Living and working in Frankfurt

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Berlin is bigger, Munich prettier, Düsseldorf more stylish. But Frankfurt am Main stands taller than the rest. It's the only German city with a Manhattan-style skyline.

Even Albert Speer would be amazed at Frankfurt's new look. Hitler's favourite architect made the blueprint for rebuilding Frankfurt, which was 90% destroyed in World War II. He didn't envisage the glittering new banking spires that later earned this German financial capital the nickname &quotMainhattan&quot.

Messe-Turm, an Empire State Building look-alike erected by Tishman-Speyer, captured the continental European altitude record in the 1980s. Commerzbank has since gained air superiority with its new skyscraper, 258.7 meters tall without the 40-meter antenna, designed by Norman Foster.

With only 650,000 people, Frankfurt is tall but small. Berlin, Hamburg, Munich and Cologne are all gigantic in comparison. But Frankfurt is probably Germany's most cosmopolitan city. Nearly 30% of its residents carry a foreign passport. And nowhere else are there so many American businesses, 750 by last count. A variety of Slavic tongues plus Turkish compete with the local Hessian dialect of German. And the restaurant fare has a commensurately international flavour.

Located practically on the 50th parallel of North latitude, Frankfurt has a typical Western European climate: cloudy, wet and mild winters dominated by Atlantic lows sunny, warm continental summers. The dismal season, often punctuated by a &quotgolden October,&quot starts promptly in September and stretches through April. But the long twilight of a balmy summer evening invites diners at the sidewalk cafes to sit outside past 10pm in mid-summer.

A survey of globetrotting executives by Fortune magazine in 1995 rated Frankfurt fifth among the world's important cities as a place to live and work. Well ahead of Paris and Tokyo, Frankfurt was surpassed only by places where English is the business language: London, New York, Singapore and San Francisco. It isn't easy to make serious money in Frankfurt without knowing German.

Frankfurt's huge tertiary economy, which also features finance, advertising, media, communications, business consulting and a host of diversified services, has long since priced production industries out of the city. Manufacturing, such as the making of Hoechst chemicals and Opel cars, takes place on the periphery.

Frankfurt's airport, the busiest in continental Europe, has become the single largest employer in the state of Hesse, which includes Frankfurt. And thanks to the thriving greater Frankfurt area, Hesse's DM370bn economy has grown faster than that of all the other 15 German states. Frankfurt delivers a quarter of that firepower.

The greater Frankfurt region of southern Hesse was ranked by Eurostat as one of the three richest in Europe. Only Ile de France and Brussels broke ahead. The leafy Taunus hills to the west of Frankfurt contain Germany's richest county by buying power per resident. Bankers and businessmen who have struck it rich in Frankfurt have their family villas and country clubs there.

Financial district

Goethe once called his hometown &quotthe secret capital&quot of Germany: Holy Roman Emperors were traditionally crowned here. Modern Frankfurt's &quotcapital&quot is no longer a secret: The town runs on money. The financial district contains nearly 400 banking addresses, including the lion's share of the country's 178 foreign banks and brokers.

The market leader, Deutsche Bank, occupies two identical silver towers, dubbed Soll and Haben, debit and credit. After swallowing Bankers Trust, it became the European volume leader. Nearby are the headquarters skyscrapers of Commerzbank, Dresdner Bank, BHF Berliner Handels- und Frankfurter Bank, DG Deutsche Genossenschaftsbank and Landesbank Hessen-Thüringen.

Prominent in the foreign contingent are BfG Bank, Citibank, Chase Manhattan, HSBC, ABN Amro, UBS, Salomon Brothers, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and Warburg Dillon Read. The foreign financial houses account for only 5% of Germany's lending volume but loom large in all the lucrative fee businesses, including asset management, brokerage and merger consulting.

An estimated 60,000 people work in the city's financial sector, including the dominant German securities and derivatives exchange, Deutsche Bundesbank and the headquarters of the European Central Bank. The foreign financial houses handle an outsized share of the business on Frankfurt's securities and derivatives exchange and in the primary issuing markets.

Housing and commuting

Rental prices in Frankfurt are calculated in square meters and run hot and cold, meaning Kaltmiete, as the rent without heat and utilities, and Warmmiete, with all the amenities included. Apartments are available with or without appliances or furniture. The rents diverge widely by neighbourhood, with the fashionable Westend and the hillside of Sachsenhausen at the top. The stately well-kept walk-ups with high ceilings and huge rooms are often more inviting than new high-rise apartment buildings.

In general, a presentable four-room flat in a good neighbourhood should be available for between DM2,500 and DM3,000 a month. A small house in the Taunus suburbs would rent for the same or less, although it might cost DM750,000 to buy such a house. Single people can usually find a small flat in the lively neighbourhoods of Bornheim and Bockenheim for around DM1,200 or more a month. For the high-rollers who wish to entertain at home, the price tag of a presentable suburban villa with grounds might start at DM1.2m.

The German realtors' association has listed representative square-meter rents for three-bedroom apartments of about 70 square meters in the region. In the city, rents range from DM2.9 a square meter for a basic flat to DM3.70 for a good one and DM5.2 to DM6.35 for something rated exclusive.

Frankfurt and its suburbs are criss-crossed by an excellent and efficient public transportation system, including buses, trolleys and commuter trains. A day's commuter ticket from and to the Taunus hills now costs DM6.10, although a monthly pass can be had for DM164. Short hops within the city are about half as expensive. But those who settle in the city can often walk to work, since the banking district spills into Westend.

Culture, customs, business relationships

People who work in the banking centre dress the part. For men, that includes suit and tie. A few companies have experimented with an American fad of tieless Fridays. But the Germans like to dress casually when dining or drinking after hours.

Many companies have dispensed with the German polite form of address within departments, putting everyone on a first-name basis. That's still an exception. On the outside, even people who have known one another for decades call one another by their last names with titles, Herr Doktor or Frau Professor, unless they regularly meet socially.

A German works with incredible efficiency until his shift is up, at which time he punctually drops his pencil and disappears. A 7.5-hour day is typical. Salaried executives, however, have embraced the US custom of working until the job is done. Holidays and leisure time are sacred. Rumbles of mutiny followed the recent introduction of holiday and late trading shifts at the Frankfurt Stock Exchange.

A typical paid vacation lasts a month. These standard summer vacation months are staggered by state to avoid traffic jams. Germany's yearly round of paid holidays includes Jan. 1, Good Friday, Easter Monday, Ascension Thursday, Pentecost Monday, Oct. 3 and Dec. 26. There are also a few additional religious and cultural holiday closings which vary by state and region. In Hesse, Corpus Christi is a holiday.

Business relationships, like the symbiosis between companies and their creditor banks, tend to endure. German companies tend to regard their employees as extended family for which they have a lifetime of responsibility. Job hopping is generally frowned upon, although it is now becoming a way of life in investment banking circles.

Taxes, visas and working permits

Citizens of countries of the European Union enjoy the same status as Germans in the local job market. Other foreigners must first obtain a work permit, Arbeitserlaubnis, which is needed for a residency visa, Aufenthaltsgenehmigung. In general, an application must be filed through the German consulate abroad well in advance of the starting date of the work contract.

Since the prospective employer must demonstrate that the same job cannot be done by a German, perhaps because of a special skill, responsibility or language ability, Frankfurt companies which recruit foreign staff are prepared to assist in this procedure. Even with an approved work permit, the residency visa of a non-EU foreigner will stipulate payroll employment for a number of years. An unrestricted visa can usually be obtained after five years in residence. And everyone in Germany must register with the residents office of record, Einwohnermeldeamt, where they live.

In Germany, only the air is free. Just about everything else, from dogs and cars to beer, cigarettes and cinema tickets, is taxed. About 65% of the price of a litre of gasoline is tax. Incomes are gouged. Tax changes, which come about every two years, complicate an already daffy system. It has been estimated that a single adult employee gets to see not much more than half his gross earnings. The rest is withheld as wage income tax and charges for mandatory social insurance: health, invalid care, retirement and unemployment. Heads of families fare somewhat better.

A proposed change in the income tax system would lower the peak marginal tax rate to 43% from the current 51% on net income over DM102,300. The starting tax bracket would drop to 15% from 22.9%. Income below DM14,000 a year, currently DM13,500, would go untaxed. Many amendments can be expected before this takes effect.


Once placed in a German school, it takes alert small children about a month to chatter away in German. In some inner-city schools, though, they may pick up Turkish or Serbo-Croat instead. A few ethnic groups, including the French and Greeks, have their own private schools which teach German as well. English is the language of instruction at Frankfurt's International School, where the student body includes many American, British and Japanese children.

Unlike the German schools, these private schools charge tuition. Nevertheless, a good German preparatory school is hard to top for academics, and it prepares pupils for Abitur, the leaving examination needed for a German university.

Frankfurt has a large university and a banking college. There are also local extensions of US and British universities and an assortment of new institutions offering American-style graduate degrees in business. One is the European Business School at Östrich-Winkel, not far from Frankfurt. Many language academies offer foreign working adults total immersion in German. And Volkshochschule offers night courses in a wealth of subjects.

Like any big city, Frankfurt is loaded with cultural attractions, recreational facilities and sporting clubs. All German society is stitched together with a network of clubs in what has been called Vereinsleben. For expatriate women there is the American Women's Club of the Taunus.

Frankfurt has 40 museums, roughly 50 private art galleries and places to hear jazz or rock. The city has a zoological garden, a fine botanical garden called Palmengarten, the opera, theatres, concert halls, an ice skating rink, a race track and plenty of parks and swimming pools. There is also a choice of private and public golf courses on the outskirts.

Parks, tree-lined boulevards and bicycle paths make Frankfurt a green city. The outline of the city's medieval fortifications now form a park-like ribbon around the centre. Within it a pentagon bounded by the botanical garden, the fairgrounds, the main station, the old opera house and the new opera house delineates the banking district.

One could walk it off in one hour. Cars are banned from the main shopping promenade, Die Zeil, which is studded with department stores. One of the nicest aspects of Frankfurt is that everything is close by. Claustrophobia is hardly possible an urban family can stroll in the woods after taking a 15 minute ride on the S Bahn subway.

What ex-pats say about Frankfurt

Pablo Gago-Velez, a 27-year-old native of Madrid, came to Frankfurt three years ago to study banking at a city college and stayed because of the excellent career opportunities. For the past two years he has been tracking the capital markets in the international bond origination division at DG Bank.

Having heard scuttlebutt at home about cool and reserved Germans, the young Spaniard immediately got a pleasant surprise. &quotI expected to find unfriendly people,&quot he said. &quotThat's just not the way they are. They're kind and very nice.&quot

When he tried to use the polite German form of address on his first day of work, he said, his boss immediately switched to first-name basis. Although many Germans speak some English, said Gago-Velez, &quotit's really essential to know German, or at least show some interest, in order to deal with people on a personal level&quot.

The Spanish investment banker said his biggest disappointment with Frankfurt was the underground commuter railroad. &quotWhen you see the skyscrapers, you say, great what a contrast when you go down in underground. True, it's quite efficient, but it is filthy and old-fashioned.&quot

Frankfurt's assortment of restaurants is on a par with any other cosmopolitan city, although you have to seek out the Greek, Italian or Spanish places for good fish, he says. For young investment bankers seeking a flat, Gago-Velez recommends the Frankfurt neighbourhoods of Bockenheim, Sachsenhausen or Bornheim, where he lives. &quotIt's not a city in which to raise a family,&quot he says. &quotIf you are wealthy, you move to Westend.&quot

In general, &quotthe name and the importance of the city is bigger than the city itself,&quot says Gago-Velez. &quotThe offering of leisure and cultural activities is much greater in Madrid. You have to develop a circle of friends in Frankfurt otherwise you could become very bored. But, professionally, this is much, much better than Madrid.&quot

Anthony Bryson, 31, ex Scotland, director debt capital markets, new issue business, UBS Warburg

A new job which will divide his time between London and Frankfurt has given Anthony Bryson a fresh perspective on European money centres.

By living in Frankfurt, he says, an investment banker &quotcan halve his rent on the same salary and see his family at breakfast and dinner&quot.

&quotIt's not as sexy as New York or London for things like cultural events, and not as trendy either. Westend is not Chelsea, die Alte Oper isn't Carnegie Hall,&quot concedes Bryson. &quotBut it's a good compromise for people with families. That includes the quality of life, cultural attractions and a safe, affordable environment.&quot

Bryson ought to know. He started with DG Bank in London in 1994, was posted to Frankfurt the following year and moved on to Deutsche Bank in 1997. Headhunters still on his trail, the 31-year-old bond whiz switched to UBS Warburg this year. His German wife, an Oxford graduate, has a good career going in Frankfurt.

Though the couple, and son Sam, 2, have a spacious apartment in the fashionable Westend, Bryson just took a one-room flat in Hillingdon as his London base. That was an eye-opener. &quotIt costs as much as a four-room flat in the best Frankfurt neighbourhood,&quot said Bryson, citing similar London shocks experienced by a number of his colleagues. A few of them with children simply refused transfer.

&quotThe price level in London is insanely expensive at the moment,&quot he said. &quotEven top investment bankers find London really expensive at the moment, and they are obviously the ones who are killing the market. Affluent people who were lucky enough to buy a place a decade ago wouldn't even be able to afford their own house today. Fifty quid for an ordinary restaurant meal? You learn to value what you have in Frankfurt even more.

&quotEveryone had said Frankfurt is really small, boring, very German so I came with low expectations,&quot said Bryson. &quotBut it has a more cosmopolitan feel than Munich, Bonn or Düsseldorf. You can surround yourself with an international crowd, if you want. And it is a 10-minute walk to the office, a 20-minute hop to the airport France is two hours away, you can ski Switzerland on the weekend.&quot

True, there's no pub culture for the investment bankers in Frankfurt, he admits. &quotYou would expect Frankfurt to offer more after hours. But I don't care. We can put the baby to sleep of an evening and walk to a lively pub in the Westend,&quot he says. &quotWe're quite happy in the city.&quot

Bryson scoffs at the standard London put-downs of Frankfurt. &quotThe main reason Brits and Americans call Frankfurt a dump is that they don't speak German,&quot he said. &quotThat's why Frankfurt won't have a chance in the international investment banking business.&quot