Nick Leeson learned a lot about stress when he lost £862m, went on the run and ended up a Singapore jail. Now he’s sharing his coping strategies in a new book and executive workshops. Nick Jones introduced him to the famously relaxed Stef Stefanou, and felt his own blood pressure rise …
I’m feeling a little on edge. Nick Leeson, the Barings’ rogue trader, is running late for our interview and I’ve been wondering whether he’ll turn up. After all, as the object of a global manhunt 10 years ago, he does have a bit of a reputation for not being where he’s supposed to be. In his new guise as a stress expert, I’ve also arranged for him to conduct a stress workshop with one of the most famously relaxed men in construction, which has been gnawing away at me as a bad idea for a while now. Of the 38 stress warning signals Leeson lists in his book, Back from the Brink: Coping with Stress, I reckon I’m suffering from 33 of them.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have worried. Leeson arrives looking thoroughly relaxed – a walking advert for the book. The fingernails, bitten so raw they looked like “amputated limbs” during the years that he frantically buried £862m of losses on the Singapore Monetary Exchange, are neatly clipped. He has put on a little weight but he wears it in a contented, approaching-middle-age way – he’s 38 – rather than as a result of gobbling 10 lb of sweets a day, as he once did. When he says: “There’s not much that bothers me these days,” it’s easy to believe him.
I, on the other hand, quickly begin to develop the other five stress warning signals. Despite the fact that Leeson’s website clearly states: “Either alone or together, Nick and Ivan [Tyrell, Leeson’s co-author] will be able to present a fascinating workshop or speech to any business organisation,” this isn’t exactly the case. It quickly transpires that Tyrell, a director of the European Therapy Studies Institute, does the workshops while Leeson “takes more of a lay approach”, discussing his own experiences.
Those experiences, of course, make for a pretty harrowing discussion: between 1995 and 1999, he went through a divorce, was given a 60% chance of survival after being diagnosed with colon cancer – oh, and he was incarcerated in Singapore’s Tanah Merah maximum security prison for four years after bringing down Britain’s oldest bank. Although the central thrust of the book is how Leeson dealt with these events and moved on with his life, the greatest stress relief that it offers is of the “Thank God my life’s not that bad” variety. This is the straw I am clutching at as I realise the stress workshop I had organised, and which is intended to reveal the strains inherent in the high-pressure construction industry, isn’t going to turn out as expected.
Leeson makes a decent living retailing his life story on the after-dinner circuit. The night before we met, he was giving a talk in the City. Stress and the need for status were recurring themes: “I think status was the thing that motivated me. When immature people have status, there is never any plan that they follow – it’s like an animal instinct. I just reacted badly to a situation. A lot of the stresses in your life blinker you.”
It seems odd that he is such a popular speaker in the City – a situation not dissimilar to getting a burglar to take a look at your domestic security. Does he worry about running into people from the bad old days? “I’m not bothered really,” he replies.
Does he feel any guilt about trading off his notoriety? “Not really, no. There are limited opportunities open to you after being released from prison. If that rubs people up the wrong way, so be it.”
This almost stubborn lack of anxiety seems typical of Leeson’s approach to life. As he puts it in Back from the Brink: “Spending day after day undergoing the demeaning process of being stripped naked in jail for a full body search taught me that there are some things one just has to accept.” This might not be something that everyone can relate to, but the acceptance of things you can’t change is central to Tyrell’s stress management strategy.
After prison there are limited opportunities open to you. If trading off my notoriety rubs people up the wrong way, so be it
It has also led newspapers to describe Leeson as robotic and emotionally withdrawn. “I don’t think that’s accurate,” he says. “I am emotional about certain things. It’s just that things that I can’t influence don’t worry me. The fact that I’ll be called a rogue trader until the day I die I can’t influence. It’s a phrase that I guarantee that you’ll use in your piece [see opening paragraph]. But as much as I don’t like it and it impacts on my family and friends, I can’t do anything about it.”
These days, his family is his second wife Leona, who he married in 2004, his two stepchildren and his baby son, with whom he lives in Galway. Life on the west coast of Ireland isn’t all domestic rural tranquillity though: Leeson still likes a flutter. “I invest in the stock market, I spread bet, I play online poker,” he says. Then the stress expert kicks in: “I think everything in life is about tempering your behaviour. I used to be very compulsive, but I do it within limitations.”
When you read Leeson’s book, one thing that stands out is that the period in which he suffered the greatest stress, when he considered suicide, was not during his incarceration in Singapore, but while he was awaiting extradition in the relatively civilised Höchst prison in Frankfurt. He says: “The reason for thinking about suicide was purely because I couldn’t quantify what the sentence was going to be – 11 years is a long period of time, 84 years makes me dead.” It was, to use his phrase, something he couldn’t influence.
This feeling of helplessness became so all-consuming that, in an extraordinarily rational manner, he began to arrange an assisted suicide: “I couldn’t have done it myself. There were people who would have done it for money. We’d spoken about how much. I wasn’t going back to Singapore to spend 25 years in jail.”
In the end, a guaranteed maximum sentence of eight years was agreed and “that was something I could quantify. If it was longer than that, I wouldn’t have gone back”.
In an industry such as construction, in which on average one person commits suicide every two days, Leeson’s experiences are relevant. As he says: “Not knowing is a difficult thing. In any sort of industry there’s an awful lot of not knowing. When you’ve got something coming to fruition, for an awful long time leading up to it, that clarity isn’t necessarily there.”
He may not be the stress counsellor I was given to believe, but I’m beginning to think there are some benefits to Leeson’s layman’s approach to stress management after all. Finally, I begin to relax …
Chillout space: Leeson meets Stef Stefanou
Stef Stefanou, chairman of John Doyle Construction, son of the eastern Mediterranean, multimillionaire, wearer of the biggest gold watch I’ve seen for a while, walks into the room. He does not, it has to be said, look under any immediate stress. Certainly, he bristles at the notion that he can learn from Nick Leeson’s experiences. When Leeson says, “If there are any comparisons I can draw, I’ll draw them”, Stefanou sounds unconvinced: “Comparisons based on what? Your experiences at Barings? Or your experiences in prison?”
Hmm. Fortunately both men relax when the conversation turns to finance – a subject close to both of their hearts. Stress, however, is more tricky, as it soon emerges that Stefanou has an unusual take on the topic. In short, it seems the only sources of stress in his life are measures designed to avoid stress.
Take joining a gym, for example: “I never did anything in my life. Fit or not fit, I didn’t care. I take life as it comes, I eat what I want, I drink very rarely, I never smoked – I’m lucky in that. But you hear all these people: ‘You must do something, you must do this, you must do the other.’
“So I joined four fitness centres. Three I never went in, apart from maybe for a cappuccino. Then I joined the fourth one next to my office. I had three one-hour sessions with a trainer and by coincidence – and it must be coincidence, I’m not blaming anyone – for the first time in my life, I damaged my back. I trapped a nerve. I don’t know how I did it but my God it was painful. For four days I wanted to die because I had never experienced something like this.”Leeson nods sympathetically, but struggles to draw a comparison with life in a Singapore jail.
Another chink in Stefanou’s relaxed persona seems to emerge when he admits to being a coffee addict. Ah, perhaps he is secretly highly strung, with soaring blood pressure and enslaved by the god caffeine? Well, not quite. Again the cure seems worse than the affliction: “About 15 years ago, someone said to me you must drink less coffee, so I started drinking orange juice. But then my stomach turned acidic! It was better to have the problem with the coffee than the problem with the orange juice.”
Given the aversion to stress-avoidance measures, it comes as little surprise when Stefanou says of Leeson’s book Back from the Brink: Coping with Stress: “I’ll be straight with you. After the first few pages, I began to find it too complicated and it was starting to stress me out trying to understand it!”Leeson smiles: “I can’t remember what’s at the beginning. It’s supposed to be devoid of psychobabble, but there are things that may be a bit confusing.” True to form, he doesn’t seem unduly stressed by the criticism.
The conversation turns to Leeson’s new life on the west coast of Ireland, then once again to money, with Stefanou ruing the fact that he didn’t buy property there in the 1970s, before the current boom in the market. Leeson is sympathetic: “If you had have done, you’d be a multi-multimillionaire now.”“Ah! But would I be happy?”