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Durham University

School of Modern Languages & Cultures

Jonathan Agar (French & German, 1990)

Photo Agar

I graduated in French & German in 1990. At that time, a huge proportion of Durham graduates went on to train as accountants. I thought the Foreign Office looked like too much timeserving, so I looked at what might be more exciting than accounting. I joined Merrill Lynch, a US investment bank that was big enough to provide rigorous training to a ‘non-business’ graduate but not huge in Europe – and therefore did almost everything European out of London.

As a German speaker, I was involved in selling the old water engineering combine in eastern Germany to Thames Water. I got to know the towns there better than most West Germans, and when the analyst in Paris was brought to London so the managing directors could work more closely with him before deciding to promote him, I was the obvious person to be sent to the small Paris outpost for three months.

It’s crucial to recognise that even if lots of business and academic people on the continent speak English, they don’t necessarily do so to each other, especially if the monoglot English speaker(s) in a group are not senior. So if you don’t speak the language, you miss out on substantive matters; it’s not just about affinity and cultural understanding and sensitivity, it’s also about straightforward effectiveness.

After gaining an MBA at INSEAD in Fontainebleau (where speaking English and French was necessary for entry), I worked in management consulting in Munich for three and a half years, for a very German management consultancy that wanted a bit of Anglo-Saxon financial nous. It involved doing flotations in Estonia; valuing the telecom company in Lithuania; dealing with the Flemish/Walloon, public sector employer/private sector employer, liberal party/socialist party politics of merging the entities responsible for Brussels Airport; comparing airline operations for Air France; and containing the implosion of an Austrian construction group. None of that would have been possible without my French & German degree.

When I came back to London in 1997, I worked in private equity and then financial restructuring. Again, much of what I did related to French and German companies. In restructuring, a lot of what I've been doing has been triggered by the way the national professions in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and other countries think in their own silos, whereas I’m identifying ways of using the best of each. That wouldn’t have been easy to do without my prior experience, which itself was thanks to my degree.

When my employer went under in the financial crisis, it was my German restructuring expertise which got me my next job, in Frankfurt. Frankfurt ain’t Munich, and I was glad to move back to London, but I speak some German to someone every day and am working on something pretty innovative in France, which is fed by the combination of expertise in different jurisdictions.