How to Break Into Asset Management in Germany – from a Part-Time, Non-Target, Distance Learning MBA Program
So, what about those part-time MBA programs? Do banks and finance firms take them seriously, even if they’re online? What about continental Europe recruiting vs. the UK?
Today you’ll learn about those and other topics from a reader who recently broke into the finance industry in Germany.
This reader also did an internship at a Fund of Funds (FoF) so as an added bonus you’ll get a crash-course in all things FoF as well.
That’s quite a lot to cover in one interview, so let’s get started.
Walk Me Through Your CV
Q: You mentioned before we started that you had a unique history.
Can you tell us about your background and where you were coming from before getting into finance?
A: Sure. I started out doing engineering at a non-target university in the UK – finance firms ignored it, but engineering and technical companies and even the government recruited there.
It was right after the dot-com bust when I graduated and the job market back then wasn’t great for IT people – so I went to the UK Government and worked there for around 8-9 years as an engineering project manager.
A few years ago I had the opportunity to go work for the government in Germany – around that time I had realized that engineering wasn’t for me and that I wanted to move into finance instead.
Toward the end of my contract working for the government, I started a part-time (2.5 – 3 years) distance learning MBA program from a university in the UK. The goal was to re-brand myself and get a business background in the process, and then to use the degree to move into finance.
I did a lot of networking to find contacts while in Germany, and finally found a private equity fund of funds that was looking for English-speaking interns.
I worked there for half a year, and recently landed a full-time offer at the German office of a US-based asset management firm.
Q: That’s quite a story. Before we jump into recruiting and how you got your current role, let’s take a step back: why did you like Germany so much and what made you want to stay there? I’m just curious personally.
A: It was quite random – I was just placed there by the UK government and happened to like it quite a bit. I had also spent 3-4 months there previously, so I jumped on the chance to move back.
Q: And you managed to get the internship and the full-time role without being from Germany originally and without knowing the language?
A: I do speak German conversationally, but I’m not quite good enough to use it for business. So if I were applying for an M&A role at an investment bank, I would never get in (see: more on investment banking in Germany).
They are looking for native-speakers there because you’re working with domestic German companies all the time and for the times they do deal with English-speaking companies in Germany, the level of English of most German graduates is of a very high standard, so they have little reason to recruit a non-native speaker.
A lot of HR departments here list the German language as a requirement, but outside of IB/M&A-type roles it’s rarely required to do the job.
When I applied to the asset management firm I just joined, I went through a recruiter – the original ad I saw asked for a native German speaker, but then when I spoke with the recruiter they indicated that it wasn’t really necessary.
You can get away with this because in fields like trading, asset management, and so on you’re dealing with global investors where English is the standard language.
Recruiting and Breaking In
Q: Right, that makes sense. I think in most countries for traditional IB/PE roles you need to know the local language but outside of that you can get away without being a native.
So what were the key steps to breaking into finance in Germany? Did the part-time distance learning MBA program actually help you to re-brand yourself?
A: It helped a bit and allowed me to meet people who worked in the industry, but overall it wasn’t terribly helpful in terms of actually getting interviews through the degree. My program was not very consulting or finance-centric so there wasn’t much of a benefit for those fields.
Networking also proved to be quite difficult – I reached out to a lot of contacts via LinkedIn and similar online databases, and made plenty of cold calls and cold emails, but most people were simply confused as it is not as common here.
That is a big cultural difference and traditional networking is not accepted like it is in the US / UK. I made some good connections for the future, but wasn’t able to find anyone who could directly help me to get a job.
I found both my positions and won interviews by looking at job postings and ads online and then contacting the recruiters directly – you’ve mentioned before that that’s not a good use of time in the US / UK, but unless you’re currently a student at a well-known university here, that’s about all you can do to get in.
Q: I’m surprised that the degree didn’t help you at least in terms of being taken more seriously when you contacted people in the industry. Did they just not respect distance learning programs?
A: Actually, the main issue was that MBAs are not viewed the same way here as they are in the UK and US.
The university system in Germany is much different and you complete the equivalent of Master’s-level study at the undergraduate level – so getting an MBA won’t necessarily get you more points.
The other factor working against me was that I had an engineering degree from undergraduate – many places here won’t even consider you unless you’ve studied accounting or finance in undergraduate.
Q: Wow. I guess I should add a clarification to that “Your major doesn’t matter that much” advice.
What about the recruiting process itself? Is it similar to the UK with assessment centers and competency questions?
A: First off, since I wasn’t going through standard graduate recruitment, I had no assessment centers.
Beyond that, it was quite different for the Fund of Funds and for the asset management firm – the FoF process was relaxed since it was an internship, and most of the interview questions were “fit”-focused.
The investment managers sat down and spoke with me for 30-60 minutes each, and chatted about my background and knowledge of finance – but they never went in-depth into advanced technical questions or anything. A few weeks later I received an offer there.
Since the asset management firm was US-based, interviews were very similar to what you see at banks and asset management firms in the US – several rounds of interviews with people from different groups, with more technical questions thrown in and a more diverse set of questions overall.
This one was also not for a graduate-level position, so I imagine it would be somewhat different if you were just out of school or in school and interviewing for the same role.
Q: What types of people were they looking for? Were many of your co-workers also foreigners?
A: It varies, but at the Fund of Funds the investment team was mostly German with a few others from Europe and further afield. They wanted people who knew a bit of German and who had the technical skills to analyze investments – it was very small, so they were much more focused on fit there.
At the asset management firm, as I mentioned, the technical bar was higher and they were looking for people to spend more time at the firm and not just hop to the first exit opportunity that comes their way.
As with most other countries outside the US, there is not as much of an obsession with exit opportunities and hopping around constantly, so people actually stay at the same company for more time on average.
Q: Any other differences with recruiting in Germany that we should know about?
A: Oh yes, I could probably write a book about that one:
- You need to include your photo on your CV here. Technically firms are no longer able to discriminate against you, but you’re at a huge disadvantage without a photo as everyone includes them.
- CVs are usually at least 2 pages and emphasize Education over everything else – it’s at the top even if you have years and years of work experience. Sometimes CVs go on for 3-4 pages and list every single academic achievement.
- If you’re a non-native German speaker, you should include your language skills in the Personal Information section; you also list your Date of Birth and Marital Status at the top.
Q: I think requiring that information in the US or UK would result in lawsuits.
A: Yeah, the culture is quite a bit different here.
In terms of language skills, if you see an advertisement from a multi-national company in English, you can assume it’s OK to apply in English and work there without knowing the language – but if it’s all in German then the language is probably required.
Job references are also very important here. After every job you’ve been at, you receive 1-2 pages of written references stating how well you’ve done there and what your achievements were.
Even at US-based and other foreign companies here they still expect to see these references, and you’re at a big disadvantage if you don’t have them or if they say anything negative.
Q: More lawsuit material if you requested those in the US / UK – and it’s written evidence, too.
What about CV review and interview selection?
A: In general, it’s difficult to get the first interview here but once you’re in you have a high chance of moving forward. They spend a lot of time reviewing CVs and selecting first round candidates based on those, sometimes inviting only 1-2 people to interviews.
That’s the opposite of what you see in the US / UK where they might invite dozens to interview, only intending to hire a few.
Finally, some advice for you if you’re not a native and you’re interested in working in Germany: going through recruiters can work to your advantage. They are actually helpful here and can get you past HR staff when you don’t meet the officially stated language requirements.
And as I’ve mentioned, go for asset management or trading rather than M&A.
All About Funds of Funds
Q: OK, that was quite a download of recruiting-in-Germany information.
Moving on, I’ve gotten a lot of questions about Funds of Funds, what they are, what you do there, and how you get in – can you explain briefly what a Fund of Funds is and the work you do there?
A: Sure. A Fund of Funds is simply an investment firm that invests in private equity funds rather than buying companies directly.
To give an analogy, it would be like an index fund that invests in other index funds in the stock market as opposed to the original index fund that picks individual stocks to invest in.
Funds of Funds may invest in anything from venture capital firms to small and large buyout firms to anything else within the world of private equity.
Most of the day-to-day work consists of due diligence – analyzing existing funds, seeing what kinds of investments they’ve made, and whether or not they would be a good fit for us.
You make 2 main types of investments at a FoF: primary and secondary.
- Primary: You invest in a PE firm as it’s doing a round of fund-raising and looking for new investors.
- Secondary: You buy an existing stake in a PE firm from someone else in the secondary market who’s looking to sell.
Most of the work on the primary side consists of due diligence, analyzing investment teams at PE firms, looking at previous deals, historical returns, and so on.
We did a lot of benchmarking of funds against the sector as a whole and against other funds within the geography we were looking at, and we discussed everything with General Partners. Most of my time there was spent writing up due diligence findings and there was a lot more qualitative work than quantitative work.
On the secondary side, there was more quantitative work since we were looking at funds that had already made a few investments. So there was some price modeling involved to see what was reasonable, what type of carry and management fees made sense, and so on; we also did some basic DCF analysis to verify the valuation but it wasn’t anything hardcore.
Q: So are Funds of Funds a big asset class in Germany? Is the industry there developed?
A: It’s not yet a big asset class here – there are quite a few buyout and VC firms, but only a handful of FoFs and most of them are part of bigger financial institutions here.
PE has been hit hard following the financial crisis and Funds of Funds suffered even more than normal PE firms – many institutional investors backed out or decided against investing, so firms never had a chance to grow properly.
Q: What about recruiting for FoF? What kinds of questions did they ask you?
A: They didn’t ask me much about investments, investment ideas, or which funds I would invest in – it was more about my motivations for wanting to move into finance, what my future goals were, and so on.
That was mostly because I was career changer – other interns received more technical questions about accounting and valuing companies, the economy, and the European debt crisis.
Overall I would say that FoF interviews are similar to investment banking overviews, but generally less technical even though they’ll still ask the normal accounting/valuation-type questions.
Q: What about the work culture there? I’m assuming it was quite a bit different from what you see in private equity / investment banking?
A: It was much more relaxed than what you see in banking or at direct investment funds (PE/VC).
There wasn’t much time pressure to do things because we weren’t competing for specific deals that banks were marketing to PE firms – so we had more time to discuss investment ideas internally and talk through things.
They delegated quite a lot of work to the interns, so we did many of the initial assessments and the screening, and then sat down with the investment managers to talk through ideas. They were quite receptive to well-thought out investment ideas, even though we were interns and had limited experience.
Q: And now I have to ask the obligatory hours / pay question…
A: Hours at the Fund of Funds were generally between 9 – 6 each day, with work sometimes extending a bit later depending on how busy we were at the time. Work came in peaks and troughs – if a lot of direct funds were fund-raising, we would have to analyze everything at once and make decisions quickly.
But during other times of the year (especially the summer months), things were very quiet because hardly any funds were fund-raising.
The investment managers themselves might work later due to internal investment committee meetings, but the latest was normally 8 or 9 PM, with weekend work extremely rare.
Base salaries were close to what you would earn starting out in IB or asset management, but maybe a bit less overall (possibly also due to being in Germany, which has a lower cost-of-living than the UK).
Bonuses were substantially less than IB and perhaps even other asset management firms – there’s just not as much money to go around since Funds of Funds don’t have the same levels of management fees and carry that you get in direct Funds.
Q: After working at the Fund of Funds, you moved onto asset management – but what do most people do? Is it possible to get into private equity from FoF?
A: Most people who start out in FoF stay there and build their careers there – you don’t really have the required skills (LBO modeling) to go into private equity.
If you do leave, the most common and obvious exit opportunity is moving into asset management – quite a few people from my firm actually left to move into larger asset management firms.
Q: So why did you make the move, personally, rather than staying in FoF?
A: I could have stayed there and had a comfortable lifestyle – but there were a few things I didn’t like:
- There wasn’t much career progression aside from becoming an Investment Manager and then a Partner – it’s not like banking, PE, or even trading where you have levels in between.
- I wanted faster-paced work because that suited my personality much better; I also wanted more of a front-office role where you make investments directly.
All along, I was actually more interested in trading but it was a long-shot where I live as the majority of trading desks are located in Frankfurt.
The job that I ended up with at the asset management firm was actually different from the original one the recruiter set me up for, so I would reiterate something that you have said before: that you are not necessarily interviewing for the job you think you are!
Q: So you’re planning to move into trading from there?
A: Yes – maybe stay here for a year or two, and then leverage my connections to move into a trading role.
That’s a very indirect path to trading, and it probably wouldn’t work as well for IB/PE – but luckily trading is one field in finance where they do care more about results than pedigree/work history.
Q: Right, well good luck with making the move – and thanks again for taking the time out to chat!
A: No problem – hope you learned a lot.
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From Nuclear Submarines to Investment Banking: How to Make the Leap from the Military to Finance
Can you get into finance coming from a military background?
Just how many bankers each year break in from the Army, Navy, and Air Force?
I get a lot of questions on these topics, but up until now haven’t had solid answers beyond “yes” and “quite a few.”
But that changes today with an interview from a reader who broke into investment banking from a military background – keep reading to find out how he did it and how you can do the same.
Plus, advice on part-time vs. full-time MBA programs and starting in a location that isn’t New York.
Nuclear Submarines & Business School: Perfect Match?
Q: Tell us about your background and how you got started operating nuclear submarines.
A: Sure. I accepted a Navy ROTC scholarship right before attending college, because my priority at the time was to serve my country.
At school I picked a highly technical engineering track, but ended up taking a lot of financial math classes on the side – that’s how I originally got interested in finance.
After graduation, I wanted to work in a high-impact environment and since I had a technical background, I figured that nuclear submarines would be a good fit for me.
The Navy has a rigorous selection process for this kind of role, but I passed and started operating nuclear reactors aboard submarines.
After a few years there, I decided to attend a top MBA program as my next move.
Q: I guess you had an easy time proving your “attention to detail” in interviews. Coming from that background, why did you decide to go to business school as your next move?
A: I got a lot out of the Navy in terms of leadership, teamwork, and meeting deadlines, but I wanted to hone my financial skills and learn more about business.
I knew that moving into finance directly would be challenging since my background was unrelated, so I decided to use business school as a steppingstone.
I still had a commitment to the Navy, so I decided to attend a part-time evening program at a well-known business school while finishing my obligation of service.
Q: Most people would say that it’s very tough to break into finance coming from a part-time evening program – why did you decide to go that route instead of waiting and applying for full-time programs?
A: I could have waited, but that might have cost me 1.5 – 2 years due to my Navy commitment. I figured that I would be more competitive if I made the move sooner rather than later, so I opted for the evening program instead.
If you have the option, though, I would strongly recommend full-time programs.
I had a unique set of circumstances, and I ended up transferring to the full-time program anyway to take part in recruiting – looking back on it, starting out there may have made more sense.
Transferring & Recruiting
Q: You mentioned switching to the full-time program for recruiting purposes. When did you decide to do this, and how did you make the move?
A: In the evening program I couldn’t even drop my resume for recruiting purposes – I could still go to events and network with bankers there, but I couldn’t formally apply for internships or full-time jobs.
Recruiters also viewed me with a lot more scrutiny coming from the evening program – they would ask, “Was he not able to get into the full-time program? Were his GPA or GMAT scores not up to par?” If you’re not in a full-time program, you need good answers to those questions.
So I realized early on that transferring would make recruiting much easier.
As for the actual process, I just applied through the school after going through all the core classes, earning good grades, and developing a competitive profile.
The key is that the school doesn’t want you to hurt their average GPA / GMAT scores – as long as you’re above the bar there, it’s doable.
That doesn’t mean it’s easy – only a handful of people do it each year – but it is possible.
I would also add that a couple of classmates stayed in the evening program and successfully landed investment banking internships, so switching is not absolutely mandatory.
Q: Right, that makes sense. What about your networking efforts? Once you made the leap to the full-time program, did you just rely on on-campus recruiting or did you also use alumni networking?
A: I used both – early on, I relied more heavily on networking with military alumni. I started months before the school year began, and began by searching for former naval officers who now worked in investment banking, via LinkedIn.
I got around a 40% response rate, and leveraged the responses into phone calls and in-person meetings during the weekend trips I took to New York and other financial centers.
As the school year approached, I widened my net and started going beyond naval officers to other “military alumni” and also went through the alumni at my business school.
I waited to speak with the alumni last because they were in the best position to get me first-round interviews. Additionally, they were bombarded with emails from all my classmates so I wanted to ensure that I always made a strong first impression.
Q: What about the networking process itself? What did you do, and how effective was it?
A: In my initial emails, I would usually ask for 30 minutes to speak on the phone – but as I moved further in, I took trips to New York and other financial centers and met with bankers in-person.
Most “target schools” have a pretty regimented process for MBAs, and I used recruiting events to make a better impression on bankers in a social setting. That’s a huge advantage of target schools – these investment banking information sessions are the key to receiving first-round interviews.
Because I was aggressive with networking and made a good impression on the recruiting teams, I managed to win first-round interviews with most major banks.
How to Convince Them You’re a Financier
Q: So it sounds like you had a lot of practice with interviews, whether they were official interviews or unofficial informational interviews. What were the key challenges you faced coming from a military background?
A: The advantage of a military background is that you can sell your management experience, leadership, and teamwork skills more easily than, say, an accountant looking to break into investment banking.
And since I had operated a nuclear reactor, it wasn’t hard to convince bankers of my attention to detail. The same goes for unpredictable hours – going out to sea on a whim’s notice or being extended during a deployment were routine in the submarine force.
But there are a couple problems you’ll face coming from a military background:
- There’s the perception that ex-military guys don’t know finance.
- We also have a reputation for being overly blunt and trying to exert too much control over a situation.
Q: So how did you overcome these problems?
A: For the first one, I pointed to my high GPA and GMAT score as evidence that I could do quantitative work.
I know you’ve criticized it before, but I also enrolled in and passed Level I of the CFA – which at least showed them that I knew something about finance. Plus, I had all my finance classes from undergraduate.
On the second point – about being overly blunt – you just need examples of how you’ve compromised and worked successfully in a team without being overbearing.
A lot of this also comes across in your tone and presentation – if you’re a direct person, sometimes you have to take it down a few notches.
Regional vs. NYC Offices
Q: You ended up accepting an offer in a regional office rather than in New York – how did you think about this one, and why did you decide to start there instead?
A: Most people tell you that New York is the end-all when it comes to finance, at least in the US – but I’m not completely convinced of this.
For one, lots of regional offices actually do full deal execution themselves – SF is a hotbed for tech and biotech, LA for media and gaming, Houston for energy, Chicago for industrials, and so on.
If you already have an industry you’re interested in, going somewhere other than New York could be a good move.
Also, the cost of living is much less in other regions, the lifestyle is not much worse, and the deal teams are leaner which means more experience for junior bankers.
The main disadvantages of not starting in New York:
- You do miss out on networking opportunities by being around fewer bankers / financiers.
- You’re more limited in terms of moving to different regions / groups.
If you’re just out of university and you’re not sure exactly what you want to do, New York could be a better bet – but if you’re older, you have a family, or you have a good idea of what industry you want to work in, there are considerable advantages to starting outside of New York.
Q: Right, I agree completely. The obsession with New York in the US is similar to the obsession with exit opportunities. Thanks for your time – you have a very interesting story, and I learned a lot.
A: My pleasure.
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How to Break Into Investment Banking as a Career-Changer in a Part-Time, Non-Target MBA Program
No clever introductions for this one because this story already has more twists and turns than 24 or Lost – so let’s get right into it.
Q: Walk us through your resume.
A: I came from a liberal arts background as an undergraduate, and worked in commercial property management after I graduated.
After a few years I got interested in investment banking, but by that point I had already been out of school for awhile and I didn’t have much of a quantitative background, so I decided that going back to business school was my best bet.
I went to a well-known, though not “target,” program – you would know the school if I mentioned it here, but not many large banks actively recruited there.
To make things even worse, I was enrolled in the part-time program there – so I only had access to the career center and its resources in my last few terms.
Q: So I’m guessing you had to do a lot of networking. Can you tell us about what your overall approach was?
A: Sure. Before I even started networking, I wanted to make sure I had my “story” right, so I spent a lot of time on that.
My basic “story”: I came from a background where I had to work with tenants constantly and develop relationships with lots of different people – which is a critical skill if you want to make it to the top in investment banking.
I said that in the long-term, I wanted to be a trusted advisor to CEOs and other executives, and that I saw investment banking as a way to leverage my previous background to get there.
This story worked very well for Associate-level interviews – they want to see more evidence of leadership and client relationship skills because they’re grooming you to make it to the top one day.
In terms of networking, I ignored bulge bracket banks for the most part and focused on middle-market and boutique banks because they were much more receptive to someone like me.
I didn’t focus that much on the “results” per se – I was genuinely interested in getting to know people in the industry and learning more all the time, which made a huge difference.
Too many people go into the process only looking forward to the outcome, which makes it hard to stay motivated and actually make a good impression on everyone you meet.
Q: Ok, so you have your “story” laid out and you’re in the right mindset. How did you decide who to contact each week? What did you say, and to whom did you say it?
A: I focused on 2nd and 3rd year Associates, as well as some 1st Year VPs – I wanted people who had been there long enough to actually have influence over the hiring process.
These types of people were also more likely to be staffers – and to therefore have even more influence on hiring decisions.
I sent around 2-3 emails per day, pretty much every single day – I was pretty direct and told them explicitly I was interested in moving into investment banking or moving to their firm specifically, and that I wanted to get their thoughts on how best to position myself.
I would always request either a call or a meeting in the initial email, and would then spend most of the time asking about the other person’s background.
Q: What kind of resistance did you face because of your background? Was the part-time MBA program an issue, or was your non-finance background a bigger problem?
A: I was always very upfront about attending the part-time MBA program, and it was never an issue. When it came time for full-time recruiting, I already had an internship by then so no one looked at me differently.
My non-finance background was more of a problem – in every meeting I had they always said, “So why do you want to move into finance, and why now?”
By this point I had gotten really, really good at telling my “story” and answering these objections before they even came up, so that wasn’t much trouble after the first few informational interviews.
Q: What tactics were most effective in going from meetings and phone calls to actual interviews? Did you have to do anything differently at the MBA-level?
A: Not really – it was mostly just continuous pressure that led to interviews at most places. I kept emailing people and saying, “Just wanted to reiterate my interest in your firm, and re-visit our conversation.”
You can’t take it personally when you don’t get a response – a lot of people purposely ignore you just to assess how serious you are.
The (Partial) Results
Q: Ok, so you’re networking extensively… how did you end up with an internship?
A: Continuous pressure – I was speaking with a local bank and kept contacting them to say I was interested. I could tell they wanted an intern but weren’t 100% certain they actually wanted to hire one – those types of leads are often better to go after vs. places that have no clue what they want.
Q: And how well did you do in full-time recruiting with this internship under your belt?
A: I mentioned it was a really, really bad year, right? I interviewed with a lot of banks but came away with no full-time offers at well-known banks that year – even though I had done a ton of networking and actually had an investment banking internship.
Q: A lot of people would have probably given up or set their sights on a different field at this point. What did you do?
A: I decided to postpone my official graduation date by a year – just to keep myself “in school” – and I kept networking and ended up with an offer at a local boutique.
But it was quite a bit different from a large bank, and the learning opportunities were uneven – we spent a lot of time chasing after lower-probability deals.
The other problem was that it was unpaid – I received no base salary, and was paid only when deals closed.
That’s fine if you’re an MD with millions of dollars in savings, dozens of different clients, and you expect deals to close – but it was a huge issue when you’re just starting out and need to pay the bills.
M&I Note: One of the advantages of a part-time MBA program is that you can more easily move around your graduation date.
Moving Into Industry?
Q: Ok, so you’re at this small firm where the work you’re doing is not quite what you expected and where you’re not getting paid. What then?
A: I had to leave because of the lack of any base salary. I had worked on several deals and at least had something substantial to talk about in interviews now, so I felt that it had served its purpose.
One of the MDs was from a larger firm, and brought in a lot of deals – I worked with him a few times, so I got decent experience in the time I was there.
After leaving, I went to a local company “in industry” and became Director of Finance there.
Q: Most people would say that going FROM investment banking back TO industry is the kiss of death and that you can’t move back into finance if you’ve done that. What were you thinking?
A: I took the job because it was a management-level role and because it allowed me to interact with the CEO pretty much every day.
I knew I could leverage it for investment banking interviews in the future because now I could say, “I understand both finance AND how company executives in a particular industry think.”
It allowed me to go into investment banking interviews and say 2 things:
- I can get inside the heads of CEOs in this industry because I know exactly how they think.
- Other people are coming in from the Ivory Tower, but I have real-world experience related to investment banking.
Q: Right, but did banks actually take you seriously? Most people in finance view “industry” in a very negative way.
A: You need to get creative. Any experience is better than sitting on your butt doing nothing.
Believe it or not, this industry experience actually helped me more than my investment banking internships because I applied to matching industry groups, and it helped me stand out vs. everyone else.
Sure, in a perfect world we’d all work at Goldman Sachs – but things rarely go as planned, and you need to improvise and spin what you have into sounding relevant when that happens.
Back Into Banking?
Q: Ok, so you’re at this local company as Director of Finance for a few months now. How did you move back into banking after you had already left for industry?
A: It’s not as difficult as you might think, at least if you do it the right way. Here’s what I did:
- I considered A LOT of other options, like startup banks, public finance firms, and more – if nothing worked out in banking, I wanted a Plan B, C, and D.
- I never stopped networking – I continued talking to everyone and browsing my business school’s job board even after I had been through 2 other jobs by this point.
- I focused on highly relevant groups – investment banking industry groups that matched my background when I was Director of Finance at the local company. I made sure I wasn’t just applying for the sake of applying – I knew that I’d have to be more targeted given my history.
Q: How did you change around your resume in light of everything you had done – and how did you get it in the hands of bankers?
A: I re-wrote my entire resume to “bankify” it and to add more meaty material, focusing on what I had done at the boutique and also as Director of Finance at the local firm. It looked significantly better than when I had only had the internship from the year before.
I got interviews at a bulge bracket bank and at a well-known middle-market / boutique firm by applying to off-campus postings on my school’s job board.
I also noticed that I had spoken with a guy at the middle market / boutique firm a year ago when he was at a different bank, so I called him up again, told him I was interested in interviewing there, and got his thoughts on the company.
Q: Had you had any contact with him since you spoke with him a year ago?
A: Nope. I contacted lots of others I had last spoken with 2-3 years ago as well – obviously after that length of time you can’t go and request an in-depth conversation, but if you’re friendly and casually reach out to people, good things will happen.
A lot of people think you need to stay in touch with 500 industry contacts 24/7 and that the sky will fall if you don’t – but so few people ever bother networking that simply by reaching out at all you put yourself in an elite group.
Don’t obsess over details and individual words in emails… as long as you’re networking at all, you’re well ahead of most people.
Q: Ok, so you have 2 solid leads and interviews lined up at both the bulge bracket and the boutique / middle-market bank. What were interviews like, and how were they different from what an Analyst might face?
A: The interviews themselves were not dramatically different – it was the usual set of phone interviews, followed by in-person rounds later on, with technical and “fit” questions similar to what you normally see.
The bulge bracket featured a case study in their interview process, where I had to talk about how to analyze a company in a dying industry and how to establish what kind of cash flows they might achieve should they expand into more lucrative markets.
Overall the interviews were no more technical than what anyone else interviewing for entry-level positions might get, but they do expect you to be more polished at the MBA-level.
There was also more thought required – a lot of the questions were not standard “Walk me through a DCF”-type questions, but were about specific companies or more unusual scenarios.
Q: So how did the interviews go?
A: With the well-known boutique / middle-market bank, everything just clicked and I fit in with the team from the start, so I got an offer there. I came very close at the bulge bracket bank, but lost out to other candidates in the final round.
Q: Did you try to negotiate your salary or bonus at all?
A: No, because I felt the offer they gave me was in-line with the market as a whole, and that negotiating it might have damaged some of the goodwill – the relationship kind, not the accounting kind – that I had built up throughout the interview process.
I’m not even sure that it’s possible to negotiate much with well-established banks, at least for Analyst or Associate positions.
Future Plans & Final Thoughts
Q: You went through quite an ordeal to get into a well-known investment bank. Are you planning to stay there, or will you try to hop into PE as soon as you can?
A: At this point, I’m planning to stay here – for two reasons:
- My whole pitch was that I wanted to be a trusted advisor to companies and executives. I had to believe that for it to be believable, and I still do want to do that.
- Getting into PE is a fairly well-defined path, and it’s hard for anyone who hasn’t been an investment banking analyst.
If I got tired of banking at some point, I would probably look at opportunities within industry instead – I already have the experience and could easily go back to that.
While the life of an MD may not be all peachy, it would also be hard to leave if I got there one day.
For Associate-level interviews, you need to show that you’re committed to the industry for the long-term or else no one will take you seriously.
Q: You were very successful breaking into investment banking, even though your story had more than its fair share of twists and turns. Looking back on it, is there anything you would have done differently? Any advice for readers?
A: I made two main mistakes with networking:
- My tracking tool was very poor. I should have tracked the “temperature” of each lead to see whether each person was “warm” and to properly prioritize my efforts. I also should have included an agenda for each person with an idea of how he/she could be helpful – Referrals? Advice? Interviews?
- I failed to explore all avenues for networking – I completely neglected undergraduate alumni, professors, and people at my church, for example. While you could argue those are lower probability to begin with, all it takes is one.
My only other advice is to enjoy the networking process itself. If you don’t like talking to people, you’re never going to make it in the industry – as an investment banker you spend a lot of time emailing and calling people, even as an Analyst.
Have fun with it, and keep in mind that no matter how screwed you seem or how many “fatal” moves you make, you never lose unless you give up – just re-read my own story if you want a reminder of that.
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