Vontobel employee Philipp Alena at his workplace in 2023
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Interview with Philipp Alena: working at Vontobel for 45 years

Working at Vontobel

Published on 29.09.2023 CEST

Philipp Alena has dedicated his entire professional life to bond trading at Vontobel, first as a ringside trader and today as Head Risk Management Bonds. During these 45 years, Vontobel has grown from a small bank with 180 employees with offices exclusively in Zurich to over 2000 employees with 27 locations around the world. Reason enough for us to ask him how he has experienced the change and what the most drastic events have been.


What has changed the most at Vontobel?


When I started, Vontobel was still so small that people knew each other. From Dr. Hans Vontobel to the trainees: Everyone had interactions with each other. It was very familiar. It's obviously different today, with over 2000 employees spread across various locations worldwide.



Was there a staff restaurant like we have in our Zurich office today?


No, that has only existed since we moved into the building at Gotthardstrasse 43. Instead, coffee and snacks were brought to our desks.



When you started at Vontobel, I guess they didn't have computers yet?


No, technology is the second thing that completely changed Vontobel and the financial industry. There were no computers in the workplace or in trading. The means of communication were limited to telex, typewriters, telephone and, a little later, fax machines. In trading, there were only two Reuters screens that allowed rudimentary queries such as foreign exchange and share prices, indices and news reports. The much lower level of connectivity, in contrast to today, therefore made arbitrage trades possible. The same securities were traded at different prices on different stock exchanges. This difference was detected by telephone calls and used for business.



Back then, trading still took place face to face in the Ring?


Yes, that also made my working day completely different. In the morning, before the stock exchange opened, we went over to the old exchange on Bleicherweg, a few years to the new exchange in Selnau. There, we 25 traders stood at the ring and "shouted" at each other. This physical presence on a daily basis also resulted in close personal contacts, which are no longer the case today. You often don't know the person you're doing business with anymore. It's more impersonal.



How did you experience the switch to electronic trading?


It was actually the case that Thursday, August 15, 1996, was the last day of trading on the ring and on Friday we traded from our desks. That was a bit of a culture shock, as it fundamentally changed our daily work routine.



What has stayed the same at Vontobel over all these years?


I think it is the will to be innovative, to be one of the first movers in certain areas. This is what distinguished Vontobel then as it does now. We have always been curious. As a relatively small bank, we equipped our foreign exchange trading with the very latest technology in 1982, which spread far and wide. Even Japanese television came to us and filmed our foreign exchange trading.

Vontobel employee Philipp Alena at his workplace in 1980
Phillip Alena at his desk around 1980 ...
Vontobel employee Philipp Alena at his workplace in 2023
... and 2023

Which stock market or global events do you remember most vividly?

One of the most significant events was Black Monday, on October 19, 1987. It was the first crash after the Second World War and followed several boom years. The Dow Jones Industrial plummeted by almost a quarter.



What was it like at the ring?

Well, the wave of selling hit not so much bonds as stocks. Everyone wanted to sell there, even private investors were caught up in the panic. At that time, options (warrants) were also traded on the stock exchange, many of which were suddenly worthless.



How does it feel after such a day?

Well, totally exhausted. But it has to go on. The following day, Dr. Hans Vontobel visited us in the stock exchange office and said, "Worse things have happened. We'll be fine." His words had a calming effect on us. That's how I always experienced him: calm, level-headed and also modest.



What were the reasons that you spent your entire professional life at Vontobel?

Well, I was always encouraged, especially at a young age. Vontobel enabled me to spend time in France. Later, I worked for Vontobel in New York. There were offers from time to time, but they were either not interesting or didn't offer better career prospects. I always saw potential at Vontobel and never felt it was better elsewhere.



You are now 61 years old, will you stay until ordinary retirement?

I think so. Since the negative interest rate phase ended, the bond market has become a lot more exciting again. Before, there was little trading, investors bought a bond and held it until maturity. Now there are interesting opportunities again that clients and we can take advantage of. I'd like to be around for a while longer and continue to develop the business.