by Brian DeChesare Comments (4)

Corporate Finance vs Corporate Strategy: The Never-Ending Debate?

Corporate Finance vs Corporate Strategy

Finance vs consulting, and corporate finance vs corporate strategy: These debates never seem to go away.

The one about finance vs consulting is (in?)famous thanks to that Leveraged Sellout video from a decade ago.

But when it comes to working internally at a company – corporate finance vs corporate strategy – the stakes and trade-offs are less well-known.

I wanted to find out more, so I recently spoke with a reader who’s had experience in both fields in Dubai.

He weighed in on the recruiting process, the trade-offs, the merits of these roles at large companies, and which one would win in a fight:

Breaking into the Corporate Finance vs Corporate Strategy Debate

Q: Can you summarize your story for us?

A: Sure. I graduated from a non-target university in “Europe/Asia,” and started out working in real estate.

I accepted an offer at a property development firm in Dubai, and it went well at first – until the entire property market there crashed.

Sensing that the end was near, I moved to a boutique strategy/consulting firm in the region, which was modeled after Bain.

I knew a particular language that the firm needed, and it seemed fun to travel to Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, Iran, and other countries in the region for projects.

After a few years, I wanted a better lifestyle, so I moved to a large multinational company (we’ll call it a “Global 500 company”) in a corporate strategy/consulting role instead.

I spent a few years there, and I recently transferred to join the Regional Financial Planning & Analysis (FP&A) team in the corporate finance division in a more senior role.

Q: OK. So, how do you normally win these strategy and corporate finance roles?

I’m assuming your story is not too common…

A: In strategy roles at big companies, it’s 90% ex-consultants from a mix of MBB and boutique firms.

For the most part, companies do not hire undergraduates or recent graduates – you need consulting work experience to get in.

Consultants move into these roles in search of a better work/life balance; they don’t have to travel each week because they’re at one company working on projects at that company.

In corporate finance, many large companies have rotational programs for undergraduates and recent graduates, but you usually won’t get to do FP&A-style work.

Instead, they usually assign younger candidates to accounting and operational work because most companies need more help with accounting than they do with budgeting/planning.

You couldn’t start at my level (Senior Financial Analyst) right out of school, but you could start at the entry-level and advance up to this point.

Most large companies have either a “promote from within” or “hire from outside” philosophy for corporate finance roles.

For example, Procter & Gamble likes to promote candidates from within and keep them around for a long time.

Other companies prefer to save time and money by having other firms train candidates and then hiring those candidates.

Q: I see. And what about the mix of people in Dubai? Is it mostly foreigners?

A: Dubai’s overall population is roughly 80% ex-pats/foreigners and 20% Emiratis (though the exact numbers vary from year to year).

Most of the foreigners are from India and Pakistan, but quite a few also come from elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

Some also come from the Philippines and China, and others are from Europe, Australia, and South Africa.

However, in the private sector, there are virtually no Emiratis, so you compete exclusively with other foreigners.

Q: What should you expect in interviews for corporate finance vs corporate strategy roles?

A: There’s nothing specific to Dubai unless you’re applying for a highly technical role that’s dependent on local laws and regulations.

For example, one colleague in Tax and Treasury had to answer questions about the tax laws here (there are no personal income taxes, but there are corporate taxes for oil & gas companies and others).

For both the corporate strategy and FP&A roles, I had to complete a consulting-style case study in front of a panel, similar to what candidates at assessment centers in the U.K. do.

There is a big emphasis on fit, and they heavily favor internal candidates for all these roles.

My company encourages people to rotate into different roles, so they tend to ask behavioral questions and qualitative case studies (e.g., “What would you in Difficult Situation X at work?”) rather than specific technical questions.

Some companies, especially non-public ones, tend to present their P&Ls and other financial statements in non-standard ways (vs. what you are taught in school or through certifications).

You don’t need to know all the details for interviews, but you’ll have to learn them quickly once you start.

Certifications like the CFA and CMA (Certified Management Accountant) can also help with corporate finance roles at many large companies.

You can advance without a financial certification, but past a certain point, they’ll start asking about it because of corporate governance standards.

For example, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll become a financial controller for a $100 million department unless you have a certification or a finance degree.

Companies often sponsor you to take these exams, but you have to set aside time to prepare.

The Eternal Debate: Corporate Finance vs Corporate Strategy

Q: Thanks for that summary.

Can you walk us through the corporate finance vs corporate strategy roles and explain the one you prefer?

A: Corporate strategy (also called “internal strategy”) is very similar to management consulting, but with a more limited scope and a better work/life balance.

It’s a transitory role because there isn’t a real “path” to the top: Most people join from consulting firms or other roles in the company, stay for a few years, and move on.

The best part of the job is that you get high-level exposure to senior executives all the time and you can move from project to project, so you rarely get bored.

The worst part is that you always have to think about what’s next.

FP&A is a core finance role at all companies, driven by the business cycle: You’re busy when you’re closing months and quarters, but the periods in between are quiet.

If your division’s numbers meet or exceed the planned numbers, it’s a pretty relaxed job.

But if your group isn’t doing so well, it becomes more stressful because you’ll need to come up with stories to explain what’s going wrong.

As with internal strategy, you interact with different units and the global headquarters a fair amount, but you spend more time with the mid-level staff rather than top executives.

The worst part is that it can become boring and monotonous after a while since you complete similar processes each week, month, and quarter.

But it’s also better for career progression since there’s a clear path to the CFO position.

Q: That’s a good comparison; thanks.

How do you interact with everyone else at the company in your current role (FP&A)?

A: Our Regional CFO is responsible for delivering Sales, Cash, and Net Income figures, and he works with different business units to meet or exceed the targets.

A lot of it is a “game of negotiation” – one unit might say it can’t deliver a certain target, so the CFO has to go to other units and see if they can cover for the under-performing one by changing the reserves and other items.

As your previous accounts of corporate finance have covered, there is a lot of subjectivity in the reporting of financial results.

The Regional CFO must also have a good story to explain the results, especially if there’s a miss or something else unexpected comes up.

He/she works with the CFOs of the other units and several Senior Financial Analysts in his/her team.

We typically split our work across different P&L lines and also have dedicated “eyes” on Cash. I’m the “Cash guy” in the team, though I cover other metrics as well.

Last year, for example, I had to figure out how to meet the region’s Cash target as we were falling behind.

To do that, I worked with the business units in our region to optimize their projected Working Capital levels, and I made regional-level decisions about cutting certain non-core CapEx to help land the target.

Q: Thanks for explaining that. What is the compensation like in Dubai?

A: The packages are in-line with those in major financial centers, but the cost of living is lower, and there are no personal income taxes.

In corporate finance, you might start out at around $70K USD, move up to $100K over ~5 years, and move up to $200K USD over ~10 years as you become more senior.

However, those compensation levels are for multinational firms; at domestic companies, the pay is 30-50% lower.

(NOTE: Compensation figures as of 2017-2018.)

Overall, you’ll likely earn higher take-home pay at a multinational in Dubai than you would in other financial centers.

In fact, our company has had problems with candidates who move from the Dubai office to other parts of the world.

Candidates assume that they’ll earn the same amount if they move to London or New York – but the take-home pay is far lower, and sometimes candidates demand higher salaries to compensate.

Q: I would love to see that conversation play out in real life…

Do most professionals in Dubai tend to stay in these roles for the long term?

A: No. The entire city is very transitory, and people tend to move around more quickly than in other markets.

Especially if you’re at a large company, you can easily find ten similar positions in different parts of the world; management even helps you transfer.

At my company, there’s a concept of “time in role,” similar to “up or out” in consulting, where you’re encouraged to move into a new role after 3-5 years (unless you get promoted).

Regarding external exit opportunities, most people in corporate finance tend to move into other roles here or similar roles at other companies.

I haven’t seen anyone move into investment banking, and many team members come from non-target schools and aren’t even aware of IB/PE-type roles.

In corporate strategy, many people go back into management consulting or even enter fields like private equity, especially if they’ve had prior experience.

Awareness of “high finance” is much higher on that side of the business, and it’s easier to win recruiters’ attention.

Q: So, bottom line: Thinking about corporate finance vs corporate strategy, how can you decide which one is right for you?

A: Corporate strategy is good if you’ve done management consulting, you want a better lifestyle, and you want to keep your options open.

So, if you’re not sure whether you want to stay at a normal company or go back into consulting or finance, strategy is a better bet.

Corporate finance is better if you want to stay at a large company for the long-term and advance up to the CFO level, or move into a different division and advance up the ranks there.

If you don’t enjoy completing similar weekly/monthly/quarterly tasks and processes, stay away because it will be a poor fit for you.

Q: Great, thanks for your time.

A: My pleasure.

M&I - Brian

About the Author

Brian DeChesare is the Founder of Mergers & Inquisitions and Breaking Into Wall Street. In his spare time, he enjoys memorizing obscure Excel functions, editing resumes, obsessing over TV shows, traveling like a drug dealer, and defeating Sauron.

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by Brian DeChesare Comments (2)

Off-Cycle Private Equity Recruiting: How to Win Middle-Market Private Equity Offers

Off Cycle Private Equity Recruiting

What happens if you don’t follow “the path”?

I’ve written many stories about readers who broke into investment banking against all the odds, overcoming non-target schools, low GPAs, and a lack of work experience.

But… what next?

Even if you succeed the first time around, can you win exit opportunities such as private equity?

I wanted to find out via some firsthand accounts, so I recently spoke with a reader in that same position.

He came from a non-target school, had no prior banking internships, and won a full-time IB offer at the last minute.

And he won an offer at a middle-market private equity fund, mostly through his own networking and preparation efforts:

Off-Cycle Private Equity Recruiting: How to Network and Win Interviews

Q: Can you summarize your story for us?

A: Sure. I came from a very random background – a non-target school and only a private wealth management internship – and got into investment banking at the last minute via an intense networking effort.

I won an offer at an “In-Between-a-Bank” (IBAB) – think HSBC, RBC, Wells Fargo, etc.

In my first year at the firm, I went through the on-cycle private equity recruiting process, which began in January back then (it’s earlier now).

I started preparing for PE recruiting right after I started in August, and I began a more serious effort in October.

That meant reading every interview guide I could find, completing case studies and modeling tests, outlining my deal experience, and figuring out which funds I would target.

All my deals had been in the middle market, so I put together a list of ~10 middle-market PE funds that I would focus on.

I made it to a few final rounds at upper-middle-market funds but did not win any offers in the first stage of on-cycle recruiting.

By contrast, Analysts at elite boutiques and bulge brackets would often interview in a single day, receive offers, and be finished.

After the first round, I shifted my focus to off-cycle private equity recruiting at smaller funds and ended up winning an offer at a middle-market fund.

Interviews in this off-cycle private equity recruiting process often took several weeks to a month, and there was less competition from bankers at larger firms.

Q: OK. Can you explain how you networked to win these interviews?

A: Even if you have contacts at private equity firms, you will almost always have to go through headhunters because most firms outsource their recruiting.

But if you’re at a smaller bank, they won’t reach out to you as proactively; you’ll have to use referrals to get in touch with them.

Networking was quite different from networking for IB roles because it was difficult to cold email or cold call Analysts and Associates and set up informational interviews.

They were busier and less receptive than bankers, and I always had better luck reaching “alumni” from my banking group who had left for private equity.

In some cases, I asked them directly about recruiting at their firms, and in other cases, I asked for introductions to recruiters.

Q: So, are you saying that it’s not a great idea to set up informational interviews and go through an extended networking process?

A: If you start far in advance – say, your last year of university – then you can conduct an extended networking effort.

But if you’re starting a few months before recruiting begins, stick to a more targeted approach based on bank alumni and recruiters.

Q: How should you think about the overall private equity recruiting process?

It seems like many bankers start their jobs without a clear idea of what to expect.

A: First, you must decide earlybefore you even start your full-time job – whether or not you’ll go through the PE recruiting process in your first year.

Second, you need to maintain realistic expectations about the firms you’ll focus on, given your background and experience.

For example, if you’re not at a BB or EB bank, it is a waste of time to target mega-funds, even if you have solid academic and deal experience.

If you decide to recruit for on-cycle PE roles in your first year, you have to go all-out, even if it means under-performing at work.

If you make a half-hearted effort, you don’t receive an offer, and then you go through the process again in your second year, the first question in every interview will be: “What happened the first time around?”

Many candidates wait to close a deal or work on a high-profile M&A deal, but those are often outside your control, so I think it’s a poor idea to delay recruiting just for one of those.

It’s smarter to spin your pitches into sounding like deals and recruit as soon as possible.

How to Prepare for Private Equity Interviews Efficiently

Q: On that note, what tips do you have for interviews?

A: All candidates read the same interview guides, so you can’t just memorize the same questions and answers as everyone else and hope to succeed.

My #1 tip is to spend the bulk of your time researching the fund you’re interviewing with, from their portfolio companies to their exits and investment strategies.

Everyone else will have similar-looking work experience, so fund research is the best way to set yourself apart – especially in off-cycle private equity recruiting, where “fit” is even more important.

Regarding technical questions and case studies, many guides and courses have basic, intermediate, and advanced models, but the advanced models are a waste of time.

I’ve never built anything as complex as some of these advanced models, either on the job in banking or in PE interviews.

Instead, I focused on a basic model that I could build from scratch.

You need to know how to build a 3-statement model and add an LBO on top of it.

Beyond that, the bells and whistles are unimportant; people tend to struggle because of time pressure more than anything else.

Q: OK. What should be in this “basic model”?

A: If you assume a 60-minute completion time, I would say:

  • A Purchase Enterprise Value calculation.
  • A Sources & Uses schedule.
  • Debt assumptions.
  • Simple revenue and expense assumptions.
  • Cash flow projections that start with the Income Statement and end at the Free Cash Flow calculation.
  • A Debt schedule with 1-2 tranches of Term Loans, Subordinated Notes, or Mezzanine, and a Revolver.
  • And a simple returns calculation and 1-2 sensitivities at the bottom.

Skip full 3-statement projections, detailed Working Capital calculations, purchase price allocation, complex Debt schedules, scenarios, and fancy returns calculations (returns to lenders, earn-outs, waterfalls, option pools, etc.).

Aim for 150 rows or less in a single spreadsheet.

If you have 2-3 hours, the model should include the full 3 statements (though they can be simplified) and Balance Sheet adjustments for the transaction.

Still skip the complex Debt schedule and complicated returns calculations.

A good target is 300 rows or less in a single spreadsheet.

Almost everything else is in the “bells and whistles” category: Depreciation schedules, original issue discount, call premiums, dividend recaps, different exit types, credit stats/ratios, stub periods, etc.

Unless they tell you specifically to include one or more of those, leave them out to save time.

Q: Besides the fact that many models are overly complex, what else is missing from current resources, articles, and guides?

A: The main problems are:

  • Too much unnecessary information – You don’t need to know about the history of the private equity industry or brain teasers.
  • Lack of detail on different processes – Off-cycle private equity recruiting works quite differently from the on-cycle process, and most guides do not explain mega-fund vs. middle-market interviews (for example). Interviews are also quite different for candidates with the elite university/top grades/top bank background vs. ones who are missing one or more of those.

 It would also be helpful to see examples of candidates who won PE offers from different backgrounds.

  • Not enough information on deal discussions – I haven’t seen great explanations of how to spin your pitches into sounding like deals, and this point is quite important in interviews at all types of funds.

You’ve covered many of the points above in previous articles on M&I, so if you wanted to create a PE interview guide, you could combine the previous coverage into one resource.

Q: Thanks for the suggestion!

Is there anything else you want to add?

A: There’s a lot that you cannot control in the process, such as the timing, your interviewers, your university, your GPA, and your current bank.

So, you need to focus on the parts that you can control, such as your answers to “fit” questions, your deal experience, and your ability to finish modeling tests on-time.

If you do that and you start the recruiting process before your full-time IB job begins, you should be able to win offers – even if they’re not at your ideal firms.

Q: Great. Thanks for your time!

A: My pleasure.

M&I - Brian

About the Author

Brian DeChesare is the Founder of Mergers & Inquisitions and Breaking Into Wall Street. In his spare time, he enjoys memorizing obscure Excel functions, editing resumes, obsessing over TV shows, traveling like a drug dealer, and defeating Sauron.

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by Brian DeChesare Comments (8)

From Biology to Investment Banking: How to Become an Even Better “MD”

Biology to Investment Banking

A long time ago, an angry reader kept leaving comments saying that my estimates for MD-level compensation were off.

He posted an analysis showing why my estimate of $1,000 per hour was wrong and explained why MDs make more like $100-$200 per hour.

His numbers lined up, but then I reached the end of his “analysis” and read the punchline:

“People have been led to believe that MDs make a huge salary, but the ones that are really making money are the hospitals; doctors are just employees at the hospitals and clinics.”

Oops.

I can understand the confusion.

But on this site, MD means Managing Director.

And the pay differences above are one of the many points that lead many students to switch from biology to investment banking – as our reader today did:

Switching from Biology to Business

Q: Can you summarize your story for us?

A: Sure. I graduated from high school as one of the top students in my class and started university at a Top 25 school in the U.S.

I began as a biology major, mostly due to my personal interest in the industry, but within a few months, I realized I had no idea what I was doing with myself.

So, I transferred to a much smaller and lesser-known school.

It wasn’t even ranked at the national level, and it had approximately 3-5 alumni, total, in investment banking.

I stuck with biology at first, but I began to lose interest in it after two years of classes.

My roommate was an economics major, and after speaking with him, professors in the business school, and those 3-5 alumni, I switched into economics.

I liked that a lot more, but I got such a late start that it was almost impossible to win a finance internship in my junior year, let alone an internship in investment banking.

I applied to more internships than anyone else I’ve spoken to – maybe 500+ applications – but nothing worked because all my experience and coursework had been in healthcare.

I read about valuation groups at accounting firms and learned how the skill set might be relevant for IB roles, so I gave myself a crash course in accounting, valuation, and financial modeling.

Then, I applied for and won a role at a non-Big-4 firm by heavily spinning my background.

About 9 months into that job, I began networking for IB roles.

I spent 10-15 hours per week on informational interviews, emails, and calls, and won a full-time IB Analyst role at a bulge-bracket bank after about 9 months of the job search.

Q: To start with, how did you spin your background to win the valuation role?

A: I pointed to my self-study and relevant coursework and de-emphasized my biology and healthcare work experience.

Many valuation firms look for students who held leadership roles on campus, so I emphasized those in place of my non-finance work experience.

Networking also works well at these firms since fewer students do it; it’s easily the best way to get through the resume screen.

Biology to Investment Banking: Networking Strategies

Q: You mentioned earlier that you had used some “creative” networking strategies.

Can you share them with us?

A: Sure. The standard tactics worked well for valuation roles at accounting firms, but I had to become more creative as I began searching for IB roles.

Initially, I sent mass cold emails to bankers and received a total of 0 replies.

That was because I had a weak story and no mutual connections; also, I looked like a non-traditional candidate.

So, I changed my strategy and began writing physical letters (i.e., snail mail) to decision makers at banks.

If they could ignore my email in 1 second, it would take them at least 5 seconds to open my letter and decide whether or not to read it.

Q: OK, but how did you find the physical addresses?

A: If you think about it, it’s easier than finding email addresses: Just look up the bank’s address on Google Maps!

I searched for bankers’ first and last names on LinkedIn and combined that with the address data from Google Maps to send the letters.

After I sent the physical letter, I also followed up via email.

If the bank used middle names or initials in their email address format, I searched FINRA registrations to find that information.

This process of writing letters to explain my background, story, and why I wanted to work in banking was time-consuming (~1 hour per letter at first), but then I remembered your suggestion to outsource networking, and I began doing that.

I hired a virtual assistant on Upwork to gather the data and draft letters for me, which took the bulk of the time.

I then reviewed each letter and made minor edits, and my girlfriend and I sent them out weekly. Even today we joke about how we’ve perfected the trifold.

The process became so streamlined that I could easily send out 20 letters per week.

Q: Wow.

Which banks or groups did you focus on, and how did you follow up with them?

A: I started out by focusing on healthcare and tech groups, but bankers kept telling me to be industry-agnostic.

I took their advice and began to research other industries so I could discuss trends and deals anywhere.

I started with the bulge-bracket banks and moved down from there.

After I sent a physical letter, I waited a week, and if I didn’t hear anything, I followed up via email.

If I still didn’t hear anything, I followed up a few days later and kept following up every few days for a week or two after that.

Emails sent around office open time in the local time zone got the best response rates; I won informational interviews or referrals from three Vice Chairmen (!) at different banks like that.

Q: Yeah, you want the email to arrive after they’ve cleared away everything received overnight, but before the craziness of the day begins.

What were the biggest challenges you encountered in this process?

A: The biggest challenge, by far, was telling my story effectively and convincing them I was serious about the biology to investment banking move.

I had an unusual background – I had transferred to a smaller university, I had switched majors, and I had become interested in finance very late – and I struggled to explain all that at first.

Also, I had to use my story to preempt the inevitable “Why haven’t you done a previous IB or finance internship?” and “Why didn’t you get in earlier?” questions.

I did not encounter problems with firms never getting back to me after interviews.

Lateral opportunities come up as a result of unexpected departures, so teams usually need to hire someone quickly.

Investment Banking Non-Finance Backgrounds: How to Tell Your Story and Handle Surprises

Q: Agreed; it’s also more of an issue at small banks rather than the bulge brackets.

On that note, how did you tell your story effectively?

A: I stripped my story down to its bare essentials and resisted the urge to “explain” too much.

For example, I left out the part about transferring to a smaller university because it didn’t help my case at all.

I also left out my university’s name because it wasn’t well-known, and I already had full-time work experience.

My rough story outline was:

  • Beginning: Entering university, I majored in biology. I had family members in medicine, and I also wanted to go into the industry.
  • Spark: Halfway through, I realized it wasn’t for me, and I became more interested in economics because of [Specific Professor/Class].
  • Growing Interest: I liked economics, but I also wanted more practical, hands-on applications of the topics, so I became interested in investment banking and valuation, which led to my current role.
  • Preempting of Key Objections: I started late in the process, so I was not able to complete an IB internship. But valuation work seemed like the next-best alternative, and I felt the skill set would apply to IB roles as well.
  • The Future / Why You’re Here Today: So, I’m here today because I want to take the skills I’ve gained in my current role and apply them to major transactions. I’m interested in IB because you influence deals rather than just weighing in one aspect, such as valuation, or analyzing deals after they’ve taken place, and I’m excited about this firm and group because of [Recent Deals the Group Has Worked On].

Q: That story outline is better than 99% of the ones we see.

What other surprises or challenges did you encounter in networking and interviews?

A: I was surprised at how my story worked very well with some bankers but very poorly with others.

Anyone who had attended a non-target school or moved in from a different career responded well, but it was harder to connect with graduates of elite universities and business schools.

Also, at some banks, I kept getting “referrals to HR” from bankers.

They were trying to be helpful, but these calls tended to be useless because they were often with teams that had no open positions.

One HR group at a bank asked me to stop asking for referrals since they had no open roles!

Since lateral roles pop up unexpectedly, staying in touch with bankers was crucial.

If someone quits randomly in the middle of the year, you need to be #1 on senior bankers’ list of “candidates to call.”

Q: Yeah, it’s even more critical than in on-cycle recruiting because of the timing.

What else did they ask you about in interviews?

A: My valuation experience and perspective put me in a good position since I had more real-world experience than most candidates.

Bankers did not ask me that many conceptual questions, but focused on topics like the selection of comparable companies and how to tweak the set to get the results the client wanted to see.

Other than that, they focused heavily on my story, how much I knew about the bank, and recent deals they worked on (which you need to know about).

Q: Great. Any final thoughts for students who also want to move from biology to investment banking (or another non-finance major to IB)?

A: The main points are:

1) Think of networking as a process, not a series of results.

It’s discouraging to focus on the results because most networking efforts turn into dead ends.

It’s better to think of it as an extended process and not worry too much about how many responses you get in one week.

2) Frame your story for your audience.

You can have the best story in the world, but it’s useless unless the person you’re speaking to can relate to it.

3) Be persistent.

If there’s anything that bankers care about besides academic background and work experience, neither of which you can immediately change, it’s persistence.

Some people track how many times candidates have contacted them and recommend the ones with the most attempts, even if they never respond to those candidates!

Q: Thanks for your time! Great tips.

A: My pleasure.

M&I - Brian

About the Author

Brian DeChesare is the Founder of Mergers & Inquisitions and Breaking Into Wall Street. In his spare time, he enjoys memorizing obscure Excel functions, editing resumes, obsessing over TV shows, traveling like a drug dealer, and defeating Sauron.

Break Into Investment Banking

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