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.
This is the main difference – banks in the top 5 cities for finance in the US focus on a different industry:
- NYC: Diversified
- Chicago: Industrials
- Houston: Oil & Gas
- San Francisco: Technology / Healthcare
- Los Angeles: Gaming & Lodging / Media
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.
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.
But aside from those differences, the actual quality of exit opportunities doesn’t differ as much as you might expect.
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.)
“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.
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.
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Why You Can’t Break Into Private Equity as a Foreigner in China
Despite my repeated warnings that emerging markets don’t care about you – only people who know the language, have connections, and are qualified to work there – this question won’t go away:
“I really want to work in China! How can I break into finance there? I’ve studied Mandarin for 5 years and I can read faster than Chinese people now! Show me how to get into PE!”
I’ve gotten tired of answering that one, so today you’ll hear from someone much better qualified to answer it than me: a reader who works in private equity in China.
He’ll tell you all about:
- How to network your way into the industry and how it’s different from PE in the US/Europe.
- Why foreigners are getting pushed out of the industry and why you’d have to be “crazy” to go work there these days.
- What you should do instead if you want to do business in China.
- How the pay and work culture differ from other parts of the world.
How It All Began
Q: Can you walk us through your background and how you broke into private equity in China?
A: Sure. I was a newly minted MBA, and back in 2005-2006, China’s PE market was much less developed.
I went to AVCJ’s annual conference in Hong Kong, networked like mad there, and got an internship helping a small fund with a capital raise. That fund later went on to become the #1 PE fund in China, and I rode their coattails to success.
I still believe that conference, among others, is the best way to break in but today it would be almost impossible to follow the same path if you’re a foreigner.
There are way too many local Chinese who work or study abroad and then return home, and too many bankers eager to move into PE.
And even though I’ve been here for years, even I have been getting pushed out of the industry – just like all other foreigners.
To be frank, I wish I had heeded the warnings of others and had spent the time breaking in to PE in the US/EU instead. Now, nearly six years later, I don’t think I’ve had the experience and training I would have had in the more developed markets.
So, if you’re a foreigner, be kind to yourself – don’t try to get into PE in China. If you absolutely must have your China experience, feel free to come over, but focus more on “bridging” roles, like investment banking, sales & trading, and so on.
PE is a local market, and in China, it is hyper-local. Five years of Mandarin won’t cut it; heck, near-native-fluent Chinese won’t cut it.
Even foreign-born Chinese, Taiwanese, Singaporeans, and people from Hong Kong have a tough time finding roles here because they’re also too foreign. You were either born and raised here, or you weren’t – and if you weren’t, you’ll always be an outsider no matter how much baijiu you can drink.
Now, if you are from mainland China, then there’s still a lot of opportunity.
I would recommend coming here in that case, because there’s more going on and if you can hack the local game you can get some great deal exposure and you might even make a fortune in the process.
Q: OK, let me stop you right there because I want to return to that topic of how you actually break in at the end.
So most foreigners would face a near-impossible battle to get in, but what is the private equity industry in China like?
What types of deals and companies do you focus on, and is it mostly local firms or international ones that make investments?
A: The industries themselves are diversified – you see manufacturing, state-owned-enterprise commercialization, consumer/retail, clean-tech, software and IT, energy, construction, infrastructure, healthcare and so on.
Many firms are still generalists with certain sectors of expertise / focus, but a few sector funds have sprung up as the market has matured – there are a few healthcare funds, a few clean-tech funds, a few technology funds, and a few consumer / retail funds.
Local funds and international funds are completely, 100% different animals.
The local funds staff huge teams – sometimes up to 100 investment professionals in a firm – and the pay therefore is lower, there’s often little formal training. You may struggle to get noticed and find a mentor, and it’s tough to navigate the political environment.
But the local firms do most of the deals, whereas international firms are having trouble closing anything.
Some of the regional funds (such as Barings, HSBCPE, Actis, etc.) are able to get some good deals done, but PE firms such as Carlyle, TPG, and so on, don’t see much action here.
- Local PE Firm: More deal exposure, but no structured training, and lower compensation.
- International PE Firm: Brand, better pay and training, but lower chance of closing deals – which will hurt your CV.
Friends here have been frustrated at both types of firms – those at local firms feel underpaid and under-appreciated, and those at international firms complain about never closing deals.
Q: Right, so you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place there.
What’s your average day like in terms of responsibilities and work? Is it mostly due diligence and modeling, or do you get more “random” tasks?
A: So far I’ve focused more on fundraising and investor relations than anything else. When I first joined this firm I started out as a deal guy, but once there were more skilled locals in the market, my role was shifted to fundraising.
I actually don’t mind that since I enjoy fundraising more than deals – analysis and due diligence can get repetitive, and you see companies at such a high-level that everything starts to look the same after awhile.
The good part about fundraising is that I get a lot more exposure to Limited Partners than if I were in the US or EU – there’s a lot of potential there for future networking since they all know who I am now.
Sometimes it does get repetitive telling the same story to potential investors, but that’s true of any sales job or even if you’re the CEO of a company.
Q: So they’re pretty much limiting the investment/deal work to locals?
A: Yes. Again, I would actively discourage foreigners from trying, unless you really have native-level Mandarin (beyond just “fluency”).
The nature of the job for locals or returnees, however, is compelling.
The deal professionals get to explore very interesting companies across a whole spectrum of industries, and the work includes due diligence and business analysis, which involves researching an industry by speaking with experts, interviewing the company’s management, and speaking with competitors.
You do some financial modeling, but it’s not really meaningful – at least not in the traditional sense.
Most businesses are growing so quickly that standard models are meaningless. With 50-100% revenue growth rates, analyses like the DCF break down and even valuation multiples don’t tell you much if the company is growing at that rate.
Investors spend their time on industry and management team analysis, and most of their time is spent deciding which industry is best to invest in, whether the target company can become a market leader, and whether or not they can trust the management team.
Trust is still a major issue in China, and you can’t depend on legal documents to be truly binding – they are a framework, but interpretation and enforceability are questionable.
So half of your due diligence time might be spent understanding the psychology of the management team – particularly the founder. If you’re depending on your closing documents to protect you, then you’re already in trouble before the ink is dry.
What about the pay and work culture there? I’m assuming that pay is lower on an absolute basis, but higher relative to the cost of living?
A: Pay varies greatly between local and international firms. Foreign firms here pay about average global pay for PE – so between $150K and $250K USD all-in for associates.
Local PE firms pay less – maybe around $90K USD for new associates.
In 1990 or 2000 those figures might have been a ton of money in China, but over the past 10 years the cost of living here has skyrocketed and places like Beijing and Shanghai aren’t as cheap as they used to be.
They are still less expensive than New York, and so you won’t starve on $90k per year. But it just isn’t the bargain it used to be. The tax rate is also higher than in Hong Kong – up to 30-40% vs. about 15% in HK – so that also eats up a good chunk of your pay.
Bottom-line: you will make less in PE here compared to the US / Europe, and you’ll make significantly less working at a local firm. You have to decide if it’s worth it, and that trade-off makes little sense unless you’re truly committed to staying in this market for the long-term.
Q: What about carry? Since the market is less developed do they give that to associates or anyone less senior than MDs?
A: Carry is almost always restricted to the senior MDs here.
There is a very patriarchal/monarchical feeling at many of the firms – you’re either a rain-making MD who brings in deals, or you’re commoditized execution.
This may sound just like the US and EU, and to a certain extent it is – just a more extreme version of the usual investment banking hierarchy.
It’s not unheard of for just a few guys at the top to get all the carry and for everyone else to get nothing. That creates a situation where the guys at the top are making literally millions (or billions) and everyone else below them is making base pay, keeping their fingers crossed for bonuses, and hoping to climb up the pyramid for a shot at some equity… hopefully… someday… maybe.
That said, those who did manage to get a slice of the carry are probably looking at returns that could easily fund a comfortable retirement in just a few years’ time. Many of the funds have returned 3-5x, and have had IRRs of over 100%, so the carry really is making some people incredibly wealthy.
Again though, carry is not awarded to the non-MD investment professionals. Yes, it can be similarly lopsided in the US/Europe, but at least as you move up you’ll earn progressively closer to what MDs and Partners make, and eventually you will get carry even if you’re not the top person at the firm. In China, carry is just shared among a small number of hands.
Foreigners, Abandon All Hope?
Q: Let’s go back to why it’s so tough for foreigners in the China PE market. Do you have any foreign co-workers, or are they all locals from mainland China who worked or studied abroad and returned home?
A: There are fewer than 10-15 foreigners working full-time in the entire PE industry in China, and we all know each other.
Most of us have been pushed out from deal work and, like me, focus more on fundraising and investor relations.
Q: OK, but I’m sure there must be a few foreigners there in high-up positions? One of our other interviewees mentioned that the MD at her firm was foreign.
A: There are some exceptions. For example, a few foreigners got in 5-10 years ago as founding MDs of their firms, so they have unique positions.
But the rest of us – other investment professionals – have been mostly pushed out. There was one other guy who was relocated to Asia by a major international PE shop, but he was then axed to free up the position so that a local could be brought in instead. And he was a senior officer with 10 years+ of PE experience and fluent Mandarin.
Q: OK, point taken – but wouldn’t knowing the language give you a big advantage and let you compete more effectively with people from mainland China?
Becoming 100% fluent in written and spoken Mandarin has about a 1% chance of helping you break into private equity here.
These “exceptions” I’ve referenced were already 100% fluent in the language and could read and write extremely well, and they were still pushed out.
Most of the foreigners here are now in fundraising roles, even if they worked at bulge bracket investment banks before and earned MBAs from top schools.
No one is interested in foreign professionals anymore, and it’s not even about the language – it’s that the work culture and deal environment here are so local.
It’s not like some countries (the US and UK) where anyone who can learn the language can advance to the top. They heavily favor locals and will tolerate foreigners, but will never fully accept them.
That’s why I’m making such a strong recommendation against coming here to work in PE – it’s just not realistic with the current state of the market.
You could spend years studying and learning the language, then more years struggling to break in, only to find yourself sidelined and underutilized because they don’t care how good you are or how much experience you have, only that you’re not a mainland Chinese who can bring in deals and charm the local entrepreneur.
Q: Not exactly the rosiest picture there…
Let’s say that someone is really interested in doing business in China – would you tell them to just give up altogether, or just to forget about PE?
A: If you’re from here originally, have family/connections, and want to go back home, China is great. There are opportunities in PE, banking, consulting, and entrepreneurship – you name it. The rapid growth engenders opportunity.
But if you’re a foreigner, and you absolutely, positively can’t get China out of your mind, then you can take your best shot.
However, if you want to make the leap I would steer clear of PE and focus on other areas like investment banking, investor relations, consulting, or being the CFO of a company.
In those areas, international experience/exposure is more valued and you don’t actually have to be Chinese to fulfill the role.
Oh, yes, and make sure you get to 100% fluency in Chinese – reading, writing, speaking, and listening; obviously reading and writing are the hardest parts and will consume 95% of your time.
Q: Out of curiosity, why do you think there is such a strong bias against foreigners in PE?
A: Similar to venture capital in the US, Europe, and other markets, private equity is a hyper-local business here. You need to be here on the ground communicating directly with management teams to have any chance of winning good deals.
They favor locals because they know that they have connections and are better able to reach local businesses; plus, they understand the culture implicitly and won’t get “rejected” by entrepreneurs nearly as much as foreigners.
Also, both the local and international firms must project an image of being local from a marketing standpoint – whether they are showing their local chops to entrepreneurs, the government, and especially their own LP investors.
Q: So we’ve established why you don’t want to work in PE as a foreigner in China.
But let’s say that someone reading this is from mainland China, has studied or worked abroad, and is returning home – how would he or she go about breaking into private equity?
A: It’s all about networking and conferences here. You need to go to the AVCJ conference in Hong Kong and the SuperReturn China conference, and then do a lot of networking with people you meet there. Bring 300 or so business cards, meet everyone, and try to set up side-line meetings in advance.
You should also connect with friends who work at the firm you’re interested in and who can help you get in touch with the senior staff (MDs or CEOs). Business school classmates and alumni can also help.
Some of the larger domestic firms have also been going to business schools lately to recruit there, so that’s another option as well.
If you’re returning home and want to be here long-term it’s still a great time to get into the industry, since you can join a fast-growing firm and rise to leadership. The competition is tough, but it’s possible to break in and advance, and the rewards are certainly there.
It definitely gets more competitive each year, but since most PE firms are looking for people with very specific profiles you have a much better shot of getting into PE here than you would by competing with the broader market in the US or Europe.
Q: Are there any differences they should be aware of with recruiting, CVs/resumes, and interviews?
A: The main difference is that you don’t need investment banking experience to get into private equity here.
Technically this is not true in developed countries, either, but let’s be honest: the majority of people who break into PE have done banking or something similar like management consulting or Big 4 Transaction Advisory Services.
But in China, most PE professionals are not from an investment banking background, so they don’t expect you to have that experience either.
It’s really about networking, meeting the right people at conferences, following up with them and being persistent until they give you interviews.
CVs/resumes are not much different, and in interviews they’ll ask similar questions though there’s obviously less focus on modeling and deal experience; it’s more about “fit” and your general knowledge of how to analyze businesses.
Q: Great, thanks for your time. And I hope your situation improves and that you can find a better role in the future.
A: No problem – enjoyed sharing my story even if it sounded a bit pessimistic at times. And yes, I’m working on other roles right now….
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Bottles and Bottles? How You Really Win Clients and Land Mega-Deals as an Investment Banker
Why does the mainstream media hate Wall Street so much?
You can think of dozens of reasons, but one of the biggest is that they don’t understand what bankers really do to earn their fees.
They see news of million-dollar bonuses and assume that financiers earn those bonuses by sitting around and playing Monopoly.
But you don’t earn massive fees by playing board games all day – it’s a process that takes years, which is one reason why bankers make the money they do.
And the infamous “pitch” has very little to do with it.
It’s All About the Pitch, Right?
The most common, wrong suggestion I’ve seen before is that “Bankers win clients by pitching them.”
But that’s like saying that you got into Harvard or Oxford by submitting a really good application – technically true, but not the full story.
Yes, the application is critical and if your essays suck, you’re screwed – but you got into a top school because you spent years developing the skills and experiences to do so, and you then presented them in the best possible light.
It’s the same with winning clients as a banker: your pitch needs to be on-point for you to win the deal, but the process of putting yourself in the position to pitch for the deal starts long before that.
What Really Happens
As you move up from Associate to VP and beyond, gradually you’re tasked with more and more sourcing work: finding potential clients, getting to know them, and then pitching for a deal when the time is right.
Managing Directors spend almost no time on deal execution – unless it’s a massive transaction that requires their involvement – and instead spend most of their time on finding new clients and serving existing ones.
If you already work with a company on all their M&A deals and your bank has been advising them for the past 20 years, you’ll probably continue to do so in the future.
Like legacy admissions in university or Roger Sterling and Lucky Strike, it’s a good bet that you’ll receive the benefit of all that history unless you make a colossal screw-up.
So it’s more interesting to look at how you find new clients – companies your bank has never worked with before.
This entire process is more applicable to smaller firms than to bulge bracket banks, because there the “legacy” factor is high and you mostly work with huge companies that everyone already knows about.
But even at huge firms, you still need to find new clients because existing companies get acquired, merge, and go out of business all the time.
In sales, a “lead” is just a potential customer – someone who might sign up for the products or services you’re offering.
It’s the same idea in banking, but since your leads are fewer in number and are worth much more, some strategies don’t work so well.
What Doesn’t Work
Strategies like online marketing (paying for ads on websites, Google, Facebook, etc.), TV/radio/direct mail advertising, and posting flyers would never work.
It may sound silly to even point this out, but I’ve actually seen some banks use Google AdWords to market themselves to clients and I have no idea why they bother.
All these methods are too impersonal – it’s like walking into Armani and having a robot display a list of recommended clothes for you rather than having a real live person greet you, chat for a while, find out what you’re looking for, and then suggest something good.
When the number of clients is low and the per-client value is high, you need to get very personal to make deals happen.
PE / VC / HF Referrals
One way to do this is to go through your friends on the buy-side, see what portfolio companies they have, what sectors they’re interested in, and who else they’ve been speaking with lately.
Let’s say you’re an MD who has worked with a private equity firm for 10+ years. At your next catch-up meeting with them, you might casually ask how their portfolio companies are doing (translation: are any of these companies ready to sell, refinance debt, or go public?).
If the PE Partner likes you and wants to give you business, he might refer you to the CEO or CFO and say, “Hey portfolio company, this banker’s good – you should get to know him.”
Or if a deal is imminent, he might tell you directly: “They’re going public next year, and the pitch is coming up next month – we’ll be sure to include you.”
In tech and healthcare groups, venture capitalists are arguably more important and bankers get referrals to startups via VCs.
Just like with your own networking efforts, cold-calling is less effective than meeting in-person first or getting referrals – but sometimes it works.
You’re far more likely to see cold-calling at smaller banks where you have to fight for every deal – and if you’re a summer analyst there you might get tasked with poring through lists of companies and finding contact information.
Cold-calling is also more common at small and middle-market private equity firms, some of which are notorious for making their newly hired associates cold-call companies all day long.
Bankers also spend a lot of time on the conference circuit, meeting with executives at events (CES, Davos, etc.).
These are like information sessions: if you can stand out from everyone else and then follow-up appropriately, your chances of success go way up.
The real action at conferences happens offstage, so bankers skip keynotes and panels and schedule as many 1-on-1 meetings as possible during the day.
Wouldn’t it be nice if banks just called you when they wanted to hire someone?
When companies want to sell or raise capital, they sometimes contact banks directly – this scenario is much more likely when a lesser-known company wants to work with a bulge bracket bank and has no other way to get on their radar.
Sometimes investors also contact bankers directly and provide the introduction, especially if they’re pressuring the company to sell so they can realize their returns.
Wining & Dining: Building the Relationship
Once you’ve contacted or been contacted by the executives at this potential client, you need to build the relationship.
If it’s an inbound contact and they urgently need to sell or raise capital, you won’t do this and you may be asked to pitch for the business right away.
But if the deal is further off in the future, you need to take time to build trust and convince the CEO that you’re not just another Gordon Gekko or Patrick Bateman character waiting in the shadows to decapitate him and steal all his money.
You do that by:
- Coming up with acquisition ideas and meeting with the executives to discuss what areas they might want to expand into.
- Giving market updates to the executives and telling them what’s going on in the M&A or capital markets.
- Meeting casually for lunch or dinner to catch up on what the company has been doing and their future plans.
- Being “on call” to answer whatever questions they have, whenever they have them.
The tricky part is that you don’t get paid for any of this – and the entire process could take years before you see any revenue.
Sure, making $10 million on a single deal sounds great – but if it takes 10 years of relationship building to get there, the NPV is much lower than $10 million.
This is the slowest and most extended part of the “client-winning” process, and if you’re not interested in relationships, this is where you’ll fail.
But if you like meeting and greeting and can’t stand Excel, then you might make a great MD – even if you’re a lousy analyst.
How does a company decide when it should sell, buy another company, go public, or raise capital?
Sometimes it’s forced to sell by investors who want to realize their returns (Amazon / Zappos) – going back to our theme of NPV, the longer an investment stays unrealized, the harder it is to get solid returns.
Other times the executives reach the decision themselves – the CFO looks at their cash flow projections and realizes their burn rate is too high, so they decide to raise debt or equity.
And still other times, bankers “plant” the idea in the CEO’s mind.
While you don’t have to plant this idea in a dream within a dream within a dream within a dream, you do have to be subtle about it – going out and blatantly pitching an LBO won’t work even if you really want a PE firm to buy the company you’re speaking with.
Instead, bankers are more likely to make casual references to private equity firms and leveraged buyouts elsewhere in the market when they meet with the company to discuss other topics.
Over time, if the CEO and Board buy into the idea or show interest, the bankers keep selling them on it and gradually start to reveal more and more information.
The best bankers – the true rain-makers – are the ones who are best at “selling” the company on a transaction, even if the management team had no interest initially.
Regardless of whether the idea was planted or original, once the company decides it’s ready to sell or raise capital, it then pits bankers against each other in a bake-off.
Sometimes if a company has a special relationship with just 1 banker and has never spoken to others, it will skip the pitch and give the business to that banker.
But that’s more common at private and smaller companies where there’s not as much oversight from the Board of Directors – at anything bigger the Board usually requires the management team to solicit competitive offers.
At this point they would contact all the bankers they’ve gotten to know over the years and tell them what they’re planning, send over relevant financial information, and invite them to pitch for the deal.
The number of banks invited depends on the deal type – IPOs have many banks, whereas in M&A deals there’s just 1 or 2 advising the buyer and seller – and whether or not the company wants to stick with the bankers it knows best or go for a broader set.
Who Wins the Deal?
This must come down to whether or not you’ve dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s in your pitch book, right? And whether or not you remembered to change the font size on every single page, right?
Nope – most of the time the pitch book itself is irrelevant to winning the deal, even if you pulled 4 all-nighters to create it.
What matters is how much the company likes the senior bankers, what the senior bankers say, and how they say it – and what they say compared to the other bankers pitching for the deal.
Let’s say you go in and claim that the company is worth $500 million and that you can complete the sale process in 6 months. Then another banker goes in and says the company is worth $400 million and that the sale process will take 12 months.
You might assume that you’ll win since your claims are more aggressive and will result in a better price for investors – and sometimes that’s true.
But the CEO and other Board members/executives could also look at your pitch and think that your numbers are unrealistic and that you’re not being honest – especially if everyone else there is predicting lower valuations.
So you need to use a careful blend of salesmanship and pragmatism to win deals.
After the Pitch
There may be a clear “winner,” but more often than not, the company will follow up with multiple banks to see what the fee structures are like and what their recommendations are in more detail.
For smaller companies and deals, the fees make a bigger difference and sometimes a bank will win the deal by promising lower fees or a structure that rewards them for better results (e.g. 0.75% under $500 million and 1.5% for the amount above $500 million).
Most of the time, though, it comes down to all of the above factors and the company considers everything when making a decision.
This is not a rational or logical process – just like selecting which applicants will receive interviews, it’s random and fraught with emotion.
If you think executives are rational just because hundreds of millions or billions of dollars are involved, nothing could be further from the truth – sometimes the more money that’s involved, the less rational the deal (AOL / Time Warner).
Putting everything together, here’s an example of how you, after you become a Managing Director, might meet a CEO, develop the relationship, and then pitch for the deal:
5 years ago you were having a catch-up meeting with a local VC and he mentioned that a tech startup in their portfolio was hot and would change the world of online media.
He gave you an introduction, so you met with the CEO, learned about his vision for the business, and got an idea of the company’s financial performance.
A year later, you caught up with the CEO once again and gave him an update on the capital markets and what IPOs were pricing at. The company was not yet cash flow-positive, but they had killer revenue growth.
The next year (3 years ago), the IPO markets were closed but the CEO wanted to use his stock to acquire smaller competitors – so you ran a buy-side M&A process for him over the course of 6 months. It never went anywhere since they couldn’t find anything good and got distracted by other issues.
Then, 2 years ago, the company finally turned cash flow-positive and started thinking about an IPO, which they told you about during your quarterly meeting with them.
You made your analyst monkey stay awake for 60 hours straight to prepare a 200-page pitch book laying out all the nuances, but then the CEO decided to hold off until the market got better.
Finally, a few weeks ago the CEO contacted you again just before another meeting and said that they are now serious about selling and want to hear your thoughts – so he invited you in to pitch for the deal.
Not only did this process take 5 years, but there’s no guarantee that this planned sell-side M&A deal will even happen – or that the mandate will go to your bank.
Maybe no one will be interested; maybe the CEO will change his mind yet again; or maybe investors will pressure them to go public instead.
And you ran a failed buy-side M&A process for them a few years ago.
This is why investment banking is such a tough business: you could do everything right for 5 years and still lose the deal because your fees are 0.1% too expensive, or because the CEO gets emotional and happens to like an unknown banker more.
Wait, This Sounds Boring!
One time I was explaining this process to a friend who was still in university and he said, “Wow that sounds boring – I’d rather do modeling and analytical work.”
If your IQ is higher than your EQ, it may not sound too appealing to develop relationships like this and constantly pitch for new business.
But as Jonathan Knee points out in The Accidental Investment Banker (highly recommended), all deals start to look the same after a while.
You learn a lot at first and valuing and modeling companies seems exciting when you’re new, but they become routine and boring once you’ve done them 500 times.
We’re more interested in stories and inter-personal drama than we are in staring at Excel all day – so even if the process above doesn’t sound interesting right now, you may change your mind in a few years.
You might assume that you should move to the buy-side if you’re not interested in any of this, but that’s only partially true – in PE and VC you still do a lot of relationship-building, meeting with new companies, and so on.
So if it’s really not your cup of tea, think about hedge funds or trading – where you can make bank without talking to people or leaving your 8 computer screens.
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