From the Back Office to Front Office Private Equity: How to Make the Leap
After graduating from Syracuse University, I took a back office position with a well-known custody bank – I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I graduated and I needed a job.
Within 3 weeks I knew I’d jump off a cliff if I stayed there any longer, so I started emailing alumni and reaching out to friends.
I would send out 10-15 emails every day, and after a couple weeks of doing this my job search gained some traction.
And within 6 months, I was ready to move on – just not in the way I expected.
Off to Foreign Lands?
I accepted an offer for a year-long rotational program at a well-known European bank – but what really enticed me was the option, at the end of the program, to attend a month-long executive training in London.
It wasn’t true banking, but I thought that I could excel in the role and use the experience as a way to either internally transfer into private banking / capital markets or build my resume for business school.
The year flew by and I really maximized my experience – I was ranked #1 throughout the entire program, took all the training the bank offered (many more than my peers took) and would even take days off to network internally.
At the end of the program I had an amazing network and was placed in a corporate sales role operating out of my district headquarters. This role was customized for me and allowed me to continue my volunteer work, become a product specialist, develop business, and manage relationships with commercial clients as well as directly lead a high priority program within the bank.
Everything looked great, and I was set to go to London – the gold star I would need to move around like I had planned…
In Comes the Financial Crisis!
My bank owned a very large player in the sub-prime mortgage space. Within the course of a month, the subprime outfit was shuttered and the layoffs started hitting.
First, friends of mine started getting the pink slip, and then my district was merged with another and next thing you know my boss and mentor was pulling me into his office (not the conference room!) telling me to trust him and keep my head down.
My name had come up to be laid off and his final act before his reassignment was to move my position and thereby prevent me from getting the axe – a truly humbling experience.
So there I was, one minute sitting pretty and getting ready to go to London. The next minute I was bouncing around, position to position, with my well-built network being destroyed little by little on a daily basis.
I knew my career was never going to be the same at that bank and that all the work I had put in was had gone to waste. London was off the table and any thought of me transferring to something truly front office was done for the time being. I was miserable and wanted out.
Whither Grad School?
Around this time I started thinking about grad school – I had been interested in a Master’s in Finance degree since my days at Syracuse, but never had the time to do it.
I had worked for a little over 3 years now and wanted another shot at things. Whatever school I picked had to be near a major finance hub because I knew I needed a real investment banking-type internship to rebrand myself and tell the story I wanted to tell.
And I needed a well-known school with a solid alumni base because I learned firsthand how important alumni help could be during my experience moving away from the back office. I also wanted something close to the NY tri-state area because that’s where my existing network was, as well as where I saw myself working in the future.
All of that led me to Villanova University’s MSF program. Philadelphia was nearby and provided ample internship possibilities, and the alumni base was almost entirely located in NYC and Philadelphia, with a strong finance concentration.
The school had a great feel and wonderful student experience and the one-year program meant a much lower opportunity cost. I was admitted to the 2010 MSF class and promptly packed my bags and moved to the city of brotherly love.
Arrival in Philadelphia
The program was fast-paced and challenging, but really helped me get back into the finance mindset. All of the students take the same classes so I made a lot of close friends which was great in itself, but since everyone in the program is focused on banking/trading, it was a great way to develop a close network.
The classes were a mix of theory and practical skills, which I found incredibly valuable since it had been a long time since I modeled anything and since I had actually used my undergraduate degree in finance.
I utilized the career center to the fullest in looking for an internship, and I would routinely email alumni in the area looking to see if they had a need for an unpaid intern.
This was essential since I knew my resume – with so many random-looking moves – would raise questions when full-time recruiting came around. Finally all my efforts started to pay off, and I got offers for two internships. Interning 5 days a week while taking a full load of Master’s classes was not easy, but I had to do it.
During my time at Villanova I did 3 internships, covering banking, real estate and fixed income. These experiences helped me get interviews at a local real estate private equity firm, corporate banking, specialized fixed income shops, and even more places.
Your Offer, If You Choose to Accept It…
Ultimately, I received a full time position at a credit-focused private equity fund. I cannot tell you the happiness and relief that I felt when that offer came in. Going back to school was a risk, but I trusted in myself and made a leap of faith. Achieving something that I had wanted for over 4 years now was very powerful, to say the least.
I am now an analyst working in a front office role and gaining experience which I can use to grow at my current firm or leverage into either other buy-side roles – or even move to the sell-side if I want.
All I know is that the position I have now completely makes up for my cost of tuition and lost salary, not to mention the satisfaction of actually working in a client-facing role. Before I went back to school my career was floating adrift; now I have a world of opportunity open to me and a network of industry professionals that I never had before.
My Advice to You
Want to move from the back office to the front office? Here’s how I did it, and how you can do the same:
1) Networking is Key
I reached out to anyone and everyone I could. I would email anyone and just ask for advice or to talk. Most people are helpful as long as you are polite and ask for help.
2) It Is Hard Work
You need to put in a lot of effort. Nothing I did was easy or landed in my lap. Emailing 10-15 people a day while working full-time takes a lot out of you. And interning 20-25 hours a week while juggling Master’s-level classes takes even more out of you. It comes down to how hard you are willing to work for what you want.
3) Do Not Get Discouraged
You will fail and you will fall down. The people that succeed are the ones who get back up and keep moving forward. Just look at how many times Sylvester Stallone fell down before the first Rocky movie was made!
4) Sometimes You Need to Hit the “Reset” Button
The MSF was my restart. I wasn’t ready for a top MBA yet, and I needed another shot at recruiting and a new alumni network. A year off in a new area and in a program that enhances your knowledge base can be a powerful tool in getting to where you want to go.
5) Don’t Be Selfish
I spend countless hours replying to emails and talking to alumni who contact me or perspective MSF students who email me. If you help, the favor will be returned without question. This has always been my outlook on things and it has never failed me.
6) Set Goals and Look Long-Term
My back office job lasted about 6 months, but it was a good name on my resume and helped me get my next job. The next job was great and I threw myself into it.
Unfortunately it didn’t turn out as planned, but the experience helped me get into my Master’s program. My internships didn’t immediately turn into a job, but I kept in touch, was grateful and ultimately they paid off. Always remember to not burn bridges and to keep in touch, you never know when a past contact or experience can help out.
7) Be Prepared
I have been an avid reader of this site, as well as other well-known finance sites for years. I needed a polished resume for grad school and when applying to FO positions so I utilized the M&I investment banking resume editing service to help me (I still use the same format and materials that Brian helped me with to this day).
Learn how to model and know your fundamentals. There are plenty of guides and modeling services out there so there is no excuse for not knowing this stuff.
While the back office to front office move is not easy and might require years of work, it’s doable if you’re willing to put in the time and effort.
You might have to go through a round or two of layoffs, go for a more advanced degree, and build a new network in the process – but what fun would life be without a good story?
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