Food | The Captain’s Table

Gilbert Harrison’s dining boltholes

Gilbert Harrison is chairman and CEO of Financo, the boutique investment bank specialising in the retail sector that he founded in 1971. Over the past 30 years, the firm has executed close to 1,000 transactions globally.

February 13 2010
Vanessa Friedman

“The truth is, when it comes to serious, confidential meetings, I would never have them in a restaurant. But a meal in public can play a large role in getting to that serious, confidential place, because it is one of the most efficient ways to get insight into the people involved in a deal. Think of it this way: lunch takes less time than a ballgame, but achieves the same end.

If you are dealing with a seller, for example, conversation over lunch can reveal their real motives, or if it’s a buyer, their real objective. Often it’s not what you think. People relax at meals; they let their guard down a bit. You start out just chatting – about the Yankees’ win, or “fun” topics like Madoff – and then you learn, for example, as I did once, that the client selling a company who keeps postponing the final agreement for no obvious reason is actually in the middle of getting divorced, and so doesn’t want to make the deal until his financial settlement had been reached.

Another time, I took a buyer out to lunch and he inadvertently admitted that the company we were representing was at the top of his list of companies to acquire, which helped us a lot in the negotiations. And then there was a meal where I learned that the acquirer actually had no intention of acquiring the company we represented at all – he was a competitor, and was just trying to get information.

Because of this, I often like to bring a colleague along to lunch. First, if we are selling a prospective client on the firm, it clearly is an advantage for them to get to know more than one person, but second, if we are building the business, it helps to have another perspective on the individual.

Occasionally I try to get buyers and sellers and their spouses together over a meal, as they can learn things about each other from partners that the individuals might not themselves reveal. Of course, this can backfire. A few years ago I took two clients to lunch and they got into a big argument about something that had nothing to do with the deal, and the deal died. I still think the risk is worth it, though, because the rewards can be so great.

Once I won a piece of business because I took a client to 21 Club, and we got to go on a private tour of the wine cellar, which is not normally open. It turned out this client had tried to get down there once, and hadn’t been able to, so he was impressed and decided to work with us. For this reason, I tend to take people to “power” restaurants, such as The Four Seasons (pictured), where I have been going for at least 10 years, and where I know the guys who run it, Julian Niccolini and Alex von Bidder, very well. It’s a very impressive clientele, and there is a seating hierarchy.

The five booths against the wall are the best seats, and the balcony I think is Siberia. So when I have a client I want to impress, I can sometimes persuade Julian to give me a booth, though if I haven’t been for a while he’ll put me on the balcony. I also have a charge account there, so at the end of the meal there is no bill and no question that my guest might have to pay, which tends to surprise people and work to my advantage.

Other restaurants that I return to again and again are the Harmonie Club in New York (I’m a member), Casa Lever and the Monkey Bar. In London, I’ve been going to Claridge’s for years, and I also like The Wolseley and Harry’s Bar; in Venice I have been staying at the Hotel Cipriani and eating there; in Rome, Dal Bolognese; and in Los Angeles I like The Ivy and Cut, Wolfgang Puck’s restaurant.

In other cities, I’ll take friends’ recommendations or try new places – I’m about to try La Société in Paris. In the end, the atmosphere is more important than the food, although I don’t know anyone who doesn’t appreciate a good meal. There is value in the social setting. It shouldn’t be underestimated.”

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