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Tech Industry

Why the rich have better tote bags

The rich really are different. They have better tote bags. That's just one of the insights that struck me at this week's NationsBanc Montgomery Securities conference in San Francisco.

The rich really are different. They have better tote bags.

That's just one of the insights that struck me at this week's NationsBanc Montgomery Securities conference in San Francisco. Investment conferences are far and away the most intellectually stimulating events in the high-tech field, but not because of any of the information presented. Instead, they are social laboratories, a rarefied terrarium where high power, new money, and often inexplicable privilege gather for four days to trade stock tips and get loaded. In a way, it's like the prep school I never attended.

It is a world of good hygiene and deplorable manners, of beautiful women and men that look like the second coming of Orville Redenbacher. It is a place populated with grand ambition and people with unusually tiny heads.

Do you see high-flying executives? Absolutely. National Semiconductor CEO Brian Halla outlined his company's strategy inside a tent for taking on Intel at a recent conference, while on another occasion, Michael Spindler race-walked down an escalator and across a lobby to avoid answering questions when he was still in charge at Apple. I saw former Informix CEO Phil White magically put a room of 1,000 people to sleep. I also bumped into Cisco chairman John Chambers in the men's room once.

They also remain a great place to stock up on luggage. Although the downward trend in the market has apparently forced Montgomery Securities to cut back and provide guests only with cheesy nylon briefcases, the firms typically can't say no when it comes to bells and whistles--cocktail parties at the former Federal Reserve building, guest appearances by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, complementary gym bags.

Rival firm Robertson Stephens is known to provide guests with carry-on luggage plus as much duck confit and old-world servility the Ritz-Carlton Hotel can muster. Say what you will about the gross worship of cash--it can buy a lot of cool extras.

Like the conferences held by Hambrecht & Quist and Robertson Stephens, my current four-day event follows a rote, unwavering pattern. Two of the three, in fact, are held at the Ritz and apparently use the same program printers. Registration starts at around 7 a.m. Two keynotes follow: one in the morning and one for lunch. Speakers this year included Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, Oracle chief Larry Ellison, and venture capitalist extraordinaire John Doerr. Others known to make the circuit include Kissinger, conservative columnist William Safire, and former president Ronald Reagan.

In between these keynotes are company presentations. For 35 minutes, a CEO or some other high-level executive lays out his or her company's strategy for the future. If questions exist, investors and company representatives head off to the break-out room. Reporters, who must wear bright yellow badges, are not allowed into the break-out sessions, but the rule is easily flouted. (You can claim the badge clashes with your outfit and take it off. Needless to say, I declined to adorn my standard blue suit with it.) By 6:30 p.m., cocktails start being served.