Foreign Bankers Plunge into the Stateside Stint

Article excerpt

THOUGH THE OUTPOST is hardly in the midst of wilderness, foreign bank officers heading for the U.S. branch must have experience tempered with a pioneer spirit.

"We don't like to attract beginners as such," said Jean P. Sebire, general manager of the New York branch of Paris-based Societe Generale. "We try to select people who h ave an inclination for the american market."

The professionals sent by foreign banks to start or maintain branch operations in the United States are skilled in their field and adept in handling international relations. They have to be, because the foreign banks in general do not offer much guidance.

Formal cross-cultural training isnht promoted for a number of reasons. Information about the United States is prevalent through the schools and media overseas. International orientation is more naturally ingrained when a country depends on export trade for economic survival. And the management programs so touted by American business educators have yet to mesmerize foreign corporations.

At Society Generale, for example, Mr. Sebire said cross-cultural training just is just not practical. The total staff for the bank's five U.S. offices number 380; only 15 are French expatriates.

The few French officers, needed for their knowledge of operations and customs back in France, usually have some prior experience in Anglo-Saxon countries. One banker assigned to the Chicago office, for example, had studied there during his college years.

"[French staff] have to make the personal effort to adjust to the new culture," Mr. Sebire added. "It is their duty to adjust." He explained that the French families helped each other adapt, especially to New York living space.

"We had one case," said Mr. Sebire. "A woman came from the center of Brittany without knowing any English." Her husband had been in the Paris office before the U.S. assignment, he explained, and "the wife had never been in a skyscraper before, let alone lived in a 36-floor highrise."

Mr. Sebire said that the expatriate wives rallied to help the woman come to understand life in New York and made her feel more comfortable.

Breaking the Language Barrier

English fluency is important. In many exporting countries where the native tongue is not widely spoken, English is taught early in the schools even if it is not an official language.

"Finland is a small country with only five million people and a language which no one else speaks," said Peter Fagernas, general manager of the New York branch for Helsinki-based Konsallis Osake Pankki (KOP).

"When I was in school 25 years ago," he said, "we started with Swedish and later [learned] English at age 12. School can give the basics, but to learn the language you have to deal with the language daily."

Using one common business language helps avert clashes at KOP.

"So that both local and expatriate staff can understand," he said, "all the staff can understand," he said, "all the minutes are kept in English. We have group meetings in English... Everyone feels this is an essential part of the bank."

As head of the two-month old branch, Mr. Fagernas has overseen the establishment of the physical offices -- in fact, the elevators were still being paneled and the 36th floor reception area draped in plastic as the branch was prepared for its January inauguration.

He also has had a hand in developing the staff of 30, including five Finns, to deal with wholesome banking in the American market. Though English is pervasive, Mr. Fagernas sees the value of retaining the Finnish identity, including the hard-to-pronounce but distinctive bank name.

"If you keep your own roots," he said, "both [expatriate and local staff] can achieve something that is beneficial. You are not giving up or compromising, you are [creating] a benefit."

Best of Both Worlds

Sucy synergy -- combining the best features of the home culture and local culture -- is the ideal for cross-cultural management, according to Gary Wederspahn, director of the cross-cultural training for Moran, Stahl & Boyer, Inc. …