For the want of money
The world was a very different place in 2006. We were about 2 years out from the SARS crisis, and it wasn't even considered a pandemic. I had completed my final exam papers, presented my engineering thesis and was comfortably placed in a French IT consulting firm, which at that point of time, was being subcontracted by Philips TV to develop a software prototype. The product was meant to be used for all of Philips' clients in the hospitality and healthcare sectors.
But I left within 6 months into my role. My motivation for making that leap was driven by
The fear of being stuck in an engineering job, working from 9am to 5pm everyday for the rest of my life, and:
Perhaps more importantly: The want of earning more money by being in banking.
That was primarily how the world of corporate finance appealed to me - fresh graduates bringing home $8,000 a month. No other career could offer that kind of salary, certainly not in the engineering world.
But I was not lucky.
My grades were less than mediocre and I had been in the 'wrong' field of study. I didn't even know what a Bloomberg terminal was, how to calculate a series of discounted cash flows, or the definition of enterprise value. I wasn't cut out for an investment banking ("IB") role. I didn’t get my $8,000 per month dream job but I eventually managed to join the valuations team of an accounting firm.
Trial by fire
I distinctly remembered my first day of work at KPMG. All eyes were on me as I walked to my desk. It was only much later in my career that one of my colleagues told me with a giggle: "We were all wondering why you - trained as an engineer - came here to steal our jobs."
So, it was with a bit of dumb luck, a vacant analyst position created by the timely departures of a few junior staff, and sheer persistence that landed me into a corporate finance role.
I had graduated a year later than all my engineering classmates, which made me two years older than the guys who graduated from accountancy and four years older than their female peers. In short, I was the uncle of all analysts in the team. For the longest time, no one could understand why I had taken a 33% pay cut from my job in Philips to venture into the unknown from a zone of comfort and familiarity.
Many times, I even found myself having to clarify where I worked at previously:
"Not Phillip Capital the securities house - Philips, the TV company..."
I was incredibly scared during my first 6 months in my IB role. I came from a working culture that involved going to a techno-park five days a week and sitting in front of my desk coding for long hours. Banking was nearly entirely different - the closest I would ever get to writing code was the Bloomberg functions on excel and perhaps some Visual Basic. Other than that, I was a fish out of water. I was so afraid that my line managers would deem me unsuitable for the job and ask me to leave. However, what they did do was make a bet that I would voluntarily leave within those six months.
This incident was later unwittingly and awkwardly revealed by a stranger who crashed one of our team drinks. I remembered him saying:
"Hey! You lost your bet. He's still here!!"
It is just one of those things people in IB like to do. It might have sounded condescending and insensitive, but you pretty much got to have thick skin in order to survive. IB isn't just about getting through the gruelling late nights and delivering on the number crunching. It was also about the harsh and toxic environment that one has to be prepared to put up with for many years to come.
"Compendiaria res improbitas, virtusque tarda"
which translates to: evil takes the shorter road, virtue the longer.
Today, I get a lot of questions on how to break into a corporate finance career whenever I teach at the Singapore Management University.
"I don't have any accounting or finance background, how do I get in?"
Ironically, most of the people asking me these questions have better credentials and working knowledge about the field of investment banking than I had during my time. I had tried learning about financial markets and their workings by punting in stocks during the bull market, which peaked shortly in 2007 and went bust later towards the end of 2008.
I'd watched the markets not to make money, but to experience first-hand how it was like to invest (or trade). It sounds unusual given younger people today are more investment savvy and have even more access to investment and trading platforms.
All in all, I don't have a straight answer for how to get into an IB role. The willingness to work hard beyond the stipulated 8 or 9 hours a day was definitely a plus, but beyond that it was challenging to also prove how you could get the job done eventually or what value you brought to the team. For most of my peers it was mostly due to the fact that they knew the culture, having done internships before. In my case, it was probably my positioning as the go-to-coffee-boy for all the work that no one wanted to do.
All in all, I attribute most of this to being at the right place, right time and meeting with the right people (天时地利人和). That said, everyone has a different trajectory.
Back in 2006, I had found myself then in a somewhat employees' market whereby banks were poaching talents from the accounting firms often enough to create a vortex of hiring, and I was lucky to get dragged into the process.
Revisiting "for the want of money"
Bankers during those hey-days were also raking in deals (most notably from the many S-chip listings) and taking home multi-year bonuses. I remembered hearing someone from one of the local banks earning thirty six months of bonuses. Even if his base pay was mediocre, the absolute quantum still sounded crazy. There was even word that bankers who got less than a year's pay in bonuses would jump ship just because they weren't compensated enough.
To put this into an average working person's context, imagine:
In just 12 months, bankers would have earned the equivalent of what everyone else outside of IB makes in 3-4 years.
To extrapolate this even further out - working for 7 to 10 years in IB implies that you could easily retire for the rest of your life. It makes everyone else's job look like a joke. And some folks in IB were still complaining.
More than 10 years on, the frenzy of hiring and huge bonus payouts have significantly subsided. But the toxic work environment probably hasn't. Many graduates today continue to worship the 'altar' of corporate finance and chase the prestige of being accepted into the bulge brackets. I don't blame them.
To paraphrase the words from a scene in Mission Impossible III said by Theodore Brassel:
It is obscene that bankers are paid so much for the work they do compared to most other careers. Easy for me to say "do whatever makes you happy" or "be open to other well deserving jobs as well" when I have personally gone through and benefited from the system.
Investment banking offers no guarantees
Ultimately, everyone has to make peace with whatever career you have landed into. Many of my engineering-schooled friends are doing very well today, even having not gone into banking roles. Some are in sales, business development, entrepreneurs, etc.
Not everyone who lands an investment banking career is guaranteed to make lots of money and the promise of working on exciting deals. Most of the day-to-day work is iterative (and sometimes mundane): Research, spreading numbers and window-dressing a company's profile. As a junior or mid-level banker, you'd be lucky to get involved in and be a spectator in deal negotiations. Be realistic, you won't get to be portrayed a hero or a rockstar deal-maker. This is not the moves. However, you will be paid well and most likely be a target of envy for most of your peers earning a fraction of your salary.
More important than the prestige that comes with it, you really have to love what you do. The dots really do connect backwards. It is not so much about being "fast and furious", but whether you appreciate the dynamics of the job that you have chosen to be in and sustain yourself in that industry for a long time.
As I look back on my cover letter dated in 2006, I recall of how starry-eyed I was when I applied for a role in investment banking. I had been lucky, yet, at the same time, it also reminds me of how far along I had come: I applied for the money, saved some, spent some, invested some and lost most of it. I'd gained knowledge of the subject matter, technical skills and the experience, including the network of people, intangible resources built over the years, and spat out by the system.
But. No regrets.