From London to the Middle East: How to Break Into Investment Banking in Dubai
The interviewee you’re about to hear from went from spotty A-Level performance and low first-year university grades to multiple bulge bracket offers.
And if you think that’s impressive, you’ll also learn all about:
- How to apply to both London and Dubai, and how different banks recruit in both places.
- The key differences in the recruiting timeline and interviews.
- Whether or not networking “works” – and the best way to break into Dubai if you live halfway around the world.
- What to do if you’re already working full-time and want to move to the Middle East.
Let’s get started.
How to Spend 4 Years on Your A-Levels and Still Come Out Ahead
Q: You mentioned you had poor grades and A-Levels – what exactly was your background? And what was your connection to Dubai?
A: My only connection to Dubai is that I was born in the Middle East and knew a little Arabic – but other than that I had spent my entire life in the UK.
My story began before I ever reached university, when I failed every single A-Level after my first year studying for them – and in the UK if you don’t immediately pass those exams after 2 years, few target schools will accept you.
Part of it was because my parents wanted me to do medicine, which I had no interest in. So I switched schools, and then changed my A-Level subjects to math, business, and I.C.T. instead, and passed those after 2 years with average results.
But by then I had taken 3 years altogether just to pass my A-Levels, so things weren’t going so well.
Then, after I got into a university here, I didn’t enjoy my courses and didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life. By the time I had figured out what career I was chasing, I was 3 months into my course at university but knew something had to change.
I knew that getting first round interviews at banks would be incredibly difficult because of my A-Level performance, lack of experience and being based so far away from any sort of networking hub such as London.
Q: At this point I would tell someone, “Study harder or start networking like crazy to have a shot at breaking in.” What did you do?
A: Neither one – I decided to change universities yet again, and got accepted to a different school by improving my A-Levels one more time. So now I had spent 4 years just getting my test scores up to a reasonable level.
This time around, I moved to London and completed all my classes there because I knew how important networking was.
I met lots of people in finance there, including some fairly high-up senior bankers at global firms – just from being out and about and chatting with people.
Q: Let me stop you right there because that sounds a little unbelievable – you networked with bankers just by bumping into them in bars and such?
A: It may sound ridiculous, but keep in mind that there’s an extremely high concentration of banker and finance-types in London, especially when you’re close to The City. So if you go out or even go to events there, you’re likely to bump into bankers.
It is random and it won’t always work, but I think you’d find a similar situation in other financial centers like New York and Hong Kong, and I’m not the only one of my friends that has had this experience.
Q: Fair point; pretty much everyone I’ve ever met in Hong Kong has worked in finance. So you’re out and about, networking with all these bankers – what happened next?
A: Toward the end of my first year at university I was offered a summer rotational internship, more on the markets side, at a global bank and spent 10 weeks there.
I also did a spring week at a different bank and another spring week in the corporate finance division of a Big 4 firm.
M&I Note: For non-European readers, a “spring week” is the opportunity to come in and shadow people at a bank for a few days – sort of like a mini-internship, but it’s more about how well you present yourself and network rather than your work performance, since you can’t do much real work.
They’re most common in Europe (and pretty much non-existent in the US), but you may also see them in other regions.
Q: Right, so what was this internship like?
A: They had no structured program for first-year students, so I did a rotation between equity capital markets, sales, fixed income trading, research, and more. I wasn’t doing much hands-on work – it was more just shadowing other people and helping them with random tasks.
But I told them at the beginning that I was more interested in investment banking rather than markets, and made this point again at the end of the internship.
They told me to apply online like everyone else – I wasn’t going to get special treatment just because I had completed this this internship, but completing it certainly gave my CV a huge boost. My decision to switch schools had paid off instantly.
Applying to Dubai
Q: Right, so let’s talk about how you applied for internships the next year. What was the process like and how many firms did you apply to?
A: I applied to around 50 banks, ranging from boutiques to bulge brackets, with roughly an 80/20 split between London and Dubai. I wanted to hedge myself because I figured Dubai might be slightly easier to break into, but might also be more difficult since I wasn’t on the ground networking.
I also knew that if I wanted to work in Dubai full-time, I would need an internship there to maximize my chances.
I applied to a few banks in Abu Dhabi and New York as well, but the focus was definitely London and Dubai.
Q: So when you say “applied to London and Dubai,” were you actually submitting separate applications to both offices? Or did London handle most of the Middle East recruiting?
A: Many banks do their Middle East recruiting via London – so most of the time I was actually applying to London and just indicating my interest in Dubai on the form.
And many banks start with in-person interviews in London first even if they’re recruiting for Dubai.
It does vary a bit by bank, and a few bulge brackets (e.g. GS and CS) are actually regional and recruit through Dubai – if that’s the case, you can’t apply directly via London recruiting and you have to network your way into interviews instead (this is specifically for summer internships – GS does recruit for Dubai full-time analysts initially through London).
For banks that didn’t recruit people directly, I just went through LinkedIn and looked up everyone I could find, and then sent my CV and cover letter directly to them.
Q: So you did a mix of formal applications and networking with people via LinkedIn.
But from experience, I know that contacting people online without talking on the phone or meeting in-person isn’t too helpful – so I’m assuming you also visited the region at some point?
A: Yeah, I was just about to mention that. In London, universities like LSE and Imperial College conduct trips to Dubai and open them up to 6-7 different universities. On these trips, they go around meeting with different banks and you get to network as much as you want.
Going on these university-sponsored trips to Dubai is the single best way to network your way into interviews in Dubai.
It’s possible to get in without networking – one of the offers I won came from a blind application and simply getting through interviews – but your odds are much higher if you go there in-person for some investment banking networking.
Q: Right, but what if you’re already out of school and working full-time? Or what if your school isn’t invited on these trips?
A: There were actually a few people who had already graduated and still went on these trips with us, so it’s not much of an issue.
And you can always find a way to go there even if you’re at a different school – just explain who you are, say you’re really interested in the region, and that you want to go along on their trip. There are so many students there that an extra one won’t raise eyebrows.
Q: So if you want to work somewhere like Dubai, you pretty much have to go there and do some networking on the ground, in-person, and then leverage that to get interviews?
A: Yes. You can get lucky and get offers without doing that, but to maximize your chances you really need to go there.
Long-distance networking just doesn’t work that well – you build a stronger connection and come across as far more serious if you go there in-person.
CVs, Interviews, and More
Q: OK, so you’ve applied to all these banks via networking and formal applications, and you’ve submitted your CV and cover letter. How are they different from what you might see in the UK? What are they looking for in Dubai?
A: The biggest difference is that they want someone with a genuine commitment to the region.
A lot of people want to go to Dubai just to avoid taxes, and they can see right through that – if they look at your CV and have no idea why you’re interested in Dubai, you’re out.
Your reason could be anything: maybe you have family in the Middle East, maybe you were born there or studied there, or maybe you have friends there.
I had an advantage since I knew the language and had a name that “looked” Middle Eastern, but anything could work if you’re creative enough.
And if you have no connections to the region, get them – you could always just travel there on your own or go on a university-sponsored event like I mentioned before.
Q: Right, so CVs are pretty much the same, but you must demonstrate some kind connection to the region. What about interviews?
A: One difference is that you must apply early in London or you have no chance – summer internship applications open in September, and I didn’t submit mine until late October, which pretty much ruined my chances.
In Dubai, though, summer recruiting starts in April with the exception of the banks that let you apply there directly via online applications for their EMEA recruitment (e.g.UBS and Citi).
The interviews themselves were not all that different – here’s what I encountered:
- Bulge Bracket A: Had 2 competency-based interviews in the first round (with an analyst and associate), a second round with an associate and VP, a third round with a VP and someone from HR, and a fourth round with a VP and MD. The first round was over the phone, and all the rest were in-person at their office in Dubai.
- Bulge Bracket B: The first round was a mix of competency and technical questions, and then the next round was all competency and market awareness-type questions. I had 2 interviews in their London office for the first round, and then did 2 phone interviews with people in Dubai. And for the final round, I still went through an assessment center as you normally would in the UK.
- Bulge Bracket C: Overall they were more technical in the first few rounds, but the final round was mostly competency questions once again.
In Dubai, they asked broader questions about everything from accounting to valuation to options, whereas in London they cared more about traditional topics.
But in London you apply to specific desks/groups, and so the questions are more straightforward and closer to the typical banking interview questions.
Q: That makes sense – it’s interesting to hear how much more “random” Dubai internships are.
What about the role of language skills? Do you think knowing Arabic made a big difference?
A: Not really. I was in Dubai for weeks and didn’t even use Arabic when I was there – it did help with networking and building connections, though, since I could use it as evidence of my connection to the region.
Only 2-3 banks said that Arabic knowledge was required, but I think it becomes more important at the senior levels (VP and MD). A big chunk of banks’ business comes from sovereign wealth funds, so you need the language to have a good shot at winning business.
That’s not to say that you can’t get by without it; I just think it would make your life much easier at the senior level.
Q: That’s interesting, because it contradicts what one of our other interviewees from Dubai said about a lot of business in the region being conducted in English – who’s right?
A: It’s hard to say since I haven’t started working yet – but it’s also an issue of culture as well as language.
One MD I met had worked in New York previously, and when he moved over as a VP he picked up on a lot of the cultural differences the hard way (e.g., you shouldn’t kiss a business partner’s wife’s cheek!).
I don’t think you “need” the language to advance necessarily, but it’s a big help because it lets you bond with clients more effectively.
Q: We mostly talked about bulge bracket recruiting – do boutiques have a presence there? Did you apply to any boutiques?
A: There are some “elite boutiques” (Moelis, Perella Weinberg in Abu Dhabi, etc.) here, but only around 6-7 total. And none of them recruits into Dubai directly at the junior levels.
So you’d have to find the name of a Partner at one of these places, and then contact him/her via LinkedIn or other means.
It is much, much easier to work at bulge brackets here because many boutiques only have 3-4 bankers total in their Dubai offices – they don’t have a huge need for junior bankers when the office is that small. They would just outsource any technical/deal work to London instead.
Q: You had quite a few advantages since you were still in school, went on this trip to Dubai, and had a connection to the region.
But what if you have none of that and you’re working full-time – what’s the best way to break in?
A: As I mentioned, there were a number of people with years of full-time experience who went on our trip, as well as grad students. So it’s always an option if you can take time off from work.
If you’re already in banking and want to move to Dubai, it’s easiest to push for an internal transfer and go through your current bank. About half the bankers I met out there had come through an internal transfer.
And if you really know no one in the region and can’t break in yourself, you might want to go back to school for a Master’s program somewhere in London, and then leverage that to network and go on these trips to the Middle East.
Q: So you don’t think headhunters would work very well?
A: I haven’t come across a single headhunter or recruitment agency that focuses on the region. Here, they really value direct relationships with people and meeting you face-to-face.
You’re better off contacting bankers, traveling here, and meeting up with them in-person – headhunters aren’t that effective, and they’re even less effective if you don’t have full-time work experience.
Q: What’s your view of Dubai in the long-term? Do you think they’ll ever finish all those buildings?
A: Well, I’m definitely interested in living in the Middle East once again and going back to my roots.
Around a year ago, I was not so certain about Dubai itself and doubted its sustainability, given how it was built and how many unfinished buildings there are – it’s an eerie feeling going there. You look around and say, “This place needs more people.”
But recently things have picked up and that’s primarily the motivation behind my decision to build my career there. Investors seem to be regaining confidence in the Emirate (Just take a look at the triple oversubscribed Dubai bonds issues recently). There is still a lot of opportunity there and I certainly see people moving back and the city recovering.
I think Abu Dhabi is a lot more sustainable in the short-term, and even if Dubai declines (which I doubt Abu Dhabi would allow), Abu Dhabi won’t be so affected. A lot of banks and sovereign wealth funds are also opening offices in Qatar, so that could be an interesting place to work in as well.
Sovereign wealth funds are engaged in lots of cross-border activity and are literally buying up anything they can, and I can see that continuing for quite some time.
In short, I’m optimistic about the Middle East as a whole and think there’s still a lot of opportunity there – over the next decade we will see many competitors in the region fighting to take over Dubai’s dominance, and competition is always healthy.
Q: Very interesting to hear from an insider in the region (even if you haven’t started working there quite yet). Thanks for sharing your story!
A: No problem; enjoyed the chat.
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Investment Banking: Pakistan Edition
But this is such a good interview and has such specific information that I wanted to publish it anyway.
Plus, the interviewee has been a long-time reader of M&I and captured the personality of the site very well. So let’s get started and learn all about banking, PE, recruiting, and the lifestyle in an emerging market that might be completely off your radar.
Q: Can you tell us about your background?
A: I play the drums. I love buffalo wings with sour cream and ginger ale. I love stargazing. I’m a huge Tolkien fan. I find jazz very relaxing. I just discovered a hidden passion for photography and hopefully I’ll be traveling to Iceland in a few months after I buy a Canon DSLR.
I was born in Abu Dhabi and raised in Dubai. My father retired from his marketing job and we moved to Islamabad (Pakistan’s capital), where I completed high school and undergrad. I was a very distracted student during my O/A Levels because I really didn’t know why I was studying and what I wanted to do, so I definitely lacked direction for a time.
But during the first year of my undergraduate, I got really interested in corporate finance and M&A – so I actually performed decently and did much better than in high school.
After graduating, I networked my way into an investment banking analyst position at a bulge bracket bank in Karachi (Pakistan’s finance capital), and then I moved into private equity in the same city.
Q: Most Westerners know very little about Pakistan aside from what’s reported (accurately or inaccurately) in the news. What is the country really like, and how is the finance industry there different? Are the rumors of economic collapse / bankruptcy true?
A: A recent Newsweek cover described Pakistan as “The World’s Bravest Nation” – after describing it 3 years earlier as “The World’s Most Dangerous Nation.” I know the general perception is that it’s a country filled with corruption, religious fundamentalism, and no roads or women.
There is an element of truth to those claims, but for the most part we’re just regular people and most of what you read about in the news corresponds to a very small part of the country.
So don’t believe everything you read about the claims above (especially the part on roads and women) or the frequent accusations of terrorism – there are isolated extremists here but they are not representative of Pakistan at large.
Economically, we were always an underdeveloped country due to corruption from previous governments – but during Musharraf’s 10-year rule we were elevated to “developing country”status. Since that time the rulers have been questionable, so the progress has been disappointing since then.
The rumors of economic collapse are untrue. We’re not in the best shape right now, but we’re far from bankruptcy – the US and its allies also have too much of a stake in the country to let a bankruptcy happen. And we’re part of an IMF program that has pledged billions to us over the next 3-4 years.
Overall finance is still very much in a growth phase here, and private equity is at a nascent stage; Islamic finance is developing rapidly and corporate finance is also thriving. Hedge funds don’t exist yet, but many banks do have investment banking divisions and a handful of research and brokerage houses here offer investment banking and related services.
Q: What’s different about recruiting there? Do they prefer certain backgrounds or certifications?
A: The recruiting process for both IB and PE is highly unstructured.
Unlike the US or Europe where certain “paths” are preferred, here you can transition from almost any finance-related field into IB or PE.
I know people who have gotten into investment banking from industry, management consulting, and research, and people who have gotten into PE from Transaction Advisory Services, research, middle office trading support roles, and corporate banking.
My VP (from the US) would always tell this analyst at my bank that the CFA was completely useless in banking, but in Pakistan people have been conditioned into believing that a CFA + an accounting degree is the key to achieving unprecedented glory.
Wheeling & Dealing
Q: You were at a bulge bracket bank there – do the other global bulge bracket banks have presences in Pakistan, or are local firms more common?
A: It’s a mix of both. JP Morgan has been here since the early 90’s, Citi even earlier than that, and Credit Suisse has been here since 2008. UBS and BoAML operate through local affiliates, but aren’t officially here.
Even though they’re bulge bracket banks, they usually work on deals worth around $100 million USD – sizable for here but small by US standards.
M&I Note: Middle market banks in the US would do deals of this size; most bulge brackets focus on $500M+ or $1B+ deals, though they do occasionally go lower depending on the market.
Since that’s “the bar” for bulge bracket banks, smaller, local firms – called “investment houses” – advise on deals worth less than $100 million USD.
They offer everything from research to mutual funds to M&A advisory and capital raising. Two of the largest investment houses also have consumer and corporate banking divisions that they use for syndications.
Pure-play boutique investment banks are still very rare here – off the top of my head I know of just one firm that offers only M&A advisory and restructuring services to clients.
Q: What types of deals and companies are most common in Pakistan?
A: The breakout for deal types is something like this:
- Debt Financing: 70%
- IPOs: 15%
- M&A: 10%
- Restructuring: 5%
M&A is most common in the banking and telecom sectors. Here’s a table of M&A activity from 2002 – 2010 that I’ve been updating from time to time:
M&A in Pakistan rarely takes place to create value – this consolidation in the banking sector is driven by regulatory requirements (specifically higher capital adequacy requirements).
The actual rationale for M&A activity would be more interesting to look at – in my opinion it’s something like the following:
- Regulatory: 65%
- Gain Market Share: 20%
- Divesting Operations or Exiting from Pakistan: 10%
- Private Equity Investment: 5%
- Value Creation: 0%
The government also has a massive privatization program in place (the numbers above exclude this, by the way) and so all the bulge brackets submit RFPs (Requests for Proposals) to the Privatization Commission for each deal.
Even some banks like Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and UBS that don’t have a direct presence in Pakistan will fly in, submit their RFPs, pitch, and fly out – they’re known as “parachute bankers.”
Some local firms also work on these privatization transactions, while the bulge bracket banks focus more on attracting institutional investors via road shows or finding international buyers for assets that the government is divesting.
Here are lists of completed and upcoming privatization transactions in Pakistan:
Q: You mentioned how you networked into investment banking and then into private equity – how is it different in Pakistan? Do informational interviews and cold calls still work?
A: Right, so just to give you a brief overview first of how I networked my way in:
I went to a non-target school, but I did have 5 internships and decent extracurricular activities, as well as the resume template on your site. And I knew a lot about investment banking and private equity and kept up with global M&A deals and private equity activity via the NY Times Dealbook site.
A year before my graduation, I cold-called the bulge bracket bank I worked at – they’re known for only hiring summer interns from top US and UK schools, so it was a bold move.
A man picked up and I asked to speak to someone regarding summer internship opportunities in investment banking – the guy replied with, “I’m the guy” and he turned out to be my future VP.
I asked about the recruiting process for summer internships and he said they had already gotten started with interviews – but to email my resume anyway so he could send it to the team.
I did that, and about an hour later he replied and said, “When will you be able to join us for an internship?”
Q: Wait a minute, so you actually got an internship just by cold-calling a bulge bracket and asking for one?
A: Far from it, though that’s what I actually thought at the time – I didn’t even get an interview. I think he was just asking that to see when I would be free for an internship rather than actually giving me one on the spot.
He said they really liked my resume but were looking for a winter intern, which didn’t work for me timing-wise due to classes.
Over the next 5-6 months, I stayed in touch, emailed him on his birthday a la Bud Fox, added him on LinkedIn, and even sent the occasional random link.
Q: So you actually pinged him consistently – that’s interesting because I usually tell readers NOT to worry about constantly staying in touch and to focus more on making a good first impression and then asking for what they want when the time comes.
A: Right – you do have to be subtle if you want to take this approach. I didn’t want to give the impression that I was stalking him or wanted to be his best friend.
I did this more because I had an uphill battle given my school and background, and because there just aren’t as many banks in Pakistan – so it’s not like the US where you could easily go through hundreds or thousands of contacts to find the most helpful bankers.
Q: So what was the final outcome here?
A: In May I called him again, sent him my updated resume and “reiterated my interest” for an investment banking analyst position.
Despite being up against 100+ candidates from target schools, I was interviewed and offered the position.
What worked in my favor?
- I was myself and had the ability to laugh at myself – I didn’t act like some super-genius with perfect grades who claimed to know everything about finance.
- I had a burning desire to get into investment banking – I read everything and anything related to banking that I could find and this came across with how much I knew about the industry vs. the other candidates.
Q: What about your move into private equity? Did you go through a headhunter there or was that also networking?
A: Networking, once again. I cold-called my current PE firm’s Dubai office and spoke to a Partner there – we chatted about how Dubai has changed over the years and about the Middle East PE market in general.
I sent my resume, he forwarded it to the Partner in Karachi, and I interviewed a couple times and was offered the position.
M&I Note: This may seem ridiculous, but keep in mind that in certain parts of the world they are looking for very specific people and recruiting is less structured. It would be tough to pull off the scenario above in the US, but the same is not true in emerging markets.
Q: So it sounds like overall, the standard networking strategies still work and may even work better since recruiting is so unstructured in Pakistan.
You mentioned before how knowing so much about investment banking gave you a big advantage – but doesn’t everyone coming out of target schools there know the industry quite well?
A: No! A lot of students from top schools have absolutely no idea what investment banking or private equity are.
I’ve interviewed candidates from top schools here and this is how interviews often go:
- Me: What do you think investment bankers do?
- Interviewee: They make investments so that you get higher returns.
- Me: Higher returns… um, ok, and why do you want to get into investment banking?
- Interviewee: I’ve heard really good things about investment banking and [Interviewee inserts objective from his/her resume and “pitches” it] and how much I can learn there and bring my skills to the organization.
- Me: Right, we’ll let you know.
One time I had a PE candidate try to convince me that he was a “private equity investor” because he invested in the stock market.
I’ve come across only one candidate who made a convincing argument for why he/she should work in investment banking or private equity. And I’ve met hardly anyone else who has networked his/her way into IB or PE here like I did.
But as you can see from my story, it’s definitely possible – if you’re hungry and motivated, you can do pretty much anything.
Private Iniquity, Pay, and Exit Opps
Q: Not to sound like those annoying kids in Harold & Kumar, but what’s it like working for a PE firm there? What types of companies do you invest in, and is your job more about sourcing or execution?
A: Work is very unpredictable, which makes the hours unpredictable as well. I’ve pulled all-nighters, and I’ve found that there is a massive cultural difference / work ethic difference between local firms and international firms.
PE firms here do not focus on specific sectors – they’ll invest in anything from green/brownfield projects to mature companies and even distressed assets.
LBOs are highly uncommon here and so most of these investments are minority stake acquisitions instead.
Work is a function of sourcing and execution – I’d say I spend 20% of my time on sourcing (looking for new investments) and 80% on execution (doing due diligence, modeling for investments, and coordinating our team).
Q: As with other emerging markets, I’m assuming that salaries and bonuses are lower on an absolute scale but higher on a relative basis if you take into account the cost of living – is that accurate?
A: Yes, definitely true. In a good year, an analyst at a local firm can make 10 to 15 times his monthly pay with his bonus (around 80% to 125% of his annual pay).
In average years an analyst’s bonus might be around 50% of his annual pay – which is quite a lot of money in Pakistan.
Q: And are your co-workers all from Pakistan or are you starting to see immigrants there as well?
A: Right now there are hardly any immigrants – it’s 99.9% Pakistani co-workers.
Q: What are your future plans?
A: I’m planning to attend business school in 2 years, ideally at Wharton. I do want to stay in PE, and post-MBA I’d want to go to a larger firm in the US and work there for a few years before returning to the Middle East or Pakistan. If all goes well, I might start my own buyout fund here one day.
I also want to take up stellar and extragalactic astronomy – it has always fascinated me. And if I have enough capital, I want to start a theme-based restaurant at some point.
Or I could just take the CFA…
Q: Please, don’t.
A: Yeah, I think my own restaurant would be more fun anyway.
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From Sales & Trading to Investment Banking: How to Hop Over the Fence
One disadvantage of sales & trading vs. investment banking is that exit opportunities are not quite as broad.
It’s difficult, for example, to move into PE or corporate development coming from trading.
But getting into investment banking may be a different story, as you’ll see in this interview with a reader who did just that.
Keep reading and find out how he leveraged his sales & trading internship into a full-time offer in investment banking.
Q: Can you tell us about your background and how you got interested in finance?
A: Sure. I’m from the Middle East originally, but I went to Canada for university and attended a well-known business program there.
I started off with an asset management internship but didn’t like the slow pace and reactive nature of the work – though it did give me a good feel for the capital markets.
I started researching the sell-side and speaking with upperclassmen who had done investment banking, and then applied to over 30 banks via my school’s career website.
That led to a grand total of 0 interviews – mostly because I didn’t have investment banking internship experience and because my GPA, around a 3.5, was lower than many of my peers with 3.8+ GPAs.
Q: So you applied to dozens of banks and came up empty-handed – what was your next move? Had you done any networking so you could have a Plan B?
A: Nope. I had done little networking and summer offers were already being handed out – I realized my error too late, so I finally started networking after summer recruiting had finished up.
I went after boutiques and any firms that had not posted jobs on my school’s website – I also focused on VPs and MDs since I had limited time and needed to find something ASAP.
That actually worked out well and I got a much better response rate from senior bankers – I made around 40 calls, set up 10 informational interviews, and made a weekend trip to meet with everyone.
That led to one interview in mid-April, but I screwed up the technical questions completely and had nothing lined up with less than 2 months before the summer began.
Q: So I’m guessing something miraculously worked out at the last-minute?
A: Pretty much. I applied to over 100 banks from January through April, and finally got a lead from an MD in Dubai who asked if I wanted to interview with them, after I had submitted my resume to the default HR person there.
I had also written a short note asking about summer positions and saying I was interested in investment banking – they didn’t have anything in banking, but they did have a few S&T interns and had an open position there, so I decided to go for it.
I prepared for the technical questions, crafted a new story about why I wanted to do S&T, and then interviewed and made it through final rounds.
Off to Dubai
Q: So you were still interested in investment banking, but you now had a sales & trading internship lined up – what was your strategy going in?
A: I knew that the specific desk I worked on would play a big role in terms of spinning the experience for banking.
I could choose between an FX trading desk and a sales desk – and I figured there would be more of a skill set overlap on the sales desk because you do financial statement analysis, meet with clients, and pitch them on specific products.
I did a few rotations and worked in trading at one point as well, but I kept asking to be put in sales.
Q: Was there anything specific to Dubai that you had to consider?
A: Overall it’s a more laid-back culture than what you see in North America, and interns are not given quite as many coffee-fetching / grunt work tasks. That actually made it a lot easier to tell a good story for full-time recruiting because I had more “real” work to point to.
I think your article on investment banking in Dubai was accurate in terms of other features of finance there.
Q: Right, I guess it’s harder to tell a good story when you spend a lot of time each day getting food for traders. Anything else you did during the internship to maximize your chances?
A: At the end of my internship I met with investment bankers at my firm and learned more about what they did on a day-to-day basis – that helped a lot because now I could >point to something specific that “sparked” my interest in banking.
I also made sure I could talk about specific clients I worked with and how it was similar to the advisory work that bankers do – and that I could explain why I fit in with banking culture more than S&T culture, after considering the sales & trading vs investment banking decision.
Recruiting: Spin Time
Q: Ok, so you have this internship under your belt and you have some solid stories to point to when networking. What did you emphasize on your resume when it came time for full-time recruiting?
A: I didn’t have too difficult a time with my resume because my experience made me easy to remember – not many people had worked in sales & trading in Dubai.
In terms of my summer experience, I highlighted structured products that I helped pitch to clients and all the financial statement analysis I did.
Rather than acting like it was all about short-term trading, I positioned each client or potential client as a “mini-pitch” and wrote about everything as if we were advising them on long-term decisions instead.
For example, let’s say that I was pitching an institutional investor on investing in a certain company.
A typical salesperson might describe this by writing, “Pitched 50,000 share purchase to Institution; firm later decided to execute trade, earning over $xx in commissions for bank.”
There’s nothing wrong with that, but it doesn’t sound like an investment banker’s experience.
I would spin it around and write something like, “Analyzed financial statements for company and concluded they were undervalued by xx%, using that as key data point in pitch to Institution; firm later adopted suggestion and invested $xx of portfolio, which earned bank $xx in commissions.”
Q: Nice. And I guess you could apply that strategy even if you’re on the trading side, as long as you do any financial statement analysis or valuation.
What about networking? I’m assuming you did more of it earlier on this time around?
A: Going into full-time recruiting, I wanted to try larger firms first – but after the first week and 5-10 job postings, I still had no interviews lined up.
Even with a brand-name bank on my resume, recruiters were still not paying attention because I didn’t have that all-important banking internship – so I pounded the pavement once again and did some in-person networking with alumni and contacts from information sessions from the year before, most of whom were at larger firms.
Right before I left Dubai to return to Canada I sent an update email to all my contacts, which made it easier to set up these meetings.
Q: So were you still focusing on larger firms at this point? Or did you go for a more specific set of banks?
A: I focused on 5 banks – a mix of Canadian and international firms – and met with bankers at each of them in-person.
At this point I also rehearsed my story about why I was moving from S&T to banking dozens of times and made sure that I had an answer to every possible question about my background.
I got interviews at 3 out of the 5 banks I focused on – technically those were through my school’s recruiting system, but I never would have made it had I not networked with bankers outside the official process.
Q: And what about the interviews themselves? Given that you had the S&T internship, did bankers focus on anything different when speaking with you?
A: Since I had worked at a well-known bank – even though it was a different division – they asked a lot of technical questions. Nothing too difficult, but more than someone who hadn’t had an internship would get.
They also asked the usual questions about the stress and whether or not I could handle investment banking hours, but those were all quite easy to answer since I had met so many bankers and prepared so much by that point.
Having “interesting” interests also helped a lot – I was into martial arts and always talked about it in interviews, which set me apart from everyone else.
Amazingly, a lot of interviewees just say something like “hanging out with friends” when asked about their interests.
In Another Life…
Q: You were fortunate to do a lot of financial statement analysis and work with long-term clients on the sales desk at your bank.
But what would you say to someone who doesn’t have that option? What are the best S&T groups to work in if you want to move into banking?
A: You usually have 3 choices if you’re an intern: sales, trading, or structuring. Of those, sales makes for the easiest transition into banking – but if you can’t get into sales, try to put yourself in a position where you’re working with Equity Capital Markets or anyone on the ECM team.
Another idea is to request a 1-2 week rotation in sales, even if you spend most of your internship doing something different. 1-2 weeks is still enough to network and get some experience to write about – it’s not ideal, but it’s better than nothing at all.
Yet another option: let’s say you’re on the commodities desk or in commodities sales. You could leverage that type of experience to move into a metals & mining industry group in investment banking since you already have the fundamental industry understanding.
You have to look for opportunities like that where there’s overlap with industry groups in investment banking, or where there’s a skill set such as valuation or financial statement analysis that you can use in other groups.
Q: Were any investment banking groups more receptive to you moving over from sales & trading?
A: Honestly, bankers always favor people with previous banking experience – S&T internships are valued, but not as much as banking internships.
To find receptive groups, you need industry overlap – like the example I gave above with commodities to metals & mining.
You need to find a group that’s complementary to whatever you did on the S&T side – it’s harder to move in coming from pure trading because there are fewer of those complementary pairs.
Q: Right, that makes sense – those tips should be helpful for anyone looking to switch.
What are you planning to do in the future? Don’t worry; this is not a real interview so you can tell me the truth.
A: I actually enjoy valuation quite a bit so I’m planning to stay in investment banking and M&A for a few years – the only reason I’d switch to something else is to get better hours, but I haven’t experienced the worst of that yet so it’s not on my mind.
I’ll be doing something in finance in the long-term, though I’m not sure exactly what or where quite yet.
Q: Great, thanks for your time. Your story should give hope to anyone else out there who wants to make the sales & trading to investment banking move.
A: No problem – hope you enjoyed it!
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