Name: Cassandra (Ngoc) Nguyen
Top Qualities: Can-Do attitude, Dares to dream
Valuation File: MMA Real People – Valuation Analyst.xlsx
The Preamble: Picture coming to this country as an international student with no support. That’s potentially a bad mix of language and cultural challenges – on top of the proverbial loneliness. Most struggle. Some really thrive in the situation.
Our next interviewee:
- sought the opportunity and is giving it a real ‘Go’;
- had 3 part-time jobs on top of her university work – all the while winning an honours, a Masters and a PhD scholarship; and
- landed a role in one of the most prestigious valuation firms in Australia.
The force is strong with this one. Let’s hear it from the woman-of-the-moment.
— IN THE BEGINNING —
MMA. Thank you for joining me today Ngoc.
Ngoc. My pleasure. Thank you for having me.
MMA. So my usual opening question is – What did you want to be when you were young?
Ngoc. When I was about six or seven years old I wanted to be a Homicide Investigator.
MMA. ..and this is the part where I politely move away from you.
Ngoc. Hahah. It wasn’t that bad. I actually got that from Murder Call which was an Australian TV series made way back when. My mum and I used to watch it and can I just say that it was rated PG and not an M.
MMA. Ahh so I’m safe to move back closer to the table.
Ngoc. Yes, feel free. Hehe.
I really enjoyed that entire aspect on how the chief protagonist used their knowledge in areas of Biology, Mathematics and so on to solve the case. But I realised I’m not a great with guns so I had to move away from that dream.
And so when I was in junior high I used to be very good in history. So I used to want to be an archaeologist. But you know this was way back when I was in my country and there was just no money in it. The wealthiest man back in my country was in business so I really had to steer my way towards that area more than anything.
MMA. It’s a necessary evil isn’t it. I’m sure if we all had our way to have a choice of professions that paid enough, half of us wouldn’t be doing what we are doing now.
Ngoc. Yes, I’m sure that would be true.
MMA. And so what was the background of your family.
Ngoc. I actually destroyed my parents dream of continuing the tradition of having a Science family. My dad has his PhD in Chemistry while my mum is a lecturer in Physics. I attended a gifted school and majored in Maths, Physics and Chemistry. So hey, I did try. But in the end I wanted to do something more practical with Maths which is where Finance came in.
I actually did a year in a half uni-work in Foreign Trade University majoring in Economics prior to coming over here.
Getting here and university life
MMA. So how did that work out? When you came here, did you have to do a bridging course or something like that?
Ngoc. No it wasn’t like that to begin with. When I came here, I start university from scratch as I wanted to learn the basics from the perspective of how it is being taught here. I didn’t want to miss out on anything you know.
And you know I never really have regrets coming here as I have learned a lot. And I mean a LOT. I cannot emphasize that enough.
Financial markets is not as sophisticated where i come from as it is here.
MMA. Hey, you never know. I’m sure it will grow and develop in to something bigger one of these days and you may be tempted to go back. You will start running the place!
Ngoc. Yeh, something like that. Well I don’t really know what I want to do yet..
MMA. ..don’t worry, I don’t.
MMA. And I’ve been at it for quite a while.
Ngoc. Haha. Yes. So let me talk more about the dilemma I faced at the beginning of 2011.
Ngoc. I don’t know if you saw description in my LinkedIn page but basically after the bachelors, any international student that intends to do an honours could apply. So out of all those applications, they give out a scholarship to one student. That’s each faculty within the university applying and only one person will win out of all those faculties. So I was grateful to win that one for Applied Finance.
This coincided with winning an Honours degree in Applied Finance too which I was very pleased about because instead of expanding my knowledge horizontally through Economics, I wanted to expand vertically…or at least I should attempt to. Its more like a deep dive into an area rather than having knowledge here and there.
MMA. You wanted to specialise.
Ngoc. Yes and that’s why I turned down the Masters scholarship for Economics as my Bachelors was in Applied Finance already.
MMA. Got you. So can I read your achievements at this point in from an earlier scribble note I made; You won a university medal in finance…you have a background in research and tutoring other students in the same field. Can you tell me briefly what it takes to achieve these outstanding results. What did you have to sacrifice? Do you surround yourself with people of like mind i.e. do you also have overachieving friends? Do you have any downtime?
Ngoc. Its taken a lot of effort that’s for sure. But you know, upon reflection, I didn’t have any sleepless nights. I always slept.
MMA. You’re a natural.
Ngoc. Hmmm. Well around my bachelor year, I usually had two or three part time jobs and I was still able to go out every weekend.
MMA. OMG. You’re a freak. Kids…don’t try this at home!
Ngoc. Haha. I would take that as a compliment from you. The key thing is to use your time efficiently so you could still have time to enjoy your life. It is a study-work-life balance kind of thing. But you know, during my honours year, I only had time for one job which was tutoring in University itself. It was one of the Actuarial subjects which really helped my honours. And I learned sooo much. I developed my research skills, my writing skills…my coding skills. I had to write in Matlab. It’s a very useful software.
MMA. That’s a very common tool in university for Maths isn’t it?
Ngoc. It is. Although its not just Maths. Its any engineering and science subject.
MMA. I’m sure one day you will be doing your PhD.
Ngoc. Not 100% sure yet but highly likely.
MMA. Fair enough.
Ngoc. But regarding all the research, writing and coding work, that related to my thesis which is on risk management. Its based on empirical studies I collated. I had financial models which I’ve used to evaluate which one is the best model. So when I say ‘the best’ I know that you really can’t say it’s ‘the best’.
MMA. Best at a point-in-time based on your sample?
Ngoc. Something like that.
You know I really like it and enjoy it. It’s given me some very good experience but I have sacrifice a lot.
MMA. It can’t be a lot as your still going out and about all hours..
Ngoc. ..but I tried to manage my time in the most efficient way as I could. My down time is very important to me as I can just switch off and relax. When you start stressing about work, that’s when you know that you have to switch off before you drive yourself crazy. So having some down time is very important. When I do eventually come back to my work, I always feel refreshed with lots of energy and a clean mind.
STEP 1 in building Firm Foundations: DO AN INTERNSHIP
MMA. A very good point and it sure sounds like you have it all balanced out.
So tell me, did you do an internship while at university.
Ngoc. Yes I did. I did a short one at a taxation firm. I did some basic data entry, some bank reconciliation. I even did some receptionist-work. But a lot of people overlook these skills; you know…how to talk to people over the phone…how to greet them and so on.
MMA. Soft skills are very important in my book.
Ngoc. Yes they are. And I was also able to do very basic Accounting stuff. Then I realised that Accounting wasn’t my thing.
MMA. Well that’s a good thing that you figured that early on.
Ngoc. Exactly. That’s another one of the hidden benefits an internship can give you; the opportunity to find out if you really enjoy something or not. This was in the context of a small office so I had a chance to do a bit of everything. But yes I would encourage any international students coming here to seek work in the field relevant to their degree by taking these small steps.
Some Resources include:
- Macquarie University’s students;
- CareerOne, Seek and other job sites;
- Select HR and consulting firms also have these as a free resource in their sites;
- For International Students – ISAB. They assist in both internships and direct job placements.
STEP 2: CONSTRUCT YOUR PROFILE AND IMAGE CAREFULLY
MMA. So just bouncing off that point – when I look at your LinkedIn profile, I really like how you have bridged that gap between being a student and coming into the workforce. To be very honest, a lot of people that have a similar background, do not understand how to pull it all together and a recruiter might be going through hundreds of CV’s and profiles out there. Your LinkedIn profile reads quite nice:
- you’re a medallist winner in your field,
- you did research role,
- you’ve become a tutor and
- now you’re an analyst in one of the top valuation firms in the country.
So throughout that journey, you knew what detail to put, where…and that is rare skill that other people have not come to grips with.
Ngoc. I was actually seeking some professional help from people in the industry on how to structure it best and even before that, how should I go from point A, being a student, to point B, joining a firm of choice in the field I wanted.
MMA. Well those guys that guided you to this path did an exceptional job!
Ngoc. I will let them know that. The original version of my CV didn’t really reveal anything about me. So that went through a few re-writes. I guess it goes to show that you might be good academically, but you might not be as good in expressing yourself and that might be because of language or cultural issues or whatever it maybe. The key is really to seek help when you identify the problem because there are people out there who have gone through this.
MMA. Food for thought.
Ngoc. You know it took me about a year to get my CV to where it is at the moment. And I did not just ask one person; I asked several…maybe five or six people who have come from different backgrounds. Some were in HR, some were in Investment Banking and so on.
Actually, ISAB really helped me with the CV and approach. They’re fantastic!
MMA. ISAB is stealing my thunder! Hahaha. You know I can also help if you need to in future. But hey approaching a few people is the right thing to do. One person might have an opinion that might be different to the other. Getting the consensus and hearing it from a few sources is critical.
Ngoc. Exactly. And if I am able to give something back to the community I would as I have been through a lot to get where I am. And that’s not personal PR.
MMA. Of course not. That has nothing to do with it. Its more about sharing your experiences with others and if you just make a difference to one person then that’s all that matters.
STEP 3: FIND RELEVANT WORK
MMA. And so let’s talk about your first job as a research assistant. How did you get into that?
Ngoc. There’s a very good story behind this one. It all started out when I was attending one of my classes and I kept asking question after question to the lecturer. He must have been quite sick of my questions but you know, it was because i was really passionate and enjoyed the subject. It was Micro Economics Analysis and I was really sooooo into that subject. So much so that straight after my Hungry Jacks shift, I would go straight into one of the classes with my uniform on just because I didn’t have time to change. So there I was asking all these whoopping questions, pardon the pun, dressed in my Hungry Jacks uniform. It might have looked strange but it may have helped me land the assistant role which is something I asked at the end of the semester.
It was a simple approach; I basically just asked if he needed an assistant to help with anything at all. At that time I was doing the max number of hours an international student was allowed to work; but I was willing to sacrifice some of the hours to take this job as I knew it was a step in the right direction.
MMA. Great initiative. You did well to do that.
Ngoc. I have a friend that actually said that one can never work in university prior to completing a degree. But I went against that advice and asked the lecturer if he needed help with anything anyway before graduating. Had I not done that, I am not sure if the opportunity would still be there. I always feel that one should take the initiative if you see the opportunity; if it works then great. If it doesn’t then it doesn’t. There’s really no harm done in asking.
MMA. I like your can-do attitude. You will get far with that.
Ngoc. Thank you. The job itself consisted of preparing lecture notes, answering student questions, helping him out with some research. Basically it was anything that he needed help with. But I was also limited to what I could do at that stage as I was only in my 2nd year of university and I was still in the learning stages myself.
But he was a brilliant guy to work for in terms of directing me to the right path; “After you do this, then you should consider doing that”.
MMA. He was your mentor.
MMA. It is incredibly important to have a mentor to help guide your to the right direction. Obviously it helps if you have day-to-day interaction with your mentor, or at least they are accessibly when you need to bounce things off them.
Ngoc. And I was very fortunate to have that guy. I actually thanked him while I was giving the graduation speech.
MMA. That’s very nice. Hey, can I quickly divert and tell you a short story about my last interview.
MMA. I interviewed a guy who like yourself, kept asking questions to the presenter of this course. He must have made a good impression too because he went overseas for a year but upon his return, the presenter actually tracked him down and offered him a role in his consultancy practice.
Ngoc. This is exactly what I did. They will tend to remember you from the rest if you ask questions.
MMA. “Smart questions” of course. Questions that come out at the spur of the moment because the last thought being discussed was related to something you read about in the course notes. But I guess that will only happen if you have a genuine interest in the subject. It all comes back again to that same concept of passion and doing something you enjoy.
Ngoc. I’m glad you raised that point. Before each lecture, I would read the course notes and the text book as well. So I guess when you enjoy something, you’re always thinking about it and you start doing the prep-work for it.
MMA. And I am happy you raised that point because personally there are times when someone will ask me a question and I can answer it on the spot. But there are other times when I am in a meeting, I have to digest everything first and then come back to people post the meeting with questions. On the other hand, you’re pretty sharp and focussed and strike me as someone spontaneous. You seem to have this ability to ask the critical questions there and then.
Ngoc. You know what though, I devote a lot of time to ‘preparing’ as mentioned. And as we also said, it has to be in the context of doing something you love. And I ask a lot of questions. I’m one of these people that will keep on bothering others until I understand what’s going on.
MMA. Another key trait that one must have! You know a lot of people that don’t understand a subject just go about pretending they do. One must speak up.
Actually let me put a disclaimer on that. As you grow older, you know how to pick and choose your spots i.e. most of the times you have to speak up, but during certain situations, you have to voice your opinions with the other person in private if you know what I mean.
Ngoc. Yes I do.
STEP 4: IDENTIFY THE CHALLENGES AND WORK AROUND THEM
There are many challenges in life and there will be a lot of testing times. At this stage of the interview, Ngoc goes through the unique set of circumstances faced by International students..
MMA. Alright, cool. Let’s get back to the interview. Can I ask what are the biggest challenges for an international student and how did you overcome that?
Ngoc. The biggest is the legal issues we face. A lot of companies have restrictions on the graduate program where they state that only Australian or permanent residents can apply. That crosses out a lot of firms and narrows our scope.
Having identified a few target companies, I try then prepare, prepare, PREPARE! I research things specific about the company’s history, nature of their business and for any recent news or events.
But you know it’s very difficult for us to find those opportunities given their only a few out in the market. I guess I can’t really blame companies for training an international student and run the risk if that student going back to their home country shortly thereafter.
MMA. Yep, I understand that. Anything else?
Ngoc. There’s also the language barrier. But you know we can surpass that in many ways like watching TV programs with subtitles on. That’s a small thing to do which everyone can apply. Then also socializing with other cultures outside your own. If anything it helps you get out of your comfort zone and forces you to mix with others – which is something you have to do anyway in the real world.
And of course there’s entire cultural differences which are at times evident at work. For example in Asia, there’s a big difference between managers and employees whereas over here, managers are a little bit more approachable. Then sometimes cultural differences can come out when putting together a CV like we see talking about before. In Asia we may be able to get away with longer resumes than over here.
MMA. That’s right. You might get away with 10 pages or so there. Here, we tend to keep it within the 3-5 range. In the US it’s different again as they tend to stick to one page.
Ngoc. Exactly. And it also may be in simple business etiquette such as interviews where if the employer says the interview is at 9 am, then you need to be there 5 minutes before hand. Some countries when they say 9 am, they might very well mean 9 am on spot. So in these situations, International students will not really know the subtle differences.
— THE PRESENT —
MMA. Ok, so lets go to your current employer. Was this straight application?
Ngoc. Yes it was. I basically saw the job ad in Macquarie University career website (Careerhub) and the first thing I had to check was the eligibility criteria. When I saw that there were no constraints on citizenship, I applied and thought I had a really good chance. To cut a long story short, I did get the job and I feel that I was very lucky as there were about 300 applicants for 2 roles on offer.
MMA. Luck and being well prepared.
Ngoc. Yes, you are right but you know I don’t really like self-PR. But I obviously went through a lot of preparation in the lead up.
MMA. Good, good. So what do you do and what’s the best part of your job?
Ngoc. We are basically independent experts on valuation where we produce valuation reports. Say If Company A wants to purchase Company B and comes up with an offer, if you are sitting in Company B you would want to know if this is a fair and reasonable price. That’s where our services come in as we help determine whether you should accept the offer.
Figure 1. The Acquisition Process
There’s basically a few ways you can come up with a value for a company; you can find a comparable firm and calculate the value of that company. Another method is by finding a comparable transaction out in the market to determine the price paid for that transaction. And there’s also intrinsic value framework.
I do research on transaction control premium multiples as well and I really enjoy that research bit. So control premium is paying over and above intrinsic to control the entity i.e. access their free cash flows, control their direction etc. I also participate in valuation for family law cases and commercial disputes. Those can get very interesting too but we mainly focus on M&A transactions.
So what do I enjoy? I enjoy learning from the people around me and I really like the fact that I can marry-up what I learned academically to the real world. There’s no other place I would rather be in.
Getting a job is hard. Keeping it, is even harder!
MMA. So take us through “a day in the life of…”
Ngoc. Sure. I normal get to work at 8.30 am. There are times when I have a set task to do given to me by my manager because of a transaction we have on. In instances I do have any research tasks, then I actively look for things. Typical tasks are things like sourcing market data information using Bloomberg, Reuters and other market data vendors. I collate all these in a summary report which I then submit to my manager.
I am expecting todo a lot of valuation grunt-work so I am getting a hang of Excel. I hope to do all my financial modelling on it soon.
My typical day would finish around 6.30-7 pm or thereabouts. So that’s pretty standard.
Then there are times when I finish at 1 am and even work during the weekends when there are deadlines to meet and I have a report to submit. That’s not so typical but we do go through those periods here and there. And just to frame this in context of university; If you miss an assignment, then the worst thing that can happen is that you fail that subject. In context of business, If we miss the client’s deadline then the firm’s reputation is gone. It is very dangerous; if you lose your reputation and creditability, then there goes your sales. For a financial service company like ours, it will be the end of us if we have no clients.
MMA. Good analogy. And presumably you can right the wrong in university and do that subject again – not that you will. But when you lose a client you tend to lose them for good.
Ngoc. Although you may argue that its not good for your academic record..
MMA. ..but in context of the overall picture, you can stomach that failure relative to losing your reputation at work.
MMA. Ok fair enough. So what’s the most challenging part of work?
Ngoc. You know valuation is quite subjective and a lot of times unobservable. Its hard to convince people sometimes, but we use our professional judgment to value and tell people what we think the value is. And we need a set of knowledge including reading the financial statements to view the abstract message that the numbers are telling us. So with this, there’s a lot of interpretation and analysis upon what you think about the company. If you do one thing wrong your reputation is tarnished within the company – and I say this because the report that I submit gets reviewed by my manager.
MMA. A crucial element of quality control.
Ngoc. Yes. But if you make too many mistakes, then the next jobs will not come to you and they will be given to other analysts in the company.
— TO INFINITY AND BEYOND —
MMA. I understand that. So tell me, what’s in the crystal ball for the next 3-5 years?
Ngoc. I want to keep working in this field and really grow within the company.
Outside work, I want to also be an academic and an industry practitioner. Potentially publish my thesis in a journal – not necessarily have to be an A star journal but any journal that may help finance academia. I guess all this is leading to is the dream to want to be a real expert in my field.
On a more personal level, I do want to travel around the world. I have a long list including Tibet, Egypt, India, across Europe and so on. And now I am facing the irony of the situation; when you are a student you have time but you have no money. But when you are a working professional, you have money but no time.
MMA. Come on. You can take annual leave – surely.
Ngoc. I guess it’s because I am at my 1st year at work and I would like to be on top of my work first. When a deal comes, it’s all hands-on-deck and I want to be there working on that deal. Don’t get me wrong – my company is quite flexible and supportive. I guess it’s more about being in that environment where most of my colleagues share the same passion and drive that I have…and I really like that.
Some maybe I’ll save my annual leave for two to three years and burn all of them at once.
MMA. Just don’t burn yourself out first.
Ngoc. I won’t. I am learning a lot everyday and I am enjoying work.
MMA. So any insights of potential trends in the industry?
Ngoc. Well Australia has the Superannuation industry exceeding $1 trillion in savings, so the money will search for the best returns. At times the money will definitely have a domestic-home bias, but I believe the trend is for the money to go overseas. And with this, there will be a rising demand for good fund managers.
I also believe in the rise of the Asian Banks; first expanding in their home country then eventually growing more rapidly here. With the stagnating growth of the European banks and the rise in the Asian economy, I believe it is inevitable that the Asian banks will aggressively expand over here.
And I would also like to mention Sovereign Risk. Basically the Labour party has implemented so much tax with the MRRT and Carbon tax that it has become more complicated for us to value Mining companies. It makes our job more complicated and gives rise to Sovereign Risk we face as a country.
MMA. Nice points you raised there. So one final question – Who do you admire personally or someone that you want to model yourself against?
Ngoc. The owner of our company Wayne Lonergan.
MMA. I’ve heard good things about his book as It’s one of more well-known valuation books we have here.
Ngoc. I admire him both in a professional and a personal level. He has 40 years of experience behind him and he is both an academic and a practitioner which is where I want to head.
I admire him as an academic. I have had a chance to read his books and some papers he wrote. Each employee in the firm receives his book with autograph. I really enjoy reading his books and papers.
At a personal level, when you actually speak to him, he is passionate about valuation. He epitomises the “Love what you do and do what you love” mantra. I like that attitude and can really relate to it. On top of that, he knows how to talk to clients and is a real people person.
MMA. And at the rate your going, I have no doubt you will reach that level too.
..and MMA hopes that Ngoc does take some of her annual leave in her 2nd or 3rd year as planned.
Ngoc’s identity has not been masked (as we normally do). This blog uses real people who have worked for more than 5 years in the Australian Banking and IT industry. However in this instance, we have made an exception and wanted to present a truly unique story of one person’s dream and determination.
For further context into the industry and the interview in general, please click on this file – MMA Real People – Valuation Analyst.xlsx.
We would like to thank ISAB for recommending and arranging the interview.
Market Measures Australia
 At that time, an international student can only work up to 20 hours per week. However, under the new regulation an International Student was allowed to work a maximum of 40 hours per fortnight wherein the spread of work hours was at the students discretion e.g. 10 hours on week 1, 30 on week 2, or 40 hours in week 1 and zero in week 2.
 Briefly, as noted by the interviewee: Bloomberg for international market data of all types; Reuters for share prices, financial performance, transaction multiples, trading multiples, bond yields; Aspect Huntley for Australian-specific company research; IBIS World for industry reports and research; Capital IQ for deal comparable transactions; Web Link for VWAP and historical shares price as a cross-check to Bloomberg. This is but a sample and does not purport to be complete. A list of these information vendors is located here.