Martin (French & German,1981)
Although my languages were not directly relevant when I started work after leaving university, ultimately they determined my career path and gave me a valuable competitive edge. Having worked for a bank for several years, my division was going through wrenching change and my particular department was being closed. The head of the division noticed that I had a degree in French and German and asked me whether I wanted to take over the bank’s German business, not mentioning that there wasn’t really any business to take over. I realized that a small English bank was going to have to do something different to succeed and decided to try and introduce a niche Anglo-Saxon financing product to the German market. Other British competitors were trying to do the same but had neither the linguistic skills nor the cultural affinity to persuade sceptical German business partners. By talking to them in their own language, I avoided a major barrier to them doing business with a London-based firm. The management were much more fluent in their own language and gave a completely different picture of their business.
I ended up co-founding the bank’s Frankfurt office and later was able with some other colleagues to buy out our unit from the bank so that we were able to start our own business which we still run. We always did most of our business in France and Germany. We typically negotiated and documented all our business, and participated in board meetings, in the language of our customers. Without that, the rest of the board would have had to speak English and we would almost certainly never have been invited onto the board in the first place. Without my languages, I doubt I would ever have had these opportunities.