From Community College to Fortune 500 Investor Relations: How to Defy the Odds Even When Everyone Tells You “No”
It never seems to die.
It’s like a cockroach: no matter how many times I drop nuclear bombs on it, it just won’t stay dead.
That’s why I wanted to share this story of a reader who did almost everything wrong in the beginning…
…But still managed to win a highly competitive offer in the corporate finance / investor relations team of a Fortune 500 company.
Forget about being from a “non-target school” – he originally attended a community college.
Forget about the recruiting process taking “months and months” – it took him almost 2 years.
And forget about being “discouraged” by your networking contacts – one guy actually told him: “You didn’t go to Harvard, so I don’t know what to tell you.”
But he overcame all that to break in anyway.
And here’s how he did it, along with a detailed explanation of investor relations interviews:
From Community College to CFO Consigliere
Q: Before we begin, can you summarize your background and the position you eventually won?
A: Sure – I was originally very interested in playing (North American) football in college and hadn’t focused much on academics in high school because I was counting on an athletic scholarship to win admission to good schools.
That didn’t work out due to a major injury I suffered, so after graduating from high school I joined a non-profit for a few years and then I applied to local community colleges. With the SAT scores I had, a community college was my only option at the time.
I knew I had to transfer somewhere better to get a solid job post-graduation, so I applied to liberal arts colleges in the US and ended up attending a decent-but-mostly-unheard-of one.
I studied economics there, got fairly good grades (3.7), and also joined as many activities as possible (varsity football, president of a business club, etc.).
I graduated into a horrible economy, so I went through an extended networking process that lasted almost 2 years.
In that time, I took a part-time / remote role at a hedge fund, took a full-time sales job, and went through 50+ informational interviews across one long trip to New York.
And it ended with me leveraging my sales job into an investor relations role in the corporate finance team of a Fortune 500 company.
I work directly with the VP of Investor Relations, and I get exposure to the C-level executives here whenever we’re preparing for earnings releases or giving them updates.
Q: Great. So let’s start with what happened when you first graduated from the liberal arts college.
A: The economy was terrible, and in my area there were several top schools with extremely well-qualified candidates… and I had very little to offer at the time.
But I wanted to leverage my business and economics background and break into finance anyway.
So I followed all your networking tips and went through a crazy effort that entailed:
- Sending out between 2,000 and 3,000 separate emails.
- Adding over 1,200 LinkedIn connections.
- Going through over 50 informational interviews in New York, over 18 days spent there.
- Surviving some humiliating conversations with finance professionals.
At the same time, I picked up part-time sports coaching gigs and did other part-time work to pay the bills.
I also knew I’d need to get some sort of finance-related work experience on my resume, so in the months after I graduated I got an unpaid internship at a hedge fund.
The PM was an alumnus from my alma mater, and it was a smaller fund, AND it was mostly remote / part-time work (maybe ~300 hours of work total over 8 months)… but at least I had something to write on my resume.
They told me: “We’re not hiring anyone.”
And I just kept saying: “I’ll work for free and do anything I can to save you time” until they finally said yes, took a chance, and gave me a bit of work (mostly research and analyzing potential investments).
Q: OK, so you were working part-time for money, you had a part-time unpaid hedge fund gig, and then you were also networking like crazy.
Can you tell us about those “humiliating” conversations you mentioned?
A: All the usual objections came up – I had attended a community college, my “real” college also wasn’t great, my GPA was borderline, and I wasn’t very “polished” when I met people.
I was “working at a hedge fund” at the time, so people on the sell-side were asking why I wanted to move back to the sell-side, while people on the buy-side were asking questions I couldn’t answer.
Some of the more humiliating responses I got:
“You didn’t go to Harvard. So I don’t know what to tell you.”
“It seems like you just don’t know what you want to do in life.”
“You seem very ‘social.’ Maybe you should think about sales instead of finance.”
“Kid, you’re just not tough enough to work in finance.” (Possibly my favorite)
I met with some pretty high-level people – guys at firms like Greenlight Capital, KKR, TPG, GS, and family offices, but I didn’t “catch a break” anywhere.
The low point happened when I was living in my friend’s garage to save money.
I was speaking with someone at Goldman Sachs who asked “if I was on the buy-side” since they saw my hedge fund experience.
I looked around at the old car and toolboxes in the garage, and almost started laughing.
Q: You should write a book. “The Garage of Wall Street?”
Anyway, I think a lot of recent grads suffer from the ‘lack of polish’ you mentioned – can you give an example of that?
A: The main problem was that I was too direct at first. For example, a family friend was one of the first 10 employees at a tech start-up that had since grown into a $100+ billion company.
I emailed him directly and asked for an introduction to someone in the finance team – he replied and said, “I’m not going to hold this against you, but in the future please don’t send an email like this to someone in my position.”
I had to do more of a soft sell for myself rather than emailing VP/C-level executives and asking for favors.
A lot of my early interviews didn’t go well for similar reasons.
I spoke with a Transaction Advisory Services group at a Big 4 firm, for example, but I came across as awkward in the interview and didn’t win the offer.
Coffee is for Closers: Moving Into Sales
Q: So you weren’t gaining much traction despite an incredible networking effort.
A: I actually “gave in” and started listening to the feedback my networking contacts gave, and I took a sales job in a new division of a Fortune 500 company in my area.
It was somewhat competitive to get the job, but sales is the type of role where they’ll give almost anyone a chance and if you hit or exceed your numbers, they’ll keep you around.
At first, I really, really, really hated it because the entire job consisted of cold-calling and chatting up people on the phone, which I felt uncomfortable with.
But I learned quickly, and I knew that the only way out was to perform well in this role.
If I did that, they would let me move around internally – and if I didn’t, I was back to square one.
I hit 350% of my quota for 3 quarters straight and led the nation in sales within my organization, which made my boss – and his boss – look great!
But I knew I’d get pigeonholed if I stayed there too long, so I started thinking about other options a few months into it.
Q: So what next?
A: Sales roles tend to have high turnover everywhere, so I knew it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to leave; plus, my boss had looked so good from my efforts he would do anything to help me.
They wanted to promote me after 7 months there, but I said, “Actually, I’m interested in exploring other groups here” instead.
The Sales Manager was actually fine with it, and he even offered to help!
It turned out that one of his family members was in a senior-level role at another finance-related firm and happened to know the Head of Investor Relations here.
At the same time, I also looked up everyone in the IR team in our internal database and emailed the VP, Manager, and 2 analysts all on the same day and asked about getting to know their group.
Q: OK, so why did you focus on IR instead of other groups within corporate finance?
Also, the IR Manager told me that one of their analysts was leaving (the first day I met with him).
Fortune 500 companies always prefer internal candidates when hiring for these roles, so I figured I might have a shot.
Finally, everyone I met had a pretty friendly attitude and I “clicked” well with them.
Investor Relations Interviews 101
Q: Before we move into the interview process, what types of candidates are they looking for in investor relations roles?
A: The analyst I was replacing had 4 years of finance experience at the company, with 8 years of work experience total, and was about to finish his MBA.
They almost always want to see that type of background, and they almost always prefer internal candidates.
You definitely need to know accounting, valuation, and Excel pretty well because they’ll ask you about financial models, formulas, and all the finance-related work you’ve done before.
In one interview, the VP of Investor Relations actually printed out an 18-page model I sent him and he spent 45 minutes having me walk him through many of the formulas.
At the same time, though, you also need to understand the bigger picture and how details in earnings calls and investor presentations will impact Wall Street’s view of the company.
You don’t necessarily need to be super-social since it’s not a sales role, but you do need to be organized because you have to sort through a ridiculous amount of information – sometimes hundreds of equity research reports each quarter.
Q: Great. So walk us through the interview process.
A: It took place over about 2 months, and consisted of 8 interviews over ~6 hours.
I spoke with people in the IR team at all levels, and even a few people in the FP&A team.
And they called my old hedge fund manager from the fund that I had worked at – he said positive things about me, and thankfully never said directly that I worked remotely for part of it.
The whole thing started with two 45-minute back-to-back interviews
For the 2nd round, I had four 30-minute interviews in one day, and then an hour-long presentation / case study about one of the company’s smaller competitors and how it compared to this larger company.
In the second half of the presentation, I had to explain how I’d sift through tons of information and synthesize what was most useful for the IR team.
I spent 1.5 weeks preparing for these case studies and planned out my presentations in detail before I even started writing them.
Q: We’ve covered a bit on investor relations interviews before, but was there anything unique that you don’t see in other finance interviews?
On the qualitative side, they asked about different types of investors and their strategies, and how to pitch our firm differently to institutional investors with different goals.
A big part of the interview process is simply reading people and being able to pick up on what they’re looking for – someone serious? Someone they can joke around with? Both?
Q: Agreed. I need to add a “joke telling” section to the interview guide…
Let’s talk about the case studies – what exactly did they ask you to do?
A: The exact assignment was:
“Please prepare and bring with you a presentation to discuss the following:
[Company X] is a key competitor to [Our Company], and it’s growing quickly and has captured investor mindshare. Assess Company X as a business, and suggest how we might discuss both ourselves and them in the same conversation. Make sure you evaluate the company both qualitatively and quantitatively.
Then, also be prepared to discuss how you could sift through 1,000+ analyst reports each quarter (~50 analysts following our company, and ~20 primary competitors), as well as press coverage and blogs. Outline your plan for ingesting, analyzing, and leveraging data from a wide set of sources.”
Q: And what was your approach?
A: I followed about 75% your tips (Note from Brian: He emailed us and we gave some recommendations – see below), but I presented it differently for the VP and the Manager.
The VP was very quick and had a ton of experience with Excel, so I went over the technical parts quickly with him; the Manager wasn’t as experienced, so I took more time to explain the points on valuation.
Here’s the template you recommended, that I mostly followed:
“I would probably create a 10-slide presentation with the following structure:
Slide 1: Company X Overview – Products/services, what it’s good at, why investors like/don’t like it, and key strengths/weaknesses.
Slide 2: Financial Performance – Revenue, growth, EBITDA, margins, multiples, and forward analyst estimates (whatever you can find via free equity research on TD Ameritrade and so on).
Slide 3: Qualitative/Market Factors – How is Company X positioned vs. your firm and other companies? Is it stronger in certain segments such as big/medium/small businesses?
Slide 4: Investors’ Views on Company X – Summarize the key views from equity research analysts following the company, including what they like and don’t like compared to your firm.
Slide 5: Company X vis-à-vis Your Firm – How would you discuss them? What are the advantages/disadvantages of each one? Can you appeal to investors by pointing out how your huge customer base gives you an advantage / makes cross-selling or other tactics easier, whereas Company X doesn’t have those advantages?
Slide 6: How to Sift Through Data Sources – Suggest setting up Google News Alerts for key companies and phrases and getting summaries like that; you could also suggest “sampling” from the thousands of research reports and picking them based on heuristics like the analyst, bank, keywords, or page count.
Slide 7: Important vs. Unimportant News – Give a specific example of why you’d ignore one event but pay attention to another.
Slide 8: Important vs. Unimportant Equity Research – Same idea.
Slide 9: From 1,000+ Reports to 40-50 – Explain how you’d focus more on initiating coverage and other lengthy reports rather than shorter ones, and also how you’d compile the PDFs so you could search for keywords, names, and so on.
Slide 10: Final Summary – Company X vs. yours, key recommendation discussions, and how to find and sift through the information.”
Q: Great. So what were the most common questions they asked during the presentation?
I pointed to the new segments / business lines we were developing, valuation multiples vs. new competitors, and I even used my sales experience with the company’s products to point out its operational merits.
I also stated that the competitor (Company X) was “shareholder unfriendly,” and they dug into that in a lot of detail – so I presented evidence of the CEO’s compensation, family-party transactions, misleading disclosures in their 10-K, and very high executive pay vs. similarly-sized competitors.
Q: And then…?
A: At the end, I asked if they had any reservations about me (no) and said I really wanted the position and would do anything to get it.
They called the next day – Christmas Eve – and gave me the offer as my “holiday present.”
It was a 50%+ pay increase from my sales role, and I started training the month right after that.
So far, it has been great for all the reasons I mentioned – especially the exposure to C-level executives.
Q: Any other thoughts on your story as a whole?
A: Things take a lot longer than you expect them to.
This whole process took me close to 2 years, but in the end I achieved my goal.
If you go in expecting to find a job like this in only a few months, forget it and go for another industry.
Q: Agreed 100%. What are your future plans?
I’m also thinking about joining the corporate development team in the future since we work with them closely, but for now I’m planning to stay in this role for at least the next 2-3 years.
Q: Great. Thanks for your time and sharing your story!
A: My pleasure! I owe a lot to the crew at M&I / BIWS, keep up the great work!
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