How to Break Into Finance in London Coming from an Unknown School in Eastern Europe
When this interview series started awhile back, I expected most submissions to come from Europe since the UK is the second biggest country in terms of readership.
This time around, though, we move back toward Europe with an interview from a reader in Eastern Europe (Poland specifically) who broke into the London finance scene.
Read on to learn all about Eastern Europe, why you might want to go to London anyway even if there are hot emerging markets out there, and how you can use ruined travel plans and flight delays to impress bankers.
Introductions & Eastern Europe Recruiting
Q: Can you tell us about your background and how you first got interested in finance?
A: Sure. At the time I was in my final year at a top university in Poland doing a Master’s in Finance and Accounting – a 5-year program, which is common in Europe. I had also done a combined investment banking and corporate banking internship at the Warsaw office of a French bank.
In my first 3 years at university I did a lot of volunteer work, had roles in a lot of student groups, and had lots of other activities and hobbies.
Even though I said “top university” above, it was not well-known outside the region and very few banks actually came there to recruit. You’re at a big disadvantage in Europe if you’re not at one of the top schools in the UK.
Q: So even though it was well-regarded in the country, not many banks came there. Does that mean the recruiting environment in Eastern Europe is not that good? Or is there not as much of a need for bankers there at the moment?
A: Overall the recruiting environment and the investment banking market here are completely different from what you see in the US/UK.
Most large companies in Eastern Europe are still state-owned, so most foreign investment banks that come here advise governments on how to take their holdings public and divest companies.
So, for example, when the Polish government announces plans to sell a large number of companies, the international banks come over here and start pitching themselves while increasing the number of Polish-speaking graduates they recruit (they do still recruit a few candidates each year regardless of the government, but you’re likely to get pigeonholed as the “Central / Eastern Europe banker”).
Since the market is dependent on government announcements, there’s less of a consistent recruiting cycle than in developed countries.
In terms of the market as a whole, Poland and Eastern Europe still felt the effects of the credit crunch and financial crisis and lots of banks with Warsaw offices had hiring freezes, with very few graduate opportunities available.
Q: Right, so that’s what motivated you to move to London rather than staying at home?
A: Yes – there just aren’t that many investment banking or even corporate banking opportunities in Eastern Europe. The main banks in the region are retail banks, and most of the big M&A and IPO deals are done in London instead.
Sometimes London-based banks have local partners (for example, a co-lead manager on an IPO) with more specialized expertise – so there are a few investment boutiques and investment/corporate arms of local banks here. But they work on smaller deals, there are no established internships or graduate programs, and the same opportunities don’t exist.
Salary is also important, and as a graduate you can earn up to 5x the local pay in London. And most of the successful senior guys who are doing deals in Poland right now have international experience, mostly in London.
Non-Target University to Internship
Q: So how did you get an internship in London if banks didn’t recruit at your school?
A: In Europe, you can still get interviews by applying online without doing any networking. It is not easy and your application really must be perfect for you to have a chance. And I don’t recommend doing this, especially if you’re in the US or another region where online applications go into a black hole.
To stand out, you need to have previous experience, have an interesting personality, and get lucky – I had the previous banking internship at the Warsaw branch of the French bank and a lot of activities, and all of that came across in my application.
One additional point is that since most people study for 5 years to get a Master’s degree here, they have more time to “build” an interesting CV by getting internships and by being more active in student groups.
Q: Right, so you had the previous experience and an interesting personality… but what about the luck factor?
A: The day I flew to London to attend an assessment center there, my plane had to make an emergency landing and so I was late by around 2 hours.
But that actually worked in my favor – everyone was impressed with how I stayed calm and how I was still able to complete all the numerical tests and group exercises as if nothing had happened.
HR also told everyone about my situation, so bankers heard my story before I even arrived at the office, and then when I arrived they were asking me about it. So that helped me stand out from everyone else there and showed how I could handle stress and deal with the unexpected.
Q: I can already predict that someone will take that story and post a comment below this interview saying, “But that’s ridiculous, that hardly ever happens and he just got really lucky. How can you possibly say that applies to me?” Any thoughts?
A: Obviously, you’re not going to make emergency landings and be late to the assessment center all the time. But you can always focus on what sets you apart from everyone else.
As you’ve mentioned before countless times, plenty of people are good at math and can work 24/7 cranking out pitch books – but hardly anyone has an interesting story to tell.
So if you don’t have anything that sounds cool – study abroad experience, an unusual activity or hobby, or a good set of student groups – then fix that right away.
Sure, that kind of story gave me a bigger advantage going into interviews, but even without that I still could have talked about all my activities and hobbies and made them remember me like that.
Q: Most people would also say that it’s impossible to go to London and get even an internship offer if you’re not from a well-known school and you’re not doing a lot of networking.
How many recruits from continental Europe get in each year, and do you have any tips on how to stand out?
A: Truthfully, it is extremely difficult to get into London full-time if you’re not at a top university in the UK (Oxbridge, LSE, Imperial College, Warwick, etc.). You need to get a summer internship first, as the conversion rate from summer interns into full-time hires is quite high.
To give you some numbers, there were around 115 interns at my bank across the front office, middle office, and back office, and only around 10 were studying in continental Europe.
To actually get that all-important summer internship, it’s pretty much what I said above: get local finance experience in your own country, be interesting, and hope for some luck.
One other point: don’t try to compete directly against everyone else. There are lots of people who claim to be finance wizards or who say they’re smarter than everyone, but that’s a poor way to stand out because everyone else is saying the same thing.
Rather than doing that, I focused on my background and internship in Eastern Europe and how I could help the bank expand its business in that region – not many other interviewees were using that angle, so it worked well.
Q: Speaking of internships, what was yours like?
A: It was a rotational program, so throughout the summer I got to see different desks, from sales through trading and research. Each week we presented to bankers based on what we learned that week – for example, a new trading strategy, thoughts on a new bond issuance, or where interest rates were going.
I was never bored at work, and didn’t have to do (too many of) the “coffee-fetching” tasks that you hear horror stories about. Everyone also had their own individual projects, from developing complex spreadsheets to be used by traders to analyzing business opportunities to writing research notes.
Q: So it sounds like this was more of a capital markets / sales & trading-oriented internship, even if technically it was a rotational program.
What about the working environment, culture, and hours in London?
A: I’m not sure these are universally true, but my observations were:
- Markets-based groups and European banks have a better work-life balance. I usually started at 7 AM and left by 6:30 PM, with the senior guys leaving even earlier. All weekends were free.
- M&A / ECM had longer hours. But you still get at least one day off in a week, and you may only have to come in for a few hours on Saturday.
- DCM Origination hours were somewhere in between – it’s still very client and relationship-driven but it’s not quite as intense as M&A.
- American banks have much worse hours, with the exception of Sales & Trading. The culture is much different and free time isn’t valued as highly.
My social life during the internship was great: the bank organized once-a-week networking events with free drinks, the hours weren’t bad, and on Fridays we left earlier and hung out with the other interns.
People were friendly and helpful if you had a problem, though as you’ve mentioned before, you don’t want to ask the same question twice or take a simple question to someone who’s high-up on the ladder.
Internship to Full-Time Offer & Beyond
Q: So how did you make the move from internship to full-time offer? Was it at the same bank?
A: I stayed at the same bank but got an offer from a different group. Since it was a rotational internship, we moved through a number of desks in the first few weeks there – that actually worked out well because interns could decide whether or not they liked desks, and desks could say “no” to interns if there wasn’t a good fit.
If you have this type of internship, you need to work hard to impress the specific desk where you want to work – don’t spread your efforts too thin or try to become best friends with everyone at the bank, or no one on the desk will push for you to get hired.
I liked the people on a research desk the most, so I spent a lot of time analyzing a market for them and then wrote the industry section of a real equity research report that the bank issued. That was above and beyond what others did, so based on the quality of the work, their feedback, and everyone liking me, I got an offer to work for that desk.
Q: So do you think you’ll stay in London for the long-term, or will you move back to Eastern Europe or go elsewhere eventually?
A: During my internship, one of the senior bankers said that if you want to be really successful in the industry you should “go abroad” to gain experience. He suggested a rotation between New York, London, Tokyo, and Hong Kong, so I’m considering doing that and will try to get a placement in one of those locations.
London is definitely the best place in Europe to learn finance, so I do want to spend most of my time here over the next few years.
Q: What about a Master’s in Finance or MBA program? You already completed the Master’s degree in Poland, but do you think there’s any value in going to a better-known school?
A: Given that finance is prestige-driven, I do want to try for a part-time Master’s in Finance program at LSE or LBS after working for 2 years. An MBA might be interesting but at the moment I think a Master’s degree from a better-known school would have more leverage.
I don’t think I would learn much about finance in those programs; it would be solely for networking and a prestige boost.
A lot of high-level bankers and CFOs in Poland followed this exact path: they worked for a few years in a large financial center, got a well-respected degree, and then went home. At the senior banker level, the salary difference is much smaller and when you take into account lower taxes and the lower cost of living, you might actually come out ahead.
Q: Awesome, thanks for your time. Good luck!
A: Sure thing, I enjoyed speaking with you.
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