Off The Beaten Path: Commercial Banking to Private Equity (The Non-Traditional Route)
Hey everyone. The ink has just barely dried on my accepted offer to join a boutique private equity firm as an analyst, but I think now is a better time than any to tell you how I made the jump to private equity from a VERY non-target background.
A little bit about me: I graduated from a Canadian university with a finance degree from a relatively unknown business program (I was in the third class of graduates ever), had ho-hum grades and no relevant internships. I was pretty keen on becoming an analyst at an investment bank, but with almost no alumni network and an extremely rigid hiring process, I took the advice of my dean and began targeting commercial banks as he thought it was "a good place to start".
After interviewing with a few banks, I accepted an offer to start an 18-month training program, which upon completion, would result in a promotion to the position of account manager, commercial banking which entailed managing a portfolio, prospecting for new business, and underwriting new deals for my own deals as well as for senior bankers. I've been in that role for 18 months, and have passed all three levels of the CFA program and will be eligible for the charter with another year of work experience.
What I learned:
1) Non Traditional Backgrounds.
If you're coming from a non-traditional background, you're going to have to do something exceptional to get noticed. The truth of the matter is that for every great opportunity, there are a ton of good applicants vying for it along with you who probably fit the traditional requirements better than you do. You can either use this as an excuse and give up, or you can sack up and do something that shows an employer that you're willing to go above and beyond for you and the company you work for. For me, passing all three levels of the CFA program was huge here. Passing every level on my first attempt was icing on the cake.
2) Be honest about your weaknesses.
If you're coming from a non-traditional background, there's a good chance that your on-the-job skills aren't going to be enough to get you the job you want. Case in point, my current role requires absolutely no modeling to succeed, but the bare minimum skill for any analyst/associate role at a private equity firm is good modeling skills. To offset my weakness, I took a financial modeling course (more accurately, re-took it after going through it during my senior year) and got comfortable with all the main models. I then went a step further and started modeling companies of interest.
I've probably done close to 20 models on my own now and this really came in handy as the application process for the analyst role involved building an lbo model and writing a deal summary. Supposedly there were over 100 applicants for the role so the fact that my self-taught modelling got me through was a huge boost to my technical confidence! Also, WSO's PE interview course, it offers great insight for someone looking to break into the field from outside traditional routes and also helps you feel comfortable with tough LBO modeling tests.
I don't know how many times I keep reading this in success stories, but I'll reiterate this point – YOU HAVE TO NETWORK!!! It's hard enough picking a resume out of a pile of good applicants, but it's next to impossible your resume will get picked up with a non-traditional background. Pretty much the only way to get your 'out-of-the-box' resume in the shortlist is for someone at the firm to have met you and vouch for you. Honestly, this can often be the hardest part of the process; just getting yourself to the interview stage. So instead of letting this be the hard part of the process, do the hard work before. Pound the pavement, email people, go for coffee. You'd be surprised at how generous other people are with their time and how willing people can be to help you out. Just don't abuse the basic human kindness that a lot of finance professionals have.
If you've done the first three and things just aren't clicking, be patient! I don't know how many times I looked at all of the things I was doing, or heard "you're doing all the right things" from someone I had gone for coffee with and thought to myself "are things ever going to change?" To be honest, I think it's probably harder to stay motivated when it seems like you're doing all the right things but you're not getting any success. But you have to persevere! As your network grows, people you've never met will start hearing about you, your network will refer you jobs, you'll hear about unposted opportunities (seriously, some firms just hate going through the formal hiring process because they think it takes too much time), etc. So keep your skills sharp, stay in touch with your existing contacts regularly, and sometimes the opportunity will come to you.
5) Power of prayer.
For me, this was the most important aspect of the process, but I wouldn't be surprised if many of you ignore this part or think it's BS. I'm a Christian, so as much as it's easy to reduce my success to things that I've done, I know for a fact that my relationship with God is the biggest explanation for getting me to where I am. Case in point: for the role that I ultimately got, I was referred by three (!!!) private equity professionals to the same position. I sent an email to the guy hiring, made sure to do some name dropping about the referral, etc. Just as I was thinking that this role wasn't going to work out, I attended a local CFA society networking event.
The night before the event, I prayed and asked God to have me meet someone at the event who would help me find a new role. At the event, I ended up running into one of my contacts I had met for coffee previously. We sat at the same table and he asked me about the position he had referred me to and I told him how it was going. Anyways, this guy mentioned that he knew the person looking to hire an analyst (who I had previously emailed) was coming to the event and got him to sit next to me for the entire evening. I ended up getting the equivalent of a first round interview just by sitting next to the guy! (and he admitted my resume didn't make it through his filtering process) Needless to say, it's impossible for me to think that what happened was just a coincidence (it certainly wasn't the first time this happened either!)
All in all, I'm beyond thrilled to be taking the next step in my career, and I hope my story helps you make a change as well!
Feel free to ask me questions in this thread or via private message.