortly after the infamous ‘Night of the Long Knives’  - a 48 hour purge in which the Nazis carried out a number of politically motivated murders – Grunfeld and those members of his family still at liberty escaped to Holland.

In the Hague he met up with his fellow exile Siegmund G Warburg, the son of a prominent German banking dynasty. The two compatriots joined forces to create a The New Trading Company which helped other refugees to get their money out of Germany. The two had compatible skills and connections, despite differing personalities: Grunfeld was always shy of the limelight, while Warburg was a charming salesman. Another reason for the pair’s success may have come from the fact that both had been born into privilege and had that taken away: Grunfeld is quoted as having said: “We both had the burning ambition and determination to get back to the position which we had in Germany and to show the world and to ourselves that we could do it.”

Soon even Holland became too dangerous for the pair and they moved their operations to London, where they would put down roots. Despite never returning to Berlin, Grunfeld would never quite feel comfortable in London. Having a strong German accent in wartime Britain would not have been easy: changing the Germanic Heinrich to the Anglicised Henry and even becoming a naturalised Briton was not enough to assuage his fears of being arrested as an enemy alien, a danger he mitigated by going for a walk around Hyde Park early each day, to avoid being at home at the times he believed that the police would be most likely to visit. Once his immunity from arrest was guaranteed he would spend many nights during the Blitz firewatching with Warburg from the top of their office building.

Grunfeld and Warburg’s firm, which they renamed S.G Warburg after the end of WWII, had a number of advantages over established banks in London. The combination of Grunfeld’s training as a lawyer and Warburg’s charm and banking connections was invaluable, as was their bilingualism. Cliché though it may be, it seems that they also brought a Teutonic efficiency to the easy-going City – punctuality and long hours were the norm for Grunfeld, even into his 80s. The firm also broke with City tradition in eschewing the Long Lunch that was such a characteristic of life in the financial sector at the time.

That said, this was not all that the firm had in its favour. Grunfeld was referred to by his contemporaries as “the cleverest banker in London”, and the firm was always alert to the possibilities afforded by new financial instruments, effectively creating the Eurobond market in the 1960s. They were also unbound by many of the conventions of the straight-batted City, most notably when they initiated the hostile takeover of British Aluminium by the American company Reynolds Aluminium. Grunfeld was also active with clients in the newspaper industry, though he personally shied from the limelight and rarely gave interviews or posed for photographs.

Grunfeld became chairman of the firm in 1964, a position he would retain for ten years. He formally retired at the age of 70 but in practice he had just moved into a new office the week before his death in 1999. Had it not been for his retiring nature he may well have been more celebrated, as he and Warburg were responsible for creating London’s leading post-war merchant bank.

Despite this reluctance to appear in the limelight he created the Henry Grunfeld Foundation on his 90th birthday. Modest to the last he needed to be persuaded to allow the fund to bear his name. The Foundation’s main purpose is to support greater intercultural understanding in business and in a wider social context. It is an expression of Grunfeld’s “appreciation and gratitude to all who helped [him] to be as successful as [he] was.” Ifs University College was invited to take control of the fund in the mid-1990s.

Since then the Foundation has funded the Henry Grunfeld Chaired Professorship in Investment Banking at INSEAD as well as several scholarships for MBA students attending the leading business school; and for undergraduate students at ifs. 

The Foundation has also provided support for enhancement of the library services at the Lovat Lane Campus. The new Henry Grunfeld Library will open on 18th January and will provide students with a flexible space for private and group study, a small reference collection and a team of experienced librarians to help students and staff to get the most out of the facility and their time with ifs.

Ifs University College is proud to host Dr. Alexander  Ljungqvist, Ira Rennert Professor of Finance and Entrepreneurship, NYU Director, NYU Salomon Centre, who will deliver the inaugural Henry Grunfeld Lecture on Wednesday 20th January, which we hope will be a fitting tribute to a man who was so influential in the history of banking in London.