What to Expect In Your Private Equity Internship in China: Deals, Culture, Pay, and How You Break In

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Private Equity ChinaI’m not sure if I’ve gotten more questions about the Middle East or China, but they’re both up there on the “hot markets in finance everyone wants to get into” list.

While everyone knows about Hong Kong, information on mainland China is much harder to find since US and European banks have less of a presence there.

But there are plenty of small, local firms that do have a presence – and you’re about to find out exactly what it’s like to work in private equity in China.

NOTE: This interviewee worked at a small PE firm in a short internship. The experiences described are not characteristic of the entire industry in the country.

How’d You Get It?

Q: Let’s talk about how you got this internship in the first place. Were you one of those people who was obsessed with finance even before you got to university?

A: Nope, it was all very random. I was born in China, though I moved to the US when I was very young – after that, I got interested in stock trading and did well with an account my parents gave me.

I hadn’t really thought about investment banking specifically until I had been at university for a few years. I knew having work experience was super-important if I wanted a solid summer internship or full-time job, and I decided that a school-year internship would be a good way to get there.

Since you stressed the importance of networking, I started contacting alumni and narrowed down the list to 15-20 names in mainland China.

Q: How responsive were the alumni? I’ve seen it go both ways – sometimes they are very helpful, while other times they stop caring because so many other students contact them.

A: They were pretty responsive for the most part, though I definitely had to follow-up a few times with some of them. One guy actually admitted to me that he purposely didn’t respond to my first 2-3 emails because he was testing me to see how serious I was.

If they didn’t respond at first, I would go straight to the phone and call them – just like you’ve said before, the phone yielded much better results than email.

Q: Wait a minute though – you were in the US at the time, so how did you call all these people in China considering the time zone difference of 14-17 hours?

A: You just have to bite the bullet and wake up at 3 or 4 AM to make the calls. No one expects you to fly halfway across the world for networking purposes – but if you can’t even stay up late or wake up early to call them, they think, “Um, can he even do investment banking?”

Q: Right, that’s a good point. So when you were calling these bankers, did you do it in English or Mandarin?

A: I felt more comfortable using English since I had lived in the US for 15+ years, so I tried that at first – but 90% of the time they switched the conversation to Mandarin right away.

My first few calls failed miserably because I didn’t know all the business and finance lingo – if you only speak the language until age 5, you won’t know how to walk someone through a DCF.

Q: Good points to keep in mind if you want to cold-call your way into finance in China. How did you get a school-year internship set up? Was it their idea or yours?

A: My school has a month-long break between semesters, and it’s common for students to do short internships or other activities in that period, so the alumni suggested it.

I also knew it would be easier to get something informal for 1 month as opposed to proposing something longer-term.

Q: So what was the interview process like once you contacted these firms and you were both discussing a school-year internship?

A: I went through 4 interviews – 2 with the MD of the firm I contacted, and then 1 with the Associate and 1 with the VP.

The MD was a foreigner, so that one was in English and he focused on “fit” questions like why I was there and what I wanted to do in the future.

The interviews with the more junior guys were more technical and they asked the usual questions about DCF analysis, accounting, and valuation – one of the Associates who dealt directly with clients also asked me about what makes a great sales person in China and how to develop relationships here.

What’d You Do?

Q: Given that it was a small firm, I’m guessing it was pretty unusual for them to even take on an intern.

A: Very. They had never had an intern before, and they had rarely hired anyone without previous internship or full-time experience.

Plus, there were fewer than 20 people at the firm – which meant everything was chaotic and that I was asked to do some very random tasks.

Q: Like what? What was your average day like?

A: I would usually get in around 9 or 9:30, and I’d work on any urgent tasks that came in overnight. If nothing was waiting, the full-time Analyst might come over to me and say, “I need a list of companies that meet criteria X, Y, and Z” or ask for help with other random tasks.

Later on, the MD might call me directly and ask for help with a pitch book or for help translating documents or emails – I was the only native English speaker there who also knew Mandarin, so I had to help with translation.

There was a lot of downtime as well – sometimes I would just read the WSJ or shop online during the day. They had never had an intern before, so sometimes they didn’t know what to do with me.

Q: You didn’t mention anything quantitative just now – did you get to do any modeling work?

A: No one in China takes “modeling” seriously, at least if you’re working with small or mid-size companies here. It’s almost a joke because the numbers are unreliable and sometimes companies just blatantly make up data or lie about their financial figures.

They did let me play around with a few numbers and Excel models, but it wasn’t anything in-depth.

It might be different at bulge bracket banks, but overall I would still expect less modeling because the industry is less developed, companies are less mature, and good data is hard to come by.

Equities in Shanghai

Q: You mentioned that the industry is less mature in China. How else is it different?

A: You could probably write a book about that one, but here are the key differences:

  • Everything is based on relationships, “gut feelings,” and haggling as opposed to sophisticated analysis or negotiation.
  • Most entrepreneurs and management teams here know almost nothing about accounting or finance – many of them don’t even know what an Income Statement is or how much money their business actually makes.
  • To have any chance of representing a company or investing in a company, you need to go there in-person and meet with them – it’s impossible to figure out what’s promising just based on Internet research or filings.
  • There’s no real hedge fund industry, at least not in mainland China – it’s only banking and PE.
  • Many of the smaller finance firms here are actually combination private equity and M&A advisory firms, which can create conflicts of interest.

On the last point, the company I was working at was exactly like that – we made investments but also took on clients in M&A and financing deals.

Q: What about the industry focus? Were there certain markets or companies you focused on?

A: I focused on consumer, retail, and downstream energy companies – we stayed away from technology and pharmaceuticals because they’re under intense regulation, which makes investing and dealing with them difficult.

Construction and infrastructure are also big, though we didn’t do much work with them.

Q: How does the deal process work in China if the numbers are unreliable and no one can answer in-depth questions on their companies?

A: To find companies to invest in, you could look at their reported or projected financials, but that tends to be unreliable – one company we saw projected 4,000% growth each year for 10 consecutive years.

Instead, you usually go through networkers – people here who spend all their time finding companies to introduce to bankers and PE investors.

Once you find a company, you negotiate directly with the founder – but it’s not like banking in the US where you come in and say, “Based on our DCF, we think you’re worth…”

It’s more like haggling for goods at a street market – you throw out one price, the founder responds with another price, and you go back and forth until both sides reach agreement.

How Much Did They Make You Drink, and Did They Pay For Everything?

Q: Wow. What was the culture of your company like? Did everyone hang out together or did you do your own thing?

A: It was very collegial. Everyone got in at around the same time every day, and everyone left at the same time every single day.

Since the office was small, even tiny bits of news rapidly spread and everyone knew what everyone else was doing.

So if someone from another company on the same floor suddenly had a crush on you, everyone would find out within 2 hours.

After work everyone would go out for drinks, and you pretty much had to go just to fit in.

You’re expected to do a bottoms-up every time someone senior asks you to, so that means ~7 shots every hour for a party of 6.

Q: You mentioned before that your MD was foreign, but it sounds like language skills are critical in China. Could the MD get around that just because he was foreign and kind of a big deal?

A: I should clarify something: if you look Asian and you’re in China, people expect you to know the language and the culture.

But if you don’t look Asian, people will not expect you to know anything and they’ll treat you much differently.

Foreigner friends here have actually worked as Analysts without knowing even basic Mandarin – but if you look Asian that would be impossible to pull off.

If you do want to work with clients one day, though, understanding the language and culture are important because many smaller firms here don’t know English.

Q: Any good stories about foreigners screwing up and making cultural faux pas in China? Tell us a juicy story.

A: Ok, fine. One time, our MD thought that just because he had a connection to a large company here, he could call the C-level executives directly and ask for a meeting. He didn’t realize that in China, that kind of behavior is taboo and you need to go through the proper channels.

They got very mad at us, but interestingly they didn’t yell at the MD – he was foreign, so they didn’t expect him to know anything. Instead, they yelled at our entire team and called the Associate to ask why he hadn’t corrected the MD’s mistake.

Q: Yup, that sounds like Asia. What about the hours?

A: On average I worked 11 or 12-hour days – usually starting at 9 AM and finishing at 8 or 9 PM. No all-nighters, and no 16-hour days.

Q: But I’m guessing the pay was also less than what you’d get with an internship in the US or Europe?

A: Yeah, the pay was definitely less but it was only a month-long internship so I wasn’t expecting much to begin with.

Q: I see. Do most bankers stay in banking? Or do people still hop around and obsess over exit opportunities?

A: There’s not as much of a tendency to jump from investment banking to private equity, partially because so many firms here do both. Some of the people at my firm came from larger banks, but overall there wasn’t as much of an obsession with “the track.”

Q: Sounds like most other regions outside the US. Thanks for your time – I learned a lot!

A: No problem.

NOTE: This interviewee worked at a small PE firm in a short internship. The experiences described above are not characteristic of the entire industry in the country.

About the Author

is the Founder of Mergers & Inquisitions and Breaking Into Wall Street. In his spare time, he enjoys learning obscure Excel functions, editing resumes, obsessing over TV shows, and traveling so much that he's forced to add additional pages to his passport on a regular basis.

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56 Comments to “What to Expect In Your Private Equity Internship in China: Deals, Culture, Pay, and How You Break In”

Comments

  1. Rodarte says

    Just wondering – how likely is it that your firm will send you on a secondment to their asian offices, just because you’re ethnically asian? Do they expect you to be more adapt at the culture there? I’m ethnically asian, but I’m more interested in working in the states/europe as the industry here’s a lot more sophisticated. In your opinion, would choosing to stay hurt any potential career advancement.

    • says

      I don’t really think that would happen just because of what you are ethnically – you’d have to actually be Chinese or have some type of background for that to happen. I always recommend starting in a major financial center like London or NYC, otherwise your mobility is a bit more limited.

      Also note that not EVERYTHING in PE is as this interviewee described – it’s just his short internship at a small firm. It’s certainly less sophisticated than the US / Europe but not quite as much as is portrayed here.

  2. MtDt says

    Do you consider HK or SG a major financial center? If you were to start your career at either, how much would your mobility be limited?

    Is geographical location less important for trading than MnA?

    • says

      Starting in HK or SG means it’s harder to move out of Asia later on. London and NYC are really the 2 biggest places that give you the most flexibility (although obviously this could change in the future).

      Location is important for both fields, and a lot of it is related to logistics… much harder to fly in for an interview or even do a phone interview halfway across the world than to walk down the street.

  3. Anonymous says

    Brian,

    True life: I know for a fact that the two people that I will interview with at one place have had recent deaths in their families. I feel a bit dumb to be asking you this, to be honest quite honest, but I just don’t know how to handle this situation. (They know that I know about this already.)

    • says

      Um, I would not bring it up unless they have told you directly before (i.e. you haven’t heard this through other people).

  4. Anonymous says

    should i apply to many different positions with 1 firm, or does this look pretty bad. if different hr staffs get my data, then i wouldn’t have to worry about looking bad. what do you say?

      • Anonymous says

        was this question china related or does it apply to BBs in the US also? its okay to apply for IB and S&T at the same firm, or theoretically, every firm?

        im very interested in trading but my experiences and probably more importantly network & connections all point me towards IB. what matters even more is that down the road id prefer to be at a hedge fund, working with the markets and financial instruments, or in some type of asset management role. a trader would have a harder time moving to pe than a hf., but is the opposite true of bankers?

        • says

          It applies to anything really… applying to a couple spots is ok but I would not say you’re interested in everything. Bankers won’t necessarily have a harder time moving into hedge funds than traders.

  5. Positive Carry says

    Which is better for PE when still in IB; M&A analyst or Equity Research Analyst?

    Can one draw the following conclusions?
    M&A; better at DEALING and acquiring/executing when you go buy-side.
    Equity Research; better at FINDING prospects to deal and aquire/execute when you go buy-side.

    Which type of analyst is the most valuble asset for a MD at a PE-shop?

    • says

      M&A is much better because most of what you do in PE is transaction-related. Also in equity research you don’t do much in terms of actually finding prospects, especially at the junior levels – it’s just following existing companies.

  6. says

    really appreciate the site — has been incredibly helpful. had a quick question —

    i’m involved in a bunch of business/economics organizations on campus and held leadership positions in 3 of them, and the other is a very solid extracurricular as well. if i include all four on my resume as separate experiences would that bolster it or look like too much resume padding? i have 2 IBD internships as well so would it be better to take one or 2 leadership positions off to maintain focus (i can fit it all in but there would be slightly less white space between each experience)

  7. says

    i know you mentioned private equity as being less social than IB jobs — is that only because of a smaller number of associates or the dynamic is different? would a PE firm with 5-10 associates be as social as an IB with 5-10 analysts?

    • says

      Both. Even with 5-10 associates everyone does their own thing more often and it’s not as much of a “hangout spot” unlike the analysts’ area at a bank (the “bullpen”).

  8. jimay says

    No offense but while your usual articles are great, this one was absolutely horrid. You got swindled. Like the user said, he does almost no accounting/finance and none of his bosses know anything either. It is like the blind leading the blind. It’s also 100% networking. My friend in HIGH SCHOOL was offered a job like this because his dad’s friend worked there.

    Also, the writer consistently writes about IBD and PE like its the same. It is not the same at all, especially PE in china is basically just shooting fish in a barrel with 0 modeling, quant data, or even structure. Your boss basically just talks to random people and on gut feelings base his decisions.

    Finally, you write 2-3 emails to the same person with no reply and keep writing emails? That is horrible advice to follow and is very annoying.

  9. JW says

    Hi, Thanks for the valuable advice but can you please provide more information about the Investment banking and Private Equity industry in HK?

    • says

      The interviewee here worked in mainland China so there’s nothing on HK – it may be covered in a future article though.

  10. JW says

    Hi,

    I am about to start a winter internship in HK at one of the BB’s and was wondering they give out full time offers? Is it immediately at the end of my intership or do they compare us bunch of winter interns and the upcoming summer interns before deciding who to hire as FT?

    Thanks

    • says

      Not sure how that works actually. For winter internships there may not be a formal process – if there is, my guess is that you would be compared to everyone and not just the other winter interns but that is just a guess.

    • SAM says

      Hi, based on my experience, most of the IBD intern/graduate class in most banks are from US Ivy Leagues/ UK top universities i.e Oxford, Cambridge, LSE. let’s just say I went to one of those. Unfortunately I seldom see any local students breaking into IBD successfully, primarily due to their mandarin skills & local knowledge (in no way can they compare to those originally from China and had studied aboard). However, don’t despair, I know a few HKU/HKUST people working in IB but in smaller firms/boutiques so you might have a shot if you work harder i.e apply for some semester intern positions.

      FYI, I had interned in 5+ BB since Alevels & university in all divisions. People from mainland China started gaining experience via family connections / on their own at my age. Either way, Good luck on your job search!

  11. Benjamin Winters says

    I’m moving to Shanghai soon for a one-year internship and I will likely apply for IB analyst positions at the bulge-bracket firms to follow. I haven’t been able to find any salary estimates for these positions in mainland China, but I imagine that they make significantly less than those in New York or London. Do you know roughly how much analysts get paid in Shanghai, compared to those in Hong Kong or other major financial centers?

    • says

      At international firms they might actually make around the same as in developed countries – large banks often pay standard rates to anyone. At smaller, local places base salaries might be 5x less than what you would earn elsewhere, since China is theoretically around 5x less expensive (which we both know to be false if you’ve spent any time there, but that’s just how it works).

    • the marsian says

      The pay in Shanghai will be much lower than HK, just like every other industry. For example, I know that first year GS fixed income trader in SH makes 1/2 of a comparable position in HK.

      • Lau says

        False.
        There is no so-called GS fixed income trader in SH because GS does not have a trading floor in mainland China.

  12. JW says

    Dear M&I,

    What is the value of MBA in banking and if it is valuable when is it the best time to do it? eg 30-35 or when you are MD,ED?

    Furthermore, is it an American thing or does it equaly apply to HK and China? And also, does it have to be from HBS, Wharton, ie Ivy Leagues?

    Many Thanks

  13. Dakeshi says

    Hi Brian,
    Could you give me some insights on investment banks in Hong Kong?

    I’m a college sophomore at HKU and I’ve done an internship at a local boutique over the last summer.

    I heard a lot about the importance of having an ivy league diploma to even have a shot the bulge bracket banks. I have solid GPAs, some relevant experience. Just that my family couldn’t afford an ivy league education (or any overseas studies)

    How to Buldge bracket banks recruit in HK or China?
    Do they hire mostly from the US? Do they even hire locally?
    I’m starting to feel that these information sessions they open at school
    are pointless.
    I tried to find some alumni who works at those banks as analysts or associates but failed. Even those who come for our information sessions are not our school alumni.

    • says

      Banks in HK recruit 90% from mainland China with some coming from the US/Europe; hiring directly from HK is not very common. You’ll have to be very aggressive with network / settle on a smaller firm because it’s more difficult to break in in HK if you don’t have a top school on your CV.

        • SAM says

          Just to add — based on my experience, most of the IBD intern/graduate class in most banks are from US Ivy Leagues/ UK top universities i.e Oxford, Cambridge, LSE. let’s just say I went to one of those. Unfortunately I seldom see any local students breaking into IBD successfully, primarily due to their mandarin skills & local knowledge (in no way can they compare to those originally from China and had studied aboard). However, don’t despair, I know a few HKU/HKUST people working in IB but in smaller firms/boutiques so you might have a shot if you work harder i.e apply for some semester intern positions.

          FYI, I had interned in 5+ BB since Alevels & university in all divisions. People from mainland China started gaining experience via family connections / on their own at my age. Either way, Good luck on your job search!

  14. AE says

    A bit frustrated. I graduated from MBA and have a international banking experience and want to get into investment banking. I’ve been talking and meeting with investment bankers from big banks for about 2mo. It’s been going well but just no interviews.

    Most of them were disappeared after telling me their dep. was not hiring. I do not know whether I did sth wrong? Or the market is too bad now? Can I go for lateral hires?

    I am concerned that small local firms are not interested my oversea experience and have sponsor limitations.

    What should I do next?

    • says

      Hard to say without knowing what you said specifically when meeting with bankers. You have to be direct and ask for what you want (e.g. how to get an interview there) – otherwise networking doesn’t lead to anything. Visas are a huge issue in the US, so if you have international experience you have a much better chance of working in your home country.

  15. AE says

    They told me they did not know how to get an interview since their departments are not hiring and told me they would check with HR. But never get feedback from them. If I still want to work here, what would be the best bet?

    • says

      Follow-up with them more aggressively or find other, more helpful people at the company. Sometimes they just don’t want to help you.

  16. VN says

    Hey Brian, after reading this post I’m even more curious now more than ever about the industry in Vietnam. Would you be interested in finding someone that could give insight to the industry there?

  17. Jaime says

    Hi, I am doing my PhD, in Management Science and Engineering at Tsinghua U. (top mainland school), but my background has nothing to do with banking. I studied architecture in Spain (I’m Spaniard), went for a master in Construction Engineering and Management to the US, and finally I’m in China having my PhD. I have recently started hearing about Investment Banking and I’m feeling very attracted to it. Do I have any chance?
    I am thinking of changing my dissertation to real state related topic, as that is what I want to focus in. What do you think would weight more, my not related past. Or being at a top chinese university and having a real state title?
    Thanks!

    • M&I - Nicole says

      You should try to land yourself an internship in finance – this would help you a lot. Not sure if bankers care about Tsingwa, PhDs, Masters as much as deal experience. If you’re interested in the real estate sector try to land yourself an internship in real estate investment banking or one of the real estate funds

  18. FD says

    I definitely agreed what is said in this story. I was a big4 auditor and got into a buy-side Chinese PE firm in HK. I thought I was lucky enough that I could switch from accounting to PE (which is my career goal), but it turned out to be a tragedy. First I was given a high-ranking title which was not compatible to my capability since I understood that I lacked the relevant experience and knowledge. Secondly, I was assigned random tasks which had nothing to do with transactions. There was minimal modelling work. My main tasks were meeting with seller, research, and some analysis of financial models prepared by the sellers. I was really not going anywhere in this job. After some time of thinking, I was determined to quit. Right now I m trying to find a PE or M&A job, but have been rejected as I lack the relevant transaction experience, especially in modelling. With my story , I just wonder what are the chances of me getting into a PE and M&A related industry?

    • says

      Thanks for adding that! Getting into PE or M&A in a developed country would still be tough, so it’s probably better to go to a Big 4 valuation group or something more “in between” first.

      • FD says

        Thanks alot for your reply, Brian. Would you mind expanding on the meaning of something more “in between”?
        My concern (from what I heard and also saw in the description of jobs offered by M&A or PE firms) is that alot of these PEs and M&A firms do not value the experience of TAS of big 4. So I am not sure if picking up a TAS job at big 4 would lead me the way to PE or M&A?

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