Poised and attentive after a grueling 10-day trip around the world, Kurt Viermetz has no regrets about the go-for-broke pace of a global banker's life.
"There are some things you'll never be able to find out or understand reading a report in New York," says the J.P. Morgan vice chairman, seated in his office there. "You really need to see things with your own eyes."
One of the few German-born executives to rise to a top-level post at a U.S. bank, Mr. Viermetz's promotion to vice chairman at Morgan seven years ago sent a clear signal that the bank intended to globalize its management as well as its operations.
Soon Mr. Viermetz, 58, will step down from a 32-year career at J.P. Morgan during which, by almost everyone's reckoning, he played a critical role in turning Morgan into a global trading powerhouse.
He is among a cadre of Morgan executives who have chosen to retire in advance of the accepted retirement age of 65.
"He was instrumental in building our trading prowess," said Douglas A. Warner, Morgan's chairman, in an interoffice memo announcing Mr. Viermetz's pending departure.
"He acts instinctively when buying and selling in the market," added a European banker who knows him well. "He follows his nose pretty well."
For Mr. Viermetz, retirement still means a seat on the board of directors at Morgan and on several German conglomerates, offices in New York and Frankfurt, a mission as a roving ambassador for Morgan, and a schedule almost as hectic as the one he is leaving behind.
"I'm slowing down," he admitted in strongly German-accented English, "but I'm not getting out."
Now at a crossroads in his life, he contemplates the past and the future with equanimity.
"Our universe was much smaller when I started out," he recalled. "Today, the universe is the whole globe, and we have more marketplaces and fields to operate in than ever before."
But the really radical changes, he predicted, "are still to come and will be brought by technology."
He predicted technology would radically alter both the way customers are courted and the way products are delivered.
"Companies will have to position themselves close to their customers, they will have to be selective and transparent in the information they deliver, and they will need top-notch execution," he said. "That will be the Rubicon where either you keep or you lose the customer."
In many respects, the Morgan banker's own career parallels the bigger historical changes of the postwar era.
Born into a well-to-do family in the Bavarian city of Augsburg on the eve of World War II, he grew up watching his world collapse around him.
His father, a conscript in the German army, never came back from the Russian front. The family's business, tied to a successful chain of appliance stores his father had founded, disappeared in the rubble of Allied air attacks.
"I remember the bombings," he recalled reluctantly. "They came at night."
Equally vivid is his memory of the first American foot soldier he ever saw.
"He was black," Mr. Viermetz said, the astonishment still lingering 52 years later as he was remembering the Germany of that day. "It was an absolute shock."
Paradoxically, he probably wouldn't have gotten to where he is today had his own universe not collapsed first.
"If the war hadn't happened, I would never have become a banker," he said. "I had to struggle to reorient myself."
Propelled by war out of a predictable, provincial existence, he decided early on he wanted to work as a trader in international banking. After a brief stint at Deutsche Bank, he joined Morgan in Frankfurt in 1965.
Over the next three decades, the bank was to become his real home and identity. "Even back in those days, Morgan was more international, much more open, and had many more interesting characters than similar organizations," he said.
"I'm not sure whether I would have had as much success working for a company in middle America or in deepest France."
Luck also played a part. "Life is made up of coincidences, you know," he acknowledged.
"I was lucky to be able to adjust to Anglo-Saxon ways of conducting business, and this institution certainly helped me make that adjustment."
Others, though, believe luck and financial acumen were only two of the reasons. The third reason, they added, was his own mind-set.
"He's really fascinated by the global markets, how they operate, what they do for the world and his role in it," remarked Thomas Farmer, general counsel at the Washington-based Bankers Association for Foreign Trade.
"He's also extremely generous with his time, unlike an awful lot of other people who can't be bothered because they don't see what's in it for them."
The intellectual dimension of banking is a subject that is also dear to Mr. Viermetz.
"It's the soft issues that will be increasingly important for good management and good governance," he said. These, he added, includes ethics, judgment, vision, and, above all, trust.
"Trust between management and staff will become incredibly important when it comes to improving productivity, efficiency, and profitability," he said.
And almost as an afterthought, he said: "Diversity, in every sense of the word, is also important, especially intellectual diversity."
"I think it would be a strategic error if we were to focus our recruiting only on people with certain kinds of backgrounds," he added.
"You need people with different thought processes, even musical or theological training, because they can be more open to creative solutions."
Has the grinding pace of the last few years worn him down?
"It helps to have a family that is supportive," he confessed, referring to his wife and son.
More than anything else, though, he gives the impression that the last three decades in banking have been one long adventure.
"You need to be stimulated by the fun of meeting new people, understanding countries and different businesses," he advised.
"Otherwise, it becomes routine."