Erste Bank AG

Leave it to me to start things off by asking a dumb question at Erste Bank, Austria's second largest bank with $4.5 billion in revenues and 28,000 employees. I ask Michael Mauritz from corporate communications if there was or still is a Mr. Erste. It turns out "erste" is German for "first". The bank really does have the right to call itself Erste Bank seeing as how it's Austria's oldest bank having been founded back in 1819.

The bank's six-story head office occupies a prime corner spot in Vienna's city center on the main pedestrian shopping street. According to Mauritz the bank has been on this site since its founding.

Headquarters, comprised of this and two nearby buildings, employs 700. Smoking is allowed in offices, everyone including executives eats in the cafeteria, there're no recreational facilities on-site, the bank's art collection is international in scope and primarily modern and, as for employee parking-you're on your own since parking in Vienna's city center is scarce. The AVS Foundation owns 40% of Erste. Plus, what would a savings bank be without the obligatory piggy bank collection and in this case they are all porcelain. Any unusual employee perks? The usual bank discounts such as special rates on home loans and free banking accounts.

Wow, it's a long time since I've seen an American-style boardroom in Europe. What do I mean by that? In most boardrooms in America the walls are lined with portraits or paintings of past Chairmen and CEO's. In Europe that is generally not the case. Erste Bank's boardroom however is an exception. It's a beautiful room with three chandeliers shedding light over the elongated table seating 25. On the walls hang portraits of 10 past Chairmen. However, these portraits play second fiddle to the 10-foot tall portrait of Emperor Franz Josef (1848-1918), who ruled Austria during its glory years in the late 1800's and early 1900's.

CEO Andreas Treichi occupies a fourth floor middle office. I count six tombstones and note the family pictures and computer. The view out his window? Pedestrians passing by.