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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No, You Can’t Have It All: Why Finance Does Not Guarantee You $10 Million and Your Own Beach in Thailand

No, You Can't Have It All: Why Finance Does Not Guarantee You $10 Million and Your Own Beach in Thailand

“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature.”

– Helen Keller

I almost decided not to publish this article.

But it needed to be said.

This one is long – so grab some yerba mate, take a seat, and close your YouTube window before you start.

How It All Started

“I’ve been keeping up with your blog for quite some time now and I’ve noticed that a very diverse group of people eventually “discover” that they want to become a banker (former premed students, engineers, lawyers, entrepreneurs, …).

That said… do you find it odd that so many people always ask you about exit opportunities in the first place when they’re still trying to break into the industry? This makes me suspect that some people have the wrong mindset going into the game (models & bottles).”

Yeah, of course *I* find it odd.

But does anyone else?

No, apparently not – just look at comments like this one:

“Damn… there goes another profession I was aspiring to do go down toilet. I thought the travel involved in consulting was just exaggerated. But I was wrong. I heard from Kevin that consultants at McKinsey travel 50-75% of their time. I’m sorry but I just can’t handle that. My only other alternatives are PE and HF. How are the hours and travel like for each of those professions. I’m praying that at least these jobs don’t screw up my life…”

At least he’s done his homework though: he understands some of the trade-offs between these different options.

But he’s still searching for the magic-bullet solution: a way to become a deca-millionaire with no risk and no 100-hour weeks.

About twice a week I get emails asking, “So, if I work at a boutique can I go home at 10 PM rather than 2 AM each night?”

If you don’t work in the industry or if you haven’t done an internship, I can understand why you don’t “get it” yet.

But then the other day a friend at a top bank emailed me saying:

“Man I’m so tired of banking right now, do you know anything else that would pay me this much and give me much better hours?”

And that’s what pushed me to hit the “Publish” button on this one anyway.

What Do You Want?

It’s a broad question, but most “goals” can be reduced to:

“Become a deca-millionaire without doing much work and also getting my own private beach in Thailand while having the best life ever.”

This brings up a slew of other issues – such as, “Wait, so what then? You’ll get bored in a week of doing nothing” but we’ll put those aside for now.

Based on this goal, you may have already decided that finance is the best route to becoming rich with no risk – and sure, the hours may be bad, but they get better over time, right?

Not so fast.

If this is your plan, you don’t understand the trade-offs between finance, different fields within finance, and different options altogether.

Trade-Offs?

There are an infinite number of variables, but we’re just going to look at the most important ones here.

Pay

This is one of the biggest lures of finance: just work for a few years and you’ll become a millionaire instantly, right?

But it’s also one of the most poorly understood trade-offs: most people in finance save little money, and any money they do save they either manage poorly or not at all.

$500K per year doesn’t mean much when it’s only $250K after taxes and $240K of that goes into models, bottles, and sports cars.

Prestige

I almost cringe writing this one – but it needs to be addressed here.

The secret that no one tells you about prestige: no one in the real world gives a crap where you work or where you went to school.

I can’t even remember the last time I told a stranger where I went to school, even though it’s supposedly one of the top universities in the world.

And not to turn this into a dating column, but citing a “prestigious” school or company won’t attract members of the opposite sex – at least not the ones you want.

Lifestyle

Sure, your life may suck for awhile but once you hit 35 and have $10 million you can just deposit it all in bonds, make $800,000 per year in tax-free income, and then retire to the Caribbean right?

Except I know of no bankers or other financiers who have actually done this.

To quote a friend who finished the Analyst program at Goldman Sachs a few years ago: “Even Partners take calls in between their kids’ soccer games on weekends.”

If you’ve been working that much for that long a period of time, you’re going to be bored out of your mind if you actually “retire early.”

Enjoyment

You might actually get a thrill out of running around and being on-call all the time; you might like traveling every week; or maybe you just want to relax.

So it is relative.

But we can say a few things with certainty: for example, banking has a lot more grunt work and repetitive tasks than other fields. So you’re probably not going to “like” what you do on a daily basis compared to other options.

Social Aspect

This one seems like an afterthought: who cares how many friends you have at work, right? It’s all about the dollars!

Well, not quite. Certain fields are lonelier than others – and one untold benefit of banking is that you’ll make a lot of close friends because you spend so much time at the office.

But in most other fields you’re either alone most of the time, or you don’t have close peers.

And what good is money if you have no friends?

Risk

“You might get rich if you start your own company, but it could also fail, you’ll go bankrupt and your life will be over. On the other hand, if you go into finance you will easily become a deca-millionaire with almost no risk of losing money or getting laid off.”

If you haven’t been hiding under a rock for the past 2 years, you know that the second statement here is false.

But you may not realize that the first statement is also just as wrong. The real risk of starting your own company is not going bankrupt – it’s something else that nobody ever tells you about (yes, you have to keep reading to see what it is).

Ok, Now Let’s Get Specific

“Ok,” you say, “but what about all the fields I’m interested in? Why are you saying I’m wrong about everything?”

Investment Banking

Yes, this one is well-worn ground and we’ve talked about everything from stuff investment bankers like to pay to stuff investment bankers don’t like.

But there’s more.

Besides the pay being extremely variable, you should note that most bankers save nothing in their first few years.

$60K-$70K base salary is barely enough to get by in New York, and your bonus just pays off credit card debt. Even at the VP-level and up, plenty of guys make $500K, then spend it all and have no savings.

Think you can avoid that and still save a lot? Peer pressure is tough to resist.

If you really want to “get rich,” you have to stay in the game until you’re at the MD-level, and then be a seasoned MD with regular business coming in.

And that doesn’t happen in 5-10 years.

Prestige? Well, your parents can brag about it to other prestige-obsessed parents but otherwise it has no effect on your life.

Lifestyle: if you have clients and live transactions, you’re always on call – no matter what level you’re at. MDs spend a lot of time answering email and checking their Blackberries “on vacation.”

But despite other drawbacks, banking is good for forming real relationships with people – you spend so much time at work, it would be hard not to. And that keeps you (relatively) sane.

Everyone has heard about “risk” in terms of layoffs and hiring freezes, but actually getting laid off at the entry-level doesn’t matter much: when you’re young you have plenty of options.

But when you reach the mid-levels it gets very, very difficult to “jump back in” if you get cut – which is a big problem when you have 2 mortgages, 3 BMWs, and 2 kids.

Sales & Trading

“Ok,” you say, “so banking is not that great – I know, I’ll do Sales & Trading instead and make as much or more money but also have a life!”

On the surface the lifestyle is better because you work roughly market hours – it can go beyond that, but you’re not going to be pulling all-nighters.

And hey, you can tell people you work at a bank, so it must be prestigious right?

Plus, the social aspect is quite similar to banking: you make a lot of friends because of the environment you’re in. Sure, you might get hazed but that’s just a part of any fraternity trading desk.

And many traders like their work more since there are no pitch books and there’s much less grunt work and coffee-fetching (unless you’re an intern).

So what’s the catch?

Risk and exit opportunities. Most entry-level traders at large investment banks get paid roughly the same, and it’s more dependent on group performance than individual performance.

But as you move up the ladder that changes – more so than in banking, where even a crappy VP might get paid well just because his MD did well.

So yes, if you’re a rock-star trader and can make millions effortlessly year after year, you’re set – but if you have a bad year, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

And no matter what area of trading you’re in, you don’t have as many exit opportunities as bankers: as one reader pointed out, this doesn’t make much sense – but that’s the way it is.

You either stay in trading, trade at a hedge fund or prop trading firm, or you get out of finance entirely.

If you’re an intern or you’re relatively new you can move elsewhere but you don’t have the flexibility that banking analysts do.

Private Equity

Ah yes, the Promised Land: private equity. Better pay, even more prestige, and much better hours to boot – right?

Well, not exactly.

Let’s start with prestige: whereas 99% of people have heard of Goldman Sachs, the average person doesn’t even know what “private equity” means. KKR or Blackstone may sound prestigious to you, but anyone outside finance is unlikely to know them.

Pay: despite rumors to the contrary, it’s not dramatically different for most people moving into PE. Yes, if you come in from a banking background you’ll get a higher base salary and possibly some sort of guaranteed bonus, but you’re not going to instantly start making $1 million at age 25.

Yes, Partners at the largest PE firms make 10x more (or more) than the top bankers do.

But very few people make it to the top, the industry is much smaller, and if you’re responsible for one bad investment you could be done.

The risk of getting laid off as a junior guy or girl in PE is lower than in banking – but advancing is just as difficult, if not more difficult.

There is less grunt work than in banking, but just a quick reality check: if you don’t find valuing companies, building models, and doing due diligence interesting, you’re going to hate PE too.

The social aspect always gets overlooked – once you move to the buy-side, you lose that large group of friends you used to hang out with, and your co-workers will be much older.

Yes, lifestyle is generally “better” but that’s not true if you go to a large fund – it’s banking hours all over again. And when you get busy with a deal, you’re going to work. A lot.

Hedge Funds

Much of the above applies to hedge funds as well. The average pay may be higher, but there is so little reliable data on what people at hedge funds actually make that I’m reluctant to say this.

And once again, the lifestyle is not much different from banking at the largest and most well-known funds: You work. A lot.

The risk is even greater with hedge funds, for one simple reason: they have a habit of collapsing.

I’ve been compiling lists of regional banks, private equity firms, and hedge funds, and as I was going through the hedge fund list I kept coming across “As of last year, such-and-such fund has ceased operations” in the “business description” fields.

This isn’t meant to scare you away from hedge funds: it just means that they are more risky than you think, pay is more variable than in banking and private equity (more similar to Sales & Trading), and the lifestyle may not be as good as you think.

Management Consulting

I had already given consultants a good beat-down last year, but hey, let’s give it a go once again.

First, the pay is less than any of the other fields mentioned above – unless you’re at a small prop shop that pays $0 base salary.

It’s hard to say whether McKinsey or Goldman Sachs is more “prestigious” – but the average person is more aware of “consultants” than they are of “private equity guys.”

And then there’s the travel aspect: this seems fun at first, but you quickly get tired of flying to the Yukon Territory every week to “advise” on a new oil drilling project.

Most travel is not that bad – but if you don’t want to be away from home every week, you’re going to hate the consulting lifestyle.

One of the big lures of consulting compared to banking is that there’s less “grunt work” and what you do is more “intellectually stimulating.”

But is that true? There’s certainly more “variety” than in banking but I know plenty of consultants who find it very repetitive and think that most of the “research” you do is just fluff.

Still, on average there’s probably more “fun” in consulting.

Another big lure: exit opportunities. One consultant once told me, “Management consulting is the only industry that gives you unlimited options.”

But ask any consultant who’s interviewing for PE or finance-related jobs, and they’ll tell you a different story: yes, it’s possible to get in coming from a consulting background but it’s significantly more difficult than if you were a banker. It’s hard to “prove” you know how to model an LBO if you’ve never done one before.

It’s good preparation for business school or for “management” jobs at companies, but if you’re coming from a consulting background you’re at a disadvantage next to bankers for finance jobs.

Large Company

I don’t get many emails or comments about this one, probably because no one wants to do it or because you already know the trade-offs.

But I do get a lot of emails saying, “I want to do corporate development after banking to get a better lifestyle. Can you tell me about it?”

My take on it is simple: it’s similar to private equity, but with reduced hours, pay, and upside.

Your chances of getting laid off are very, very low unless you’re at a new startup that happens to fold – but your chances of moving to the top, especially at a huge conglomerate, are slim.

The lifestyle is definitely better than the other options presented here: not much travel most of the time, and the hours are fairly standard except for when you’re working on a live deal.

The other trade-offs vary by what company you’re at and how your group runs – sometimes you might be the only person who isn’t married, and sometimes there’s a bigger group of people your age.

If you go into this after banking – or anything else on this list – you’ll find it very slow since you’re used to constantly running around and being on-call 24/7.

Also, there’s no clear “exit opportunity path” as there is with some of the other options here. Most likely, you’ll end up going to business school or moving to a different company.

Entrepreneurship

I have a theory that everyone who goes into banking secretly wants to start their own company instead. I get a lot of comments and emails that start out like this:

“Hi, I want to stay in banking for 2 years and then use all my money to start a company afterward. Do you think this is a good idea, and if so which group do you think I should be in?”

No, that’s a stupid idea because: 1) You will barely save any money over 2 years. 2) Banking is terrible preparation for entrepreneurship.

This one is almost impossible to write about because it depends on what kind of company you start – offline, online, products, services – and whether you aspire to be the next Google or you’d rather just start a bar with your friends.

But there are 2 important points that no one else ever brings up:

  1. The real risk is not going bankrupt or ruining your life, but rather wasting time going nowhere.
  2. This is the loneliest of the options here, because you don’t have peers – you’re either flying solo, or you have employees.

Yes, you could completely fail, but your life isn’t over – this happens all the time in Silicon Valley and everyone bounces back. More often than not, you might spend months or years on something and not get much traction – so you don’t get rich, but you also don’t lose everything.

On the social aspect: even if you end up with employees, you can’t really “hang out” with them. Especially if you started everything alone or with 1 other person, it’s quite lonely.

Pay, enjoyment, and lifestyle vary so much by what you do that it’s impossible to generalize: you could work 100 hours a week and hate your life, or you could treat your business as a simple part-time job.

If you’re wondering why everything I do is online, it’s for exactly those reasons: offline requires far more work, doesn’t give you as much leverage, and restricts your lifestyle a lot more.

Cliff’s Notes

Ok, that was really long. And maybe you didn’t read everything.

So here are the major points:

  1. Wanting to stay in finance for “just a few years” to “get rich” or “have enough experience to do something else” is a poor strategy. You’re not going to be rich after that short a time – and if you want to do something else, be like Nike and just do it.
  2. Most finance-related jobs entail a lot more risk than anyone ever talks about. And the lifestyle never matches what people with “normal jobs” get, no matter how high up you are.
  3. If you want to reach the top of anything listed here, it requires work, sacrifice, and risk. This doesn’t happen in “a few years” – it happens by spending 10-20 years or more excelling. There’s no magic bullet.
  4. The social aspect of all these options is huge and it’s something that almost everyone ignores. Hopefully you’re thinking about it now.
  5. Be aware of limits on exit opportunities. Hardly anyone tells you, for example, that once you’re at a specialized hedge fund it’s tough to move somewhere that uses completely different strategies.

So, What Should You Do?

Hey, I can’t give you all the answers.

I’m just like Fox News: I report, you decide.

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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Recruiting in a Down Market, Part 2: Moving from “Check the Box” Recruiting to Actual Recruiting

Recruiting in a Down Market, Part 2: Moving from “Check the Box” Recruiting to Actual RecruitingYou’ve just arrived at the newest, hippest downtown bar.

Walking inside to meet your friends, your jaw drops in wonder. You notice that 70% of the crowd consists of attractive members of the opposite sex.

You sit down to get a drink, and you’re in for another shock: you start getting approached every few minutes. Before the night is over you have 20 phone numbers.

Sounds too good to be true, right?

Not if you had been recruiting back in 2004-2006, because that’s exactly what the hiring market was like back then: too good to be true.

“Check the Box” Recruiting

Recruiting in a Down Market, Part 2: Moving from “Check the Box” Recruiting to Actual RecruitingBack then, most students at top universities and business schools acted like you did when you walked into this imaginary bar: they sat back and waited for the opportunities to come to them. And professionals in related fields found themselves drawn into finance by the alluring calls of headhunters.

Being proactive helped – but it wasn’t a requirement. There were so many opportunities that even if you were a borderline candidate, you’d probably get something – just by submitting enough resumes and investment banking cover letters.

Actual Recruiting

As you’re probably aware, 70% of the crowd in a bar never consists of attractive members of the opposite sex approaching you all the time – unless you’re in Brazil.

If you went to an actual bar rather than an imaginary one, you’d need to be a lot more proactive.

You couldn’t just wait for opportunities to arise; you couldn’t get free drinks from everyone who came up to you; and you wouldn’t be leaving with 20 numbers.

And the same holds true of recruiting, both in “normal” times and in highly unusual times – like today. You need to move beyond submitting online applications and “hoping for the best” and start pounding the pavement until you get offers.

In other words, you need to move beyond “check the box” recruiting and into actual recruiting.

Shifting Mindsets

If you’re from a more unusual background or haven’t gone to an Ivy League school, none of the above is news to you. You’ve been contending with it for years.

It is news to a lot of surprised students at traditional “core” recruiting schools, who have suddenly found themselves without internships or full-time jobs.

It now requires significantly more effort to break in, which is one reason why applications have fallen at many places and why overall interest in finance is down.

Changing Your Recruiting Strategy

We identified 4 key ways you need to change your recruiting strategy in the midst of the worst hiring market in finance in… well, a long time. A lot of this echoes what we’ve said before on breaking in during a recession, but some things cannot be repeated enough.

1. If You’re Going Fishing, Cast a Wide Net

Recruiting in a Down Market, Part 2: Moving from “Check the Box” Recruiting to Actual RecruitingNo matter how many times both Kevin and I repeat the advice to consider firms beyond the bulge brackets in finance and outside of M/B/B in consulting, no one pays attention.

It’s just like applying to school: sure, go for HBS or LSE, but make sure you have a Plan B, C, D, and E as well.

How many banks should you apply to?

There’s no upward limit – I would apply to dozens of firms at a bare minimum.

And that doesn’t mean just sending your resume and cover letter to all these places – it means actually getting on the phone with them and getting to know people there.

Where do you get started looking for dozens of banks?

I would start with this thread on WallStreetOasis that lists boutiques by region:

Regional Boutiques

It doesn’t have the contact information for each place, but start there and then move into networking and use referrals to get additional names.

To focus your efforts, start with firms in your local geography or any companies that match your background (e.g. they’re Restructuring-focused and you come from a Distressed/Restructuring legal background).

2. Become Carman Sandiego

Recruiting in a Down Market, Part 2: Moving from “Check the Box” Recruiting to Actual RecruitingIf you could choose any city in the world to find a job in right now, where do you think you’d start?

I’m not sure, but I can tell you the 2 places I’d avoid at all costs: New York and London.

While everyone has been hit hard by the recession, New York and London have suffered disproportionately.

“But isn’t it better to start your career in New York / London?”

Well, yes – but these days it’s better to start in a less ‘prestigious’ location rather than watching TV in your parents’ basement for 7 months because you couldn’t find anything in New York.

If you’re in the US you need to look at other locations (Midwest, West Coast), and if you have any international connections / family / language skills you need to think about that angle as well.

With finance you are often “funneled” into a specific geography because of where you’re located or where you went to school – the best way to get around this is to develop a network in other locations.

In consulting you can actually gain an advantage if you give less “sexy” locations, like Chicago or Houston, as your preferences. Those offices are not used to getting floods of applicants like New York / San Francisco are, so they view it positively that you would prefer to work there.

The main obstacles you’ll face in going international:

  1. Lack of connections / network in the area.
  2. Lack of language skills.

For #1, start thinking about other places you’d consider working and develop your network there (more on this in detail soon); for #2, I would recommend learning as much as you can – sometimes even if you’re not native-speaker level you can get in anyway.

3. Stop Arguing Over Consulting vs. Banking and Take What You Can Get

Recruiting in a Down Market, Part 2: Moving from “Check the Box” Recruiting to Actual RecruitingLook, we all loved Leveraged Sellout’s infamous Consulting vs. Banking video. It was hilarious, it fit the theme of the book perfectly, and hey, even the timing was impeccable.

But if you’re still arguing with your friends over which one is “better,” you should stop and go play some Wii Tennis because that’s a better use of time.

The main downside to an adjacent field like corporate finance, strategy, business development, or even the US Treasury?

Making the transition back to consulting/finance is usually difficult.

But that’s not necessarily true in a bull market – last time around we saw recruits coming in from all sorts of corporate backgrounds, at the junior to mid-levels.

I hesitate to “rank” which options are “best”, but in general the closer you can get (in terms of working on transactions / working with clients and doing financial analysis), the better.

It would be easier to move from business development at a Fortune 500 company into an M&A group than it would be to move from marketing into an M&A group, for example.

In the worst case scenario, maybe you’ll have to go back to business school first to re-brand yourself.

Another thought – and I might be crazy for stating this publicly – but maybe you’ll find something that you like more than finance/consulting.

Most of my laid-off friends in banking have gone into finance/business development roles at normal companies – and have a much better lifestyle than they did before. With the way bonuses are tracking this year, they haven’t taken much of a pay cut either.

4. Turn Into a Human Rolodex

Recruiting in a Down Market, Part 2: Moving from “Check the Box” Recruiting to Actual RecruitingYou’ve probably noticed one common theme in each of these points: you can’t do anything without a great network.

“Networking” can be a nebulous concept, but it’s just a fairly simple process that involves doing a good amount of work on a consistent basis:

  1. Develop an initial set of contacts in the industry or related industries.
  2. Begin emailing them and setting up brief phone calls and/or in-person meetings.
  3. Stay in touch, develop the relationship, and request additional calls when appropriate.
  4. When appropriate, be more direct (but not too direct) with asking about opportunities.

We’ll dive into this point in more detail in the next article, but for now keep in mind that your networking efforts are the only way to set yourself apart from everyone else, at least at the junior and mid-levels.

From Checking the Boxes to Actually Recruiting

If you’ve just relied on submitting applications online and sending your resume and cover letter blindly to firms, you don’t have a recruiting strategy.

You’re using “check the box” recruiting rather than actual recruiting – and you don’t need to think for a second about which one is more effective.

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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