An Expat's Life in London
“Clearly, London has always been a financial center, but I think the talk over the last 12 to 18 months—even Mayor Bloomberg in New York hinted at it—is that it will become the financial center,” says Lloyd Lee, director of European real estate private equity at MCAP Global Finance Limited, and a London-based American expatriate. “That’s a very big statement to be making and, if you go back 6 or 10 years, I don’t think anyone would have actually made [it].”
It’s all about location
Like so many Americans living in London, Lee was originally based in New York and moved overseas for work. Since relocating to London in 2003, he has been involved in countless European real estate private equity investments. If there is one thing Lee appreciates, it’s that old real estate adage: location, location, location. And he believes London has it over other major financial hubs.
One obvious asset is the city’s strategic position. According to Lee, what sets London apart from other major financial hubs cannot necessarily be quantified. Of course, there’s the city’s strategic location, which offers easy access to vital emerging markets in Asia and the Middle East. “Practically speaking, [London] makes a lot of sense—not only in terms of the travel times, but also time-zone differences,” Lee explains. “There’s been a fair amount of times when I’m talking to colleagues in Mumbai. It’s just easier.”
London also provides a relatively pro-business, pro-investment environment in which to operate, the benefits of which have become increasingly clear as the flow of foreign funds into America has been stifled by Sarbanes-Oxley. “The United Kingdom as a nation, and the U.K. government in particular, has been particularly focused on being very supportive of a true free-market economy,” says Lee.
In fact, such goodwill toward all things capitalist appears likely to continue—if not increase—with the election of a new London mayor. Boris Johnson, former media mogul and member of the United Kingdom’s Conservative Party, took office on May 3, 2008. Johnson has pledged his support for London’s businesses, promising on his campaign Web site to “resist unnecessary regulation and overtaxation that would drive business and investors elsewhere.”
A day in the life of an expat
Perhaps London’s greatest strength as a financial capital, however, is actually quite personal: It is an extraordinary place to live, work and play. This livability may not initially inspire many of the world’s best and brightest professionals to call the city home, but it almost certainly convinces them to stay.
“Because of the way London lives and breathes, you have the ability to work [seven days a week], and you can easily bring in friends and family,” says Lee. “I feel like…everything comes together really nicely.”
Case in point: Lee’s typical weekend day. He wakes up early, collects a pile of work and his BlackBerrys (the consummate road warrior, Lee has two: one for professional communication and the other for personal use) and heads to Kitchen & Pantry, a café in West London’s Notting Hill neighborhood.
“I read through [my work] over a whole bunch of cups of coffee,” he says. “From time to time, I’ll invite friends to come for lunch. What I find most often is that they say, ‘That’s a good idea,’ and they bring work, too.”
This routine suits Lee, in part because he dislikes being confined to an office. “I have always enjoyed being out in life and, because I love what I do, it consumes me when I am there.” It also perfectly portrays one of the reasons why London is so livable. Despite its urban landscape—one that combines unrivaled entertainment, culture and convenience—London is hardly a concrete jungle. Its energy is relatively calm and measured for a city of its size and stature, so while you can join the fray at will, you’ll still be able to hear yourself think.
“Leave a voicemail for yourself in New York and leave a voicemail for yourself in London,” Lee says. “I guarantee if you stand on a street in New York and leave yourself a voicemail for long enough, you’ll hear sirens, the police, you’ll hear a lot of honking, a lot of shouting. Do it on the streets of London, and you probably won’t hear a single taxi.”
That’s not to say London is sleepy. It’s fast becoming more of a 24/7 city than ever before. Last year, the London Underground began offering later weekend service. Many stores have increased operating days and hours compared to just a few years ago, and the loosening of England’s licensing laws in 2005 dramatically expanded opportunities for post-11 p.m. nightlife.
The latter has boosted London’s glamour quotient, with new nightclubs and members-only bars and clubs prospering. Lee says he enjoys the occasional night on the town, but more often, he prefers to soak up the city’s culture through his fellow Londoners.
“One of the things I love most about London is the people who live here,” he says. “If I really want to unwind…it typically is at someone’s home, sitting around the kitchen while someone’s cooking and everyone’s pitching in over a glass of Barolo.”
A global perspective gives London the edge
Conversation never lags when you have a circle of friends representing all corners of the globe: Ethiopia, Spain, Singapore, England and Australia, to name a few. This diversity, and the global perspective it affords Lee, feels to him like a complete reversal from the melting-pot ideal he experienced back home in the States. It creates a sense of belonging to the international community that he attributes to London.
“When you come to London, people very much retain their cultural and national identities. So you’re from Spain and you will always be from Spain, or from Ethiopia or the north of England,” Lee explains. As a result, Londoners are constantly exposed to different cultures, which enhances the city’s quality of life. “It defines the food, the culture, the fashion, the people, the talk…in a way that makes it fascinating to experience,” says Lee. A simple trip to the local market or a ride on the Northern line can sometimes feel like an exotic adventure.
“It opens your eyes…to what is going on in the world. Not from your perspective, but from lots of other people’s perspectives,” describes Lee. “That’s a very important thing…as the world gets smaller.” Important, indeed—especially if a smaller world means there is only room for one financial capital.
Last January, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and U.S. senator Charles Schumer released a report cautioning that New York could lose its status as a global financial market without a major shift in public policy. Among other causes, the report cited complacency about the city’s future.
Londoners, by contrast, don’t tend to focus on the present. “I think London has a singularly unique ability to be a modern center—culturally, financially, politically—while at the same time holding on in a very proud way to a long history going back through the ages,” says Lee. To some, this combination of yesterday and tomorrow might seem contradictory. Then again, maybe 2,000-plus years of grounding in the past is precisely what helps London make such sure-footed leaps into the future.
AMY SYRACUSE is a freelance writer in London.