From modest beginnings as a branch staff to middle office, asset finance and eventually within front office creating, structuring deals to both new and existing clients, Robert has certainly followed the right path to career progression. What was his path like and how did he exactly get here? Let us take a closer look at his banking career thus far.
IN THE BEGINNING
MMA. I like starting of the interview by asking what you wanted to be when you were you we’re young.
Robert. At about age 13-14 yrs old I wanted to be a boxer or I wanted to play the drums in a band.
MMA. Haha now that was unexpected!
Robert. Didn’t I ever tell you that?
MMA. No you didn’t actually.
Robert. Well I did but I do come from a family of engineers and there was always the expectation that I would also follow that path. That and the fact that my doctor told me that I have a bad nose that can easily be broken so there goes that idea.
MMA. Thank the heavens for your doctor then. So when you say that you come from a family of engineers, did you take that up in university?
Robert. No. I did an undergrad in accounting and economics in university so I went against family history anyway. I then applied to do my MBA in Finance UTS after as you can’t really do anything with an undergrad. It was at this point that I applied for my permanent residency here and decided that banking was the way to go.
MMA. So it was always banking that tickled your fancy during this time?
Robert. Well it was banking and the insurance industries. I applied for both and got accepted for both – one being with one of the big 4 banks and the other being with IAG. The role at IAG actually paid more but I thought banking had more opportunities.
MMA. Ok so take my through that path. Where in the bank did you start?
Robert. I started in the branch like a lot of grads while I was finishing my MBA in 2003. I did that for almost 2 years while finishing my MBA. I eventually moved into asset finance arm of another bank when the opportunity presented itself.
MMA. So that was a straight job application?
Robert. Yes it was. I could basically see more opportunities in middle office which is where I was within asset finance. It was straight middle office job – assessing risk. Being MO, we were working with Business Development Managers (BDM) getting deals through while of course, ensuring that it was within risk policy guidelines.
But to answer your question it was a straight job application while of course doing a sale on my MBA.
MMA. How did you enjoy that role?
Robert. Coming from a branch, it was very different at first but I became part of the furniture soon after. I quite enjoyed it because even though the role was not client facing, I still had an indirect interaction with them through the BDM’s. So I got to understand the importance of client requirements and relationships at that point.
MMA. Did “that point” last long? That is, did you stay there long?
Robert. Ah, so that leads into my next point which is the front office – where the action is! When I understood the dynamics of bank-client relationship in MO, I knew that I had to get into FO. This was really difficult at first and I received a few knock backs internally. I should point out that I work in one of the big 4 and there are always opportunities to move internally within a big bank.
So anyway the asset finance arm image within the bank was not that good. No one really understood what we did nor did they care. I faced the old catch-22 scenario; I needed FO experience to get to FO but I also needed someone to take a chance on me initially.
I finally found my golden opportunity with a 1 month secondment working in project finance which was a role created for me by my asset finance manager. Sorry, let me clarify that; my manager in asset finance worked out a deal with project finance team for me to work there for a month under his budget. So I was fortunate for having the support of my manager.
MMA. That sounds like an ideal manager to me.
Robert. Oh we got along well and he was a fantastic mentor. He really valued growth in an individual which is very hard quality to find in a manager.
So basically with that month experience in Project Finance, I applied once again as an analyst within FO until I received an offer internally in 07. This was within Institutional Banking as I really wanted to bypass Retail, Business and Corporate banking altogether.
MMA. Nice transition. Obviously part-tenacity, part-opportunity and part-dedication in your asset finance role for your manager to give you that extra push.
Robert. Yes, you can put it that way.
MMA. So around 2007 was your move into the Front Office. I know around 08 is when we first met at CFA level 1 workshops. Can you tell me how you approached studying and working at the same time. I know it can be quite intense.
Robert. I’m glad you remember. First, I’ll start of by saying that I quite like having the CFA charter under my name. Not for salary purposes but for a personal development side. I wanted to learn more and I am always hungry to know more and let me elaborate on that more. CFA level 1 did not give me anything new that my MBA already gave me. CFA level 2 introduced a few new things that my MBA did not cover while level 3 was a whole new ball game altogether. That was net new to me.
In terms of my work-study balance, as you know, before each exam I would take 3 weeks off for pure study. That included weekends. I basically dropped off the earth’s radar and did nothing but study. Of course I have a very understanding wife too.
Also in the weeks leading up to the exam, prior to the 3 week break, I would have a schedule where I had milestones that knew I had to hit if I wanted to get to where I wanted to be in terms of being fully prepared. And that scheduled included public holidays and weekends – there was no cheating in my study schedule, it was all meticulously planned.
MMA. This is what I always admired about you. You have that dog-hungry quality about you.
Robert. Haha, no one has really said dog-hungry but I’ll take that as a compliment.
MMA. So are you treated differently?
Robert. No, not really. I’m not an equity analyst nor am I a portfolio manager. Never wanted to be one. People still treat me the same as far as I can tell. I quite enjoy what I do you know. I have a nice work – life balance.
MMA. Work – life? But your originating deals. You guys have a horrible work – balance relative to other guys that work in the bank.
Robert. Well, yes and no. There are times when I do work the long hours don’t get me wrong. And there are times that we wine and dine clients on weekends and that’s just a given in the industry I work in. But what I do mean by work – life is that if I go over my standard 7.30 am – 6-6.30 pm then it’s my choice. If I was doing this for one of the I-banks, then this is not a “choice” but an expectation.
When we first met, I remember that I was pulling 7.30 am to 8 pm’s. Maybe that is what you are referring too.
MMA. So let me get your title right; it’s Associate Director within a big sector. Essentially working on a group of clients within that sector or industries where you identify opportunities for the bank, right?
Robert. Correct except your making me sound like a just like a sales man but I’m much more than just that! We on-board and keep on-going relations to ensure that the penetration is ok.
To give you are more complete picture, I work with a group of 7 people. Our institutional client base within our industries are generally split amongst us depending on size of the institution and the seniority / experience of the team member. Now that said, the Senior Director usually will be the lead for the larger clients but there is no stopping me from assisting him on big deals depending on the situation. It may be that my boss will look after the CEO, Board members and the like whereas I would look after The Treasurer, CFO or The Financial Controller.
But yes there’s no hard fast rule on this, it just depends on deal size and other variables where we have to throw more bodies working on any one deal.
Can I just add that banking these days is also very commoditized; you buy the people and the support because at the end of the day, it’s about the client and their requirements. So we have to ensure that our solutions, not our products, but our solutions are better than our competitors if we want to win and retain clients.
MMA. Thanks Robert, you pre-empted another question with that answer. Can we talk about a real life example here to give further context to the above. Perhaps let’s talk about a new client that you have worked on.
Robert. No problem. So one of the deals that we closed was with a US multinational who like a large portion of our clients, had subsidiaries here but the parent was in the US. Now this client previously banked with a lot of other banks and we had no relationship with them. Our guy in one of Asian offices just so happened to be a good friend of their CFO and he expressed the need to consolidate their banking with 1 bank. We have a global model so we identified the opportunity there and called our reps in the US to talk to firm’s headquarters. By the end of the day we had their requirements and worked on developing solutions.
MMA. So a nice Powerpoint by end of the day right?
Robert. Actually no Powerpoint and we were more expensive than some of pricing received elsewhere.
MMA. Really? More expensive and they banked with you?
Robert. But it’s not just about that. We will eventually save them more money through time and you know how the time value of money equation goes; spend money here, less time will be spent there in the future.
So it was definitely a big plus that we had the opportunity through an existing relationship. 1 good experience like that usually leads to the next one.
MMA. Ok so let’s talk about the solutions. What do you guys offer?
Robert. We have vanilla facilities which means that there are not too many Terms and Conditions associated with the deal relative to our other facilities. These are not subject to too many hurdles and are usually available for drawing immediately. In terms of the deal we were talking about, we arranged it very quickly. Within a couple of days in fact.
MMA. Can I interject and ask if your bank was able to do this in the past – say 5 years ago?
Robert. No, multi strategy wasn’t there and our capabilities e.g. our process and technology wasn’t there.
MMA. Ok thanks, always interested to hear that. As you were saying – vanilla..
Robert. Ah yes, vanilla deals are not as complicated as our complex deals where we have more conditions in the T&C’s. For example a merger or an acquisition – good old M&A. Suddenly, we bring in more lawyers and we have to deal with other banks. At time we also have syndicated deals. These structured deals are for specific accounts. There are times where we approach deals like PE firm and we leverage them up and their Debt-to-EBITDA goes from 3x to 6x therefore creating more P&L strain.
But yes the vanilla ones are usually for day to day operations of a business, your working cap with not a lot of restrictions. They are for general company purposes and they do not generally shock your Capex.
MMA. Thanks for breaking that down. So what do you do in your typical day?
Robert. 7.30 hit work, read the news. AFR, market updates, emails. It could reading things like the Facebook to Instagram deal to just keep up with industry trends. And can I just divert from my typical day by saying that I was able to identify a deal by reading the news?
MMA. By all means, do tell.
Robert. I was reading about one of our existing clients who went to press stating that they were on the lookout for a data centre. I had a close working relationship with the CFO from this company and called him up about it. It turns out that it was their strategy area that went to press and they did not consult him about the strategy. To cut a long story short, I worked on the deal with them because at the end of the day it was about relationships and trust.
MMA. There you go. The benefits of reading the news!
Robert. Haha, exactly! So I’m sorry, back to my day. Majority of it, about 40%, is taken up by admin; compliance, reviewing proposals, business development, reviewing APRA guidelines and monitoring structured deals.
I also have to write these love letters to risk on variance, explaining cyclical nature of industry, checking the ratios and absolute numbers e.g. EBIT / Sales. But let me stress that every client is different. A decreasing number for one client may be bad news for that client but may not necessarily spell out “bad times” for another. But yes these risk notes have to encompass full P&L, Balance Sheet and Cash Flow analysis.
I’d say 10% is spent on wining and dining clients either during the week or weekends. And on weekends its usually sport which spells Golf for the most part.
We also have general team catch-ups. We usually talk about strategy; how we can grow revenue base, how to develop relationships because as mentioned we are product agnostic and more solutions-based.
MMA. Good stuff Robert. So at this point I need to ask where are you headed?
Robert. You know I find it difficult to see myself as a CEO. Let me explain. I believe that they have challenging personal lives. Responsibilities increase as you go up the ladder. When we send our CEO an email, he responds quick smart. You would think that it would be the opposite but I guess he knows that if it comes to him then its information he has to enact upon immediately. So in perspective, we are but one team and I am sure he gets these messages everywhere.
But I would like to run my own team and slide into a Senior Director role one day. I want to have that P&L ownership as I want to be graded for my entire segment and proudly say “I grew that segment”.
I also enjoy working for a place that has global strategy so that I can gain international experience. I like meeting people of different cultures. Also would be good to one day do other sectors.
MMA. Sounds all good Robert. A final question for you; how do you wind down?
Robert. This will sound strange but I check my Blackberry constantly even on holidays. But let me set the record straight; I have an agreement with my wife that I answer urgent emails once then don’t revisit them thereafter.
I do sport as well, Golf and Tennis. I do Yoga everyday too. And oh how could I forget, I love cooking! I like trying different things in the kitchen – now that’s another passion of mine.
Robert’s identity has been masked upon his request. This blog uses real people who have extensive experience within the Australian Banking and IT industry.
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