by Brian DeChesare Comments (182)

Money, Hours, Models, Bottles: Investment Banking in New York, California, and Everywhere In Between

Money, Hours, Models, Bottles: Investment Banking in New York, California, and Everywhere In Between

“Are you guys even in the office past 8 PM? Whenever I call no one’s there.”

“New York is hella lame, people are so much better out here.”

“If you say ‘hella’ again I’m going to make you pay for the bottles next time – and maybe the models too.”

“Fine, I’ll do some research and see what I can send over. NY is still overhyped, though.”

No, it’s not a short story or a new TV show about bankers – it’s a banker from NYC and one from San Francisco talking to each other.

And you read that headline correctly: today you’ll learn how banking differs in different regions of the US rather than going off on adventures to distant lands.

As one reader pointed out a while back, “Hearing about all these different countries is great, but what about how banking is different on the east coast vs. west coast of the US and everywhere in between?”

The Most Common – and Wrong – Arguments

Many people claim that the pay and hours differ significantly and that New York is more “hardcore” than other regions.

That makes sense intuitively: New York is the biggest financial center and the biggest deals tend to happen there.

But in practice, these differences are greatly exaggerated – pay is standardized at the junior levels in finance and bonuses depend more on your bank and group rather than the city you’re in.

At the senior levels, geographic differences become more important because certain offices have better deal flow and clients, and senior bankers’ bonuses depend 100% on performance.

New York bankers like to argue that they work way more than people in other regions, but there are no scientifically controlled surveys to support these claims.

Yes, maybe the hours are somewhat worse since more deals happen there – but we’re talking a difference of 85 hours per week vs. 90 hours per week: you still won’t have a life.

So the more substantial differences have nothing to do with pay or hours, but rather the industries covered, the cost of living, and the exit opportunities.

And yes, I’ll address the ever-popular models/bottles, networking, and a few other points as well.

Industries Covered

This is the main difference – banks in the top 5 cities for finance in the US focus on a different industry:

There is no “best” because it depends on what you want to do in the future and how certain you are of your career.

Some of these fields are more specialized than others; something like oil & gas requires more specific knowledge than tech or healthcare since energy companies play by different rules and require different valuation methodologies.

So if you’re already interested in a specific industry, it may be a good idea to start out in the region that focuses on that industry – but if you have no idea yet, New York is the safest bet.

Just as actors get typecast, you will get more and more pigeonholed as you move up the ladder, so you need to consider these options carefully.

One friend worked on a telecom deal at a small VC firm, then got placed into the telecom group at a boutique bank, and was then placed into the telecom group at a bulge bracket bank.

Effectively, he became “the telecom guy” all because of one small deal he worked on ages ago.

And it’s even worse once you move beyond banking: good luck interviewing for that hedge fund that wants people with European telecom merger arbitrage experience if you don’t have any.

But What About Deal Flow?

“But,” you rightly point out, “There’s a difference between deal flow, hours, and industries covered – even if you’re working a lot, you might just be building pitch books all day. And what if your industry isn’t ‘hot’ at the moment?”

I don’t disagree with you there, but it’s almost impossible to determine deal flow of specific offices without talking to real people.

So if you’re such an overachiever that you’re going to pick your bank and group based on deal flow and exit opportunities, go talk to people at the different offices you’re considering and see what they say – but keep a critical eye open because they’re likely to oversell you on everything.

And no, I’m not going to rank cities and groups by deal flow here since that changes quite frequently and since you’re likely an obsessive-compulsive person already if you’re reading this.

Cost of Living

In ancient times, New York was the most expensive city in terms of real estate, taxes, food, and so on.

Now, however, San Francisco is actually more expensive, or at least as expensive, due to the tech boom and the number of high-paid startup employees there (as of 2015).

So you are not likely to save much money during the year in either place; it’s also a bad idea to live in New Jersey or another location outside the main city to save money, since you might go insane in what little free time you have.

The “cost of living” ranking looks something like this:

  • NYC ~= SF > LA > Chicago > Houston

You will save the most money working in Houston because Texas has no state income tax, rent is ridiculously cheap, bottles are less pricey, and even the models are less demanding and will give your wallet less of a workout.

Cost of living shouldn’t be your top concern, but you should be aware of it.

Finance people are notorious for making millions of dollars and then blowing it all on luxury spending – so pay attention if you want to retire on more than $50K in that savings account you forgot about.

One other note: driving will be required in most of these places, especially in a city like LA where there is no public viable transportation.

So if you hate driving and owning a car, your best bet is New York.

NOTE: Ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft are actually changing this dynamic.

If you live relatively close to the office, you might be able to take one of those to and from work every day and gain some peace of mind in the process.

Exit Opportunities

The main problem with exit opportunities is that it’s hard to interview when you’re far away.

You need to take time off work by using questionable excuses, hope people don’t notice your repeated absences, and then visit the firm enough times to seal the deal.

Since New York to SF or LA is a 5-6 hour trek, it’s not easy to hop from banking on one coast to the buy-side on the other coast. Pretty much all the analysts I knew in California stayed there, and pretty much all the ones in New York stayed on the east coast.

So you’re more likely to stay in your first region unless you can pull off in-person trips or interview entirely via video conference (unlikely for traditional exit opportunities).

Again, people like to argue that New York has “better” exit opportunities, but plenty of analysts on the west coast and elsewhere get into mega-funds as well; it’s just that they work at local offices rather than in NYC.

One legitimate difference is that there are more exit opportunities in New York just because it’s the biggest financial center.

And you also run into the pigeonholing problem if you start out in another region: go to Houston and you’ll more than likely recruit only for energy-focused PE firms and hedge funds.

If you’re in San Francisco, you’ll be more likely to recruit for tech-focused funds, or maybe even quit finance and join a tech startup.

But aside from those differences, the actual quality of exit opportunities doesn’t differ as much as you might expect.

Got Networking?

Networking opportunities are another more significant difference, and one that people overlook all the time.

Since NYC is much bigger than the other regions, you’ll simply meet more people there and you’ll be better equipped to network your way into other roles.

Just as with other financial centers like Hong Kong and London, sometimes half the people you meet in NYC will be in finance (the other half will be “aspiring” artists or models, which is great for you as a financier).

How much does the quality of networking really matter?

It depends how certain you are of your “career path” – if you’re interested in doing tech banking and then doing venture capital in California, you’re better off starting in SF and networking with tech and VC groups there.

But if you have no industry preference, you’ll gain more options by starting out in New York.

How to Satisfy the Models

Ah, now to the fun part.

The main difference is that the New York models tend to be higher-maintenance, more expensive, and more demanding; LA comes close since everyone is required to get plastic surgery, but you’ll still spend more overall in NYC.

But flashing around wads of cash also doesn’t impress as much in New York because $200K is barely middle class – not enough to satisfy models who are expecting a new bag every day.

In all seriousness, you really will spend a lot more money going out in New York if you actually enjoy it.

LA and SF can also be expensive, while Chicago and Houston are more reasonable. Some also argue that people in the South and Midwest are “friendlier” but I don’t want to get into a debate over that one.

I’m not qualified to comment on the quality of men in each place, other than to say that SF is probably the worst place to find hot guys unless you’re into tech guys with a ton of money from startups.

(Yes, a female friend recently asked if there were a lot of tall, muscular blonde guys in SF and I started laughing.)

Recruiting

“Aha,” you say, “But even if the pay and hours are not much different, surely they must ask completely different interview questions in each region, right?”

Sorry to disappoint, but no, not really.

No one sits down and says, “Well, in Chicago we should ask this specific set of questions but in Houston it will be completely different.”

Once again, the main difference comes down to the industry focus: you don’t need to be an expert on the industry of focus in each city, but you should know something about recent deals and any industry-specific valuation methodologies.

It’s not really “easier” or “harder” to get into finance in different cities – there are fewer spots outside of New York, but there’s also less competition.

Other Regions

Yes, there are banks in places besides NYC, Chicago, Houston, SF, and LA – but the offices tend to be much smaller and they don’t always recruit on-campus.

Other cities with a presence in finance include Boston (similar to SF due to the industry focus), Washington, DC (aerospace/defense), Atlanta (lots of wealth management), Miami (healthcare, Latin America), Dallas (got equities?) and maybe a few others.

I can’t recommend starting out in these places if you have the option to go to one of the 5 major centers listed above.

Maybe if you’re interested in only a very specific industry, like aerospace and defense, then DC makes sense – but you’ll be at a disadvantage in terms of deal flow and exit opportunities.

A lot of boutiques are also based in other regions, so you should jump at the opportunity if you have nothing lined up in a bigger city – but otherwise, stick to the top 5 above.

Outside of IB: Sales & Trading, Hedge Funds, and More

You run into the same differences in other fields like private equity, sales & trading, hedge funds, and asset management: a different industry focus and more geographically limited exit opportunities.

Some cities also tend to be stronger in certain fields.

For example, Chicago is great for prop trading and the SF Bay Area is the spot to be for venture capital.

One downside to any type of markets-based role such as trading or hedge funds is that you have to wake up very early if you’re on the west coast because you work New York market hours.

If you’re fine waking up at 4 AM, getting off work at 5 PM, and sleeping at 9 PM every night, you might be OK; if you’re not a morning person, though, you may want to stay away.

So, Where Should You Work?

If you have absolutely no idea what you want to do and don’t mind spending more money, New York is your best option – there’s more networking, more opportunities, bigger deals, and you don’t even have to drive.

But if you have a more specific goal such as going into VC, joining a tech startup, or working in the oil & gas industry, you could make a good argument for starting out in a different city.

There may be slight differences in pay, hours, and how much you save in your first year (with bigger differences on that last one), but those don’t matter much in the long-term.

To figure out which office has the best deal flow, network with bankers and ask directly – that information changes quickly and you’re always better off going straight to the source.

And whatever else happens, make sure you don’t end up doing equities in Dallas.

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 (153)

Why Private Equity?

Why Private Equity?

So you’ve made it through your first 6 months in banking alive. Your waist is bigger from all those tiramisu desserts, but luckily your bank account has gotten even fatter than your stomach.

And your bank account is set to get even fatter in the future – if you can successfully break into private equity.

While you know about the case studies and modeling tests you’ll get and the deals you’ll have to discuss, you haven’t put any thought into the “Why private equity?” question.

Which is a problem – because the last thing PE guys want is a banker or consultant who wants to do PE simply because he/she hates banking or consulting or because everyone else doing it.

Why Does This Matter?

While PE firms want people who are technically proficient (one reason why consultants face a more difficult time getting in, at least in the US), fit is even more important than in banking because firms are an order of magnitude smaller.

Whereas the top banks have tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of employees, the biggest PE firms in the world only have a few hundred – and there are thousands of PE firms with fewer than 10.

Unlike banks, private equity firms have no need to hire an army of analysts to do grunt work: they’re not creating pitch books and competing for sell-side, buy-side, and financing mandates all day, and if they’re understaffed they can say “no” to potential investments.

The interview process can also be much more of an extended affair in PE, with many firms below the mega-fund level conducting interviews over months rather than the days or weeks you see in banking (the mega-funds do it much more quickly).

As a result, fit is critical and if the Partners doubt your motivations for wanting to do PE, they won’t give you an offer.

What NOT to Say

As with some other interview questions, there’s a temptation to say something stupid in response to “Why private equity?”:

  • “I don’t like the hours in banking, and I want a better lifestyle.”
  • “You can make much more money in PE because you’re an investor rather than an advisor!”
  • “Well… all my friends are doing it!”
  • “I want to control companies rather than taking orders from my MD all day.”

I doubt you would say anything this bad in a real interview, but your actual answer may not be significantly better, either.

All the reasons above are bad answers, for different reasons:

  • While the lifestyle may be a bit better at smaller firms, it’s still far from a 9-5 job. And at mega-funds it’s banking all over again.
  • The pay is also not that much better, especially when you first start. Yes, Steve Schwarzman makes more than any MD in banking but he’s also the Co-Founder of the best-known and oldest PE firm in the world, with 30+ years of experience.
  • If you want to become an investor, you want to demonstrate independent thought as opposed to following what all your friends are doing.
  • You don’t “control” companies as an analyst or associate, you manipulate spreadsheets.

In short, any variant of “I don’t like my current job and PE would be better because [Insert Reason Here]” is bad because it’s too negative.

And anything where you sound like you expect to conquer the world and become a trillionaire also sounds bad because it shows that you don’t have a clue about how the industry works.

PE: The Promised Land? Fact and Fiction…

You might have had dreams of becoming a baller at KKR or Blackstone making $100 million per year, but you should pinch yourself and wake up since that will never happen.

I often group IB and PE together on this site because the work is not much different.

If you don’t like Excel, if you think EBITDA is boring, or if you have no interest in analyzing financial statements or reading about different companies, you should stop right now and do something more creative like advertising instead (I hear Don Draper is hiring…).

There are advantages and your role differs from what you do in banking, but if you fundamentally do not like analyzing and valuing companies, you’re going to hate it.

You do get more responsibility at certain firms, sometimes you’ll get to observe Boards of Directors and sit in on meetings, and you don’t get the stupid fix-the-printer-and-fetch-coffee tasks that you see in banking.

But please do not assume that it’s a night-and-day difference just because a bunch of 22-year old students in your finance club say it is.

Better Answers to “Why PE?”

To answer this question successfully, you need to avoid the clichés above and point out positive differences between PE and banking or between PE and whatever you’re moving in from (consulting, corporate development, etc.).

But you need to do that by highlighting what you’re looking for rather than what you don’t like about your current job.

Examples of solid reasons:

  • You want to work with companies over the long-term instead of just on a single deal.
  • You want to get exposed to the operations of companies and understand all aspects rather than just the financial ones (note: “exposed to,” not “control” or “improve”).
  • You want to contribute to companies’ growth by looking at add-on acquisitions and other expansion opportunities that only an investor would be able to execute.
  • You see yourself as an investor in the long-term, and want to learn all aspects of the process and how to evaluate whether a company can deliver solid returns.

It’s not “wrong” to make a direct comparison between PE and other fields (see the first 2 reasons) but you always want to downplay the negative part.

Ideally, you’ll tie the investments a PE firm makes to what you’ve done previously in school or work:

  • The engineer-turned-banker has a much better story to tell if he recruits for a tech PE firm or growth equity firm and explains how he’s interested in applying his knowledge of IT and finance to investing in IT companies.
  • If you’ve worked in Restructuring or Distressed M&A, you have a much better story if you recruit for a firm that specializes in turnarounds or distressed investments.
  • If you’ve done consulting for restaurants or food chains, you’ll have a much better story to tell when you recruit for a PE firm that specializes in those types of investments, or even in the consumer sector as a whole.
  • If you’ve done corporate development at a media or broadcasting company, you’ll have a much better story to tell when you interview with Bono at Elevation Partners.

The exact reasons depend on your background and where you’ve worked before, but you should combine these points – industry / company / deal focus + investing and working with companies in the long-term – to frame your answer:

  • The banker would talk about how he wants to work with companies over the long-term and learn how to assess whether they can deliver solid returns so that he can become an investor in the future.
  • The consultant would talk about how he wants to learn both the financial and the operational aspects of companies, and how he wants to be involved with decisions that a company implements rather than just recommendations.
  • The corporate development guy/girl would talk about how he/she wants the opportunity to work with all different types of companies in the market rather than just one.

It’s not rocket science: highlight the positive differences between PE and your current field and why you’re interested in pursuing them as you transition into becoming an investor yourself.

If you’re coming from a banking or consulting background, you may get questions about PE vs. other exit opportunities:

Why PE Over VC?

If the PE firm you’re interviewing with asks you this one, say that VC is too far in the operational direction for you, and how you feel it’s more about predicting the next Google/Facebook/Zynga than analytical reasoning.

You prefer PE because it’s a blend of both operations and finance and because you can help Founders with well-established businesses make them even better via solid analysis and research rather than just guesswork.

And, of course, if you’re interviewing for VC you want to take the opposite position and say that PE is all about financial engineering with little value-add and that you can truly help early-stage companies take off because they’re more in need of help than established ones.

Why PE Over Hedge Funds?

This one is harder to answer because there are so many types of hedge funds and the strategies used and the fund sizes can make for completely different experiences.

But the main difference between most hedge funds and most PE firms is that in PE you invest in entire companies (at least, in developed markets) whereas at hedge funds you make much smaller investments and it’s often closer to trading.

You prefer PE because you want to understand how entire businesses work – at a hedge fund you would only get the financial aspect and your skill set would be more limited.

Why PE Over Corporate Development?

This one also has a more subtle distinction: the main difference is that in PE you look at all sorts of different investment opportunities and companies, whereas in corporate development the scope is more limited and you’re always looking at deals and partnerships for your own company.

So that’s exactly what you say in your answer: you want to gain a broader horizon and work in industries and sub-industries outside your own.

You’re more likely to get this type of question if you’re already in a corporate development role and you’re moving into PE – as a banker or consultant it’s not terribly likely unless you say you’re also interviewing for corporate development jobs (um, don’t do that).

Is Any of This True?

I mentioned above that many of the myths about PE (becoming a baller making $100M USD at age 25, buying countries, and surpassing deities) are untrue.

For all these “Why PE” examples I’ve been referencing the mix of operational and financial work and working with companies over the long-haul – so you might rightfully wonder if any of that is true.

It’s somewhere in between: some firms do focus more on add-on acquisitions and operational improvements, whereas others really are just about financial engineering and using as much debt as possible to boost returns.

Even if the firm you’re interviewing with is more focused on finance, though, you will still learn more about operations because you do a ton of due diligence before you actually invest (in banking you mostly just send these documents to other parties).

Unless you start or work at a real company, you’ll never learn the ins and outs of how it “really” works, but you will at least learn more than you would as a banker – so it’s more true than the bad “Why PE?” answers in the beginning.

Why PE?

Hopefully not because you have delusions of grandeur and you’re planning out which beach in Thailand you’ll buy with your first $10 million.

Focus on the positive differences, link your reasons to your background and long-term goals (just like with the “Why investment banking?” question), and don’t fall prey to any of the bad answers about pay or lifestyle.

For Further Reading

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 (85)

Investment Banking: South Africa Edition

Investment Banking South AfricaWhile everyone knows about emerging markets like China, India, and the Middle East, there’s not as much awareness of South Africa.

But it would be a mistake to ignore it, because it’s an interesting market in its own right – and it’s quite a bit different from anywhere else in the world.

So let’s get started.

In The Beginning…

Q: Can you tell us about your background?

A: Sure. I owned a small engineering and IT business for a few years before making the move into finance. Back in undergraduate I had studied Computer Science and saw many of my classmates go into finance, but I was interested in starting my own business and did so with another student.

A few years into it, I got interested in equities trading but also realized that I would need an MBA to move into a new industry.

5 years after starting the business, I sold it and started my MBA program. I thought about going to a top 10 business school elsewhere in the world, but settled on something local instead.

I gave up some networking opportunities by doing that, but it didn’t matter much because plenty of banks came to recruit at our school – plus, my program was only 1 year so my opportunity cost was lower.

I interviewed around and won an offer at an investment bank that had recruited at our school.

Q: What’s the finance industry in South Africa like? How is it different from the US and Europe?

A: The main difference is the types of clients we work with:

  • They are generally below investment grade, though that’s not always true for multinationals and government-linked entities.
  • They’re almost always based in South Africa or on the African continent and have significant operations here.

Beyond that, the products are much simpler: convertibles were only introduced in 2007, and credit default swaps still do not exist.

We also have some unique products you won’t find anywhere else, such as those used to fund BEE (Black Economic Empowerment) deals.

Banks have flatter structures, and there’s not much of a “ladder” – go-getters thrive and get deals, while those looking for a traditional investment banking career path are often frustrated.

Even though I went for the MBA degree, it’s not too common among bankers here – most are either CAs (Chartered Accountants) or have a CFA combined with some type of mathematical degree.

And then a fair number of bankers don’t have finance degrees at all – they come from other industries and are simply good at making rain.

M&I Note: Once again, despite my bias against the CFA it may be more useful in emerging markets such as South Africa.

Recruiting

Q: What about the recruiting process?

Is it similar to the US with resume drops and then multiple rounds of interviews, or closer to Europe with assessment centers and in-person testing/presentations?

A: Overall it’s closer to the US – but interviews tend to be less formal and they’re more about fit rather than technical questions.

Interviewers emphasize your undergraduate major and experience, and there’s a heavy bias in favor of those with accounting backgrounds. They view Big 4 experience very favorably here.

Usually you go through 3 or 4 rounds of interviews over several weeks – many of my friends spent around 3 months interviewing before getting an offer, and it took me around 6 months.

Recruiting take longer not because interviews are more rigorous, but because of the pressure to hire employment equity candidates. Right now there aren’t even enough candidates to fill the required roles.

If you’ve performed well at a top university here you stand a good shot of landing an offer – but just like other markets, nothing is guaranteed.

Q: How do most people start working in finance in South Africa? Is it mostly locals or are they transferring in from elsewhere?

A: It’s mostly local South Africans who enter banking from university, usually studying commerce or a math-based field. Sometimes they also come in from accounting.

The employment and education demographics are heavily skewed toward those who benefited from Apartheid due to the country’s history – many others don’t have the required education.

We’re starting to get more people from other English-speaking countries such as the US, UK, and Australia, as well as South Africans returning home after working abroad.

Lately a lot of Africans from other countries like Nigeria, Ghana, and Zimbabwe have been coming here as well.

Wheeling & Dealing

Q: What types of deals are most common in South Africa?

A: The most common deals are working capital or property finance-related, with some advisory and corporate finance thrown in.

Depending on the market, there might also be leveraged finance or mezzanine finance deals – preferred stock issuances and BEE funding always slow down in recessions, as does anything private equity-related.

The industries themselves are diversified – parastatals, retailers, manufacturers, automotive, mining, telecoms, financial services, and so on. Technology is the only industry here with very little lending or deal activity, because the risk-return is poor.

Q: Can you describe the culture, pay, and lifestyle? Is it more like the US with extremely long hours but higher pay, or more like other regions such as Australia with better hours but also lower pay?

A: The hours are probably closer to what you would find in Australia, although a lot of that is determined by your group. If you’re working market hours – like a trader – then you’re there from 7 AM to 5 PM with no weekends.

Investment bankers work weekends and leave the office around 10 PM quite often, but all-nighters and working to the point of exhaustion are not as common as they are in the US.

It’s still banking, so anyone in corporate finance / M&A is told not to plan anything in advance, and 16-18 hour days are to be expected.

Q: And what about the pay?

A: Similar to other emerging markets, it’s lower than the US in absolute dollar terms but it’s higher relative to the cost of living.

You can live a very good life in South Africa on what you make in finance – though you will encounter the same issues as in other developing countries (e.g. there is high income disparity, radically different classes, and so on).

Q: Do you hang out with your co-workers? Or does everyone do their own thing?

A: Co-workers are sociable and people hang out together quite a lot. My bank also puts on a lot of company-sponsored events and sports, and we even have a sponsored bar.

There’s some rivalry between banks here, but usually people from different banks hang out together at the same places.

Q: What about exit opportunities? Do people stay in South Africa or move elsewhere?

A: Many bankers move on to executive finance roles in industry, sometimes leaving the country and going to the UK, Europe, or Australia.

Since there are so few qualified individuals here, there’s a lot of inter-bank hopping – similar to other emerging markets, there are fewer buy-side firms, so the mythical exit opportunity doesn’t get as much hype here.

The one exception is the hedge fund / prop trading industry, which tends to attract a lot of ex-traders coming from banks.

Similar to the US, it’s tough to move directly from IT into investment banking or other front-office roles and hardly anyone in those roles moves up – though there are exceptions if you play your cards right.

If you’re already in a front-office role, moving up is a different story – it can be easier than in developed markets, but as I mentioned before there’s also less of a “path” and it’s heavily dependent on your results.

Q: Great, thanks for your time.

A: No problem.

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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