Valets recruited in battle for talent

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As with all such things, the trend started in the US. At Salomon Smith Barney in New York, valet services was one of the perks demanded by hard-done-by analysts, who staged a very public protest earlier this year over their poor remuneration.

Now valet services are spreading across the Atlantic. In London, Goldman Sachs and UBS Warburg both say they are toying with them. Valet providers claim contracts with Dresdner Kleinwort Benson, Deutsche Bank, Lehman Brothers, Morgan Stanley, Mercury Asset Management and West LB Panmure.

The principle is simple. In return for an annual 'membership fee' clients have a valet available to them at the end of a phone who will organise whatever is required: a mechanic, shopper, dog walker or a weekend away. Valet account managers will wait for unreliable builders or plumbers while the member remains in the office.

Employers can benefit from employees' membership because valets take over tasks that would mean lost hours at work. 'We've rushed clean shirts and documents to an investment banker at an airport,' says Alex Cheetle, director of valet company Ten UK.

The cost of valets' attentiveness varies. Ten UK charges 1,000 (&#83641,660) annual membership for unlimited attention. Another company, Liberate 365, charges 450 for unlimited office-based services and a further 12 for every half an hour account managers spend outside the office on behalf of their clients.

Banks think this sounds like a good deal. 'If 1,000 differentiates us from our competitors and it is a unique selling point, then it will be worth it in comparison to salary levels,' says Rupert Terry, who deals with compensation and benefits at Chase Manhattan.

But the rush to employ valet services makes questionable whether there will be much differentiating going on.

'Investment bankers are our prime target. Front-office staff in corporate finance need our help,' says James Hickman at Liberate 365. Terry claims to have been inundated with offers from valet companies. Valet services are another manifestation of the battle for talent, he says. Competition with the new economy is forcing banks to look at perks.

Having a valet on the end of a phone line should allow for a clean divide between pure pleasure and paid labour. Ten UK's account managers set themselves up as 'a member of your family', a housewife of the old-fashioned variety. But this adoptive housewife is distinctly liberal.

'We have been asked to do all kinds of things,' says Alex Cheetle. 'We've organised a stag weekend in Brazil and a course with a tantric sex guru. The guru provided us with some difficulties. We normally seek reassurances from our clients that service providers were up to scratch. In this case we didn't feel it was appropriate.'

Tantric sex gurus aside, the need for valets is such that some investment bankers are employing them privately.

Dermot Mayes, fixed-income manager with a London investment bank pays personally for providers Ten UK to do everything from shopping to ordering a car to organising a night out. When Ten UK does Mayes' shopping it's safely away in the cupboards by the time he gets home. His account manager has organised a weekend away at Babington House for him and friends, and when he wanted to buy a new Volkswagen, she saved him 5,000 by phoning around for a good price.

But some banks remain unconvinced of the value of valets. 'We don't believe in freebies: there are stock option plans and the brand name and that is enough,' says a spokesperson for one US firm.

Moreover, individuals may find that valets have their disadvantages. Steve Watson, director of reward expertise at Hay Management Consultants, detects something vaguely malignant in banks rushing to assist individuals to manage their private lives.

'Provision of a valet service favours the employer more than the employee,' he says. 'It removes the excuse to leave work to do the laundry or, even worse, to look after the kids.

'There's a dark side to it, which gives you every reason to come to work, and no reason to leave. I would already be a bit suspicious of banks' motives and this can only get worse with 24-hour trading.'