I know these types of stories are a dime a dozen these days, but I've been a consumer of WSO posts for a couple of years now, and have felt it's time to be a producer content wise.
I wanted to share my story (and lessons learned along the way) of how I broke into investment banking and became a Senior Associate at a MM IB using a less traditional route.
A QUICK SUMMARY OF MY BACKGROUND:
I went to a no-name university (I say "no-name" vs. the more traditionally used "non-target" because non-target gives this university a little more credit than it deserves. The school is not only not on the radar of, it isn't recognizable by most people in general); I majored in International Business; had one finance related internship in college; unable to break into investment banking, networked my way into Commercial and Corporate Banking at a major bank; worked my way up the commercial/corporate bank for a period of about three years; and, after about a year of interviewing, transitioned to a MM IB as a Senior Associate.
THE COLLEGE YEARS:
- I went to a no-name university. There was a multitude of factors in my deciding to attend this school, but a few of the significant ones include: my desire to pursue an athletic career post-high school (I was nowhere near good enough to play at a large collegiate school), high school grades were just "above average" (I didn't fully understand what it took to compete at a national level), and religious affiliation.
- If you attend a non-target university - that is, [at least in the eyes of many IB's] a school with lower academic standards and rigor than a target school - it is vital, in my opinion, that you academically outperform your fellow peers at the university. Without it, the "I chose to attend this Non-Target School over Target Schools A, B, and C because of Reasons X, Y, Z" rationale becomes much less believable (which is the case I tried to make). You need to demonstrate that you are a "Target-School Caliber Student" who simply chose to attend a Non-Target School. I graduated top of my business school class (4.0 in major related classes and 3.9 GPA overall) and would have had a much more difficult time breaking into investment banking had I not been able to demonstrate on paper that I was a higher quality student than most of my non-target school peers, no matter how untraditional the route was.
- I know many people that say grades don't matter that much in the interview process and it's all about the network, while I agree to some extent, let's face it, the route to investment banking always has been, and continues to be, a very structured process that does not often deviate from the norm. And when you're competing against the best of the best, I've found grades have a way of validating both work ethic and intelligence to hiring managers.
- A number of my peers have expressed their frustration to me over the years that it "takes an internship to get an internship," and, this catch-22 is part of the reason they didn't end up with a better job out of college (of course many of these people also didn't have a very strong work ethic or drive). For me, the best opportunity meant taking an unpaid internship. In fact, I paid money to participate in an "experiential education program" that provided college credit and career training. The real benefit was that they had permanent internship placement arrangements with certain companies. In the end I was able to land an internship in the finance department of a top Major League Baseball team. I still had to compete against 6-8 other people or so, but the pool of candidates was much smaller. A couple things I learned:
- Although at the time this was financially a difficult proposition, it proved to yield the best ROI of any decision I've made in my career thus far. It got me that first finance related internship (although had little to do with IB), was with a very recognizable name, and allowed me to talk about finance related work experiences in future interviews.
- Interview wise, this turned out to be incredible. In well more than half of my interviews the interviewer and I ended up talking baseball and what it was like to work for an MLB team. It piqued the interest of hiring managers and completely changed the conversation and tone of the interviews in my favor. It made me memorable.
- Nobody cared or ever came close to asking if it was paid, unpaid, or if I paid for it for college credit. Find any way to land that first internship.
- As you can imagine, my school's career center (guidance, career fair, job board, etc.) was unimpressive, to put it politely. The two prize career opportunities for students at our career fair each year were Target's management training program and Enterprise Rent-A-Car's management program. If you got one of these two jobs, you achieved No-Name University's pinnacle of success. Instead of wasting my time with these, I focused my efforts on four areas:
- Networking: I had essentially zero contacts in the finance industry. However, I had friends/acquaintances that had connections that "may be willing to help me out." Much of my time was spent sitting down with these friends/acquaintances and describing my background and careers goals. It's a little rudimentary, but at the end I would ask, "Now that you know about my background what I'm looking for, do you think you can connect me to one or two people in the industry?" In time, I had 'warm introductions' to a number of professionals in the finance community.
- Cold Calling: I compiled a list of the top (and most likely to hire me) finance firms in my region, and then began cold calling and/or emailing my resume. I often didn't get connected or receive a reply, but this method did lead to a couple interview opportunities.
- Other School's Career Fairs: I looked up the dates and times of target and semi-target school's on-campus career fairs and attended these. This was hit or miss, and the students of these schools absolutely hated me (understandably so), but it did yield my first finance-related job offer (which I was later able to leverage for the position I ultimately accepted). I found that employers at the fair took either 1 of 2 polarizing stances about my being there: 1) They were impressed by the initiative and determination that I took to attend and seek out a job (the minority); or, 2) they were a slightly annoyed and a little confused as to why I was wasting their time before moving on to the next candidate in line (the majority).
- Professors: My school had a number of adjunct professors that were part-time teacher and full-time business professionals. Some of them had fairly successful careers, and the majority of them had a large network of connections. Each of the professors was well respected in the community and very willing to help.
- Obvious advice and lessoned learned - start searching for your post-grad job as early as possible. I continue to be shocked by the number of students who begin their job search during their final semester of college. First of all, many of the top tier firms begin hiring well before then. Secondly, finding the right opportunity often is a long process that requires time and building a network - this often can't be done in a matter of months before you graduate while also balancing school.
- The results: By my final semester of my senior year, I had received 2 , 1 , 1 management , and 2 commercial banking interviews. I made it to the final round of the PE and management before being rejected, but was extended offers by both of the commercial banks (details below).
I may be biased, but in my opinion, Commercial Banking often gets overlooked as a [somewhat] viable avenue into more prestigious areas of finance. As a reference point, both of my commercial banking offers were to join a 2-year analyst program at a major national/multi-national bank (think JP,, , Union, etc.).
- I was of course disappointed to not land one of the other job opportunities and almost decided to turn down the commercial banking offers, but was encouraged by a mentor to accept the offer for a few reasons:
- First of all, it was an "in road" into the finance community. Commercial bankers work directly with CEO's, CFO, Controllers, Lawyers, Accountants, Investment Bankers, and Private Equity guys on a regular basis. My finance network grew exponentially.
- It was 2 continuous years of getting paid to be trained. A great thing about these programs, and something small institutions often lack, is they have the infrastructure put in place to invest in properly training their new hires. They brought in and Investment Bankers, had courses, paid for me to finish out an accounting minor, and taught me how to analyze financial statement and interact with C-suite executives. My current IB firm loved that I had this training because they don't do it.
- Pay wise, it was definitely less than IB or PE, but it wasn't I living off of bread crumbs. Within 3 years of graduating I was in the six figure range.
- A little bit of luck is always part of these stories (although I believe luck is often created), and I got lucky in that my boss took a liking to me and pushed for me to be promoted ahead of schedule due to a need in our group (although I also worked my ass off and graduated top of my analyst pool). I was promoted 3 times in just over three years, to the equivalent of a Senior Associate on the IB side. The other lucky factor was that the particular commercial banking office I was part of happened to provide a lot of the debt financing for the M&A transactions in the region. I was very often working with our IB guys, using and editing their models, and doing similar due diligence as I do in my job now.
- One thing I want to note - many people view commercial banking solely as analyzing credit ratios to determine whether or not to lend money. There was actually a considerable amount overlap between CB and IB - I worked in , created , made pitchbooks, did industry analyses, and even did a little valuation. We underwrote loans to more than just the value of collateral, often we underwrote cash-flow deals on the basis of the enterprise value of the company (though regulators are frowning upon this more and more).
- The combination of developing a large network industry contacts, receiving financial training and somewhat relevant M&A related experience, and graduating top of my class all helped me land 2 IB offers and 2 PE offers, with one of the four offers being a direct horizontal move as a Senior Associate.
- I've been in my position for almost a year now and the less traditional route was all worth it. I gained a lot of knowledge from my commercial banking days and what I didn't know I was able to pick up through a combination of: textbooks, WSO posts, and , which allowed me to do well during the interview phase and hit the ground running once hired.
- My firm is a smaller middle market shop. We do about 8-10 full-fledged buy side or sell side M&A transactions a year, with a lot of corporate or strategic advisory in between. Hours aren't that much worse than what I was putting in at the CB.
I want to thank the WSO community for all of your great posts - they provided a lot of encouragement and knowledge to help me eventually transition into my role today. Please feel free to ask me any questions and I'll try to respond timely.