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People should quit finance and start farming, says veteran investment banker

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Kato Mukuru, head of equity research at boutique investment bank Exotix and a former director of research at Citi, has been working in finance for over 20 years, but admits that he’s lucky to have made it into the industry in the first place.

Originally from Uganda, he got a scholarship to study at Morehouse College in Atlanta,U.S and in 1998 went for an internship at Salomon Smith Barney. He was up against students who had been networking their way towards an investment banking job for years. “They were very slick, but the recruiter at the bank took a chance on me – I was far from the polished item they wanted,” he says. “I didn’t understand the lingo, knew nothing about capital markets, I couldn’t tell them that my father was connected and that I knew all the right people. The only thing I had going for me was that I was a good student.”

Mukuru has had a successful and varied investment banking career, starting out in M&A advisory within the FIG division of Salomon Smith Barney before moving to Citigroup and then switching into equity research under the tutorage of Andrew Crean, then head of European insurance equity research at the bank. He’s has worked in London, New York, Tokyo, Lagos, Madrid and Dubai.

However, he’s never lost sight of his roots and the fact that he could easily have been doing something else entirely. If he hadn’t managed to secure a finance job, he has no doubts what he’d be doing instead – farming.

“I would have moved back to Uganda and started farming – it’s where the future lies,” he tells us. “There are too many people consuming too much right now; we’ve got used to eating meat every day, for example. My father said he used to eat meat once a year – he was a forced vegetarian. We take eating well for granted, but this is unsustainable and eventually there will be price inflation. Those who have the land and know how to farm it will go back to being the world’s wealthy, which is their rightful place.”

Talented young people are now very much focused on “going into the City”, he says, when in fact they should be getting into farming. Mukuru himself has a 200 acre farm in Uganda that he manages alongside his day job. His views echo those of commodities guru Jim Rogers who advises anyone who wants to make money in the future to “learn to drive a tractor”.

Mukuru started at Exotix in November, as part of the boutique bank’s plan to expand its operations into Africa from its headquarters in Dubai. It’s been hiring, both for equity research and for part of the broader investment banking business, having added Youssef Kabbaj as managing director last month. We spoke to him about his career, the firm’s expansion plans and who he likes to hire.

Is Exotix expanding its equity research division this year?

We’ve actually been building out our team over the last year and are largely up to scale – for now. However, we could recruit next year, and will be hiring for support roles soon. We want junior analysts in Lagos and maybe Kenya; having someone on the ground in Africa ensures that you don’t miss anything.

Are there challenges attracting equity researchers to Dubai, particularly after so many were laid off in recent years?

Dubai is quite transient, but I’d say it was around 50-50 for those who left and those who stuck around. European equity research professionals have generally gone home or back to Western markets, but Africans and those on the sub-continent realise it’s a very good place to live. I can be home to visit my mum in Kampala within four hours and that sort of convenience is priceless.

Why did you move to the Middle East?

I moved here because of the role at Citigroup, because I wanted a broader audience for my research, even though it was still focused on Africa. Citi also promised an expansion of the team that never really happened, which was part of my motivation to move on to the role at Exotix. A lot of firms talk about a need to focus on Africa, often speaking about it as one homogenous region rather than a mass of different countries each of which needs a different approach. They talk about it, but very few commit significant new hires.

What advice would you give to someone looking to enter investment banking now?

I’d give the same advice I gave to new recruits when I was working at Citigroup – do what you really want to do. The job requires long hours and there’s a huge amount of pressure and the only way to get through this is to enjoy what you do. Understand the sacrifices you need to make and if you’re OK with that, then go for it. Don’t just enrol because you quite fancy working in the industry and don’t know what else to do.

Has your career been conventional or capricious?

There is nothing conventional about my career. I’m a Ugandan who has lived and worked in London, New York, Tokyo and Dubai, who started out in investment banking and moved into equity research. On top of that I spent time working in Lagos, Nigeria for Renaissance Capital – dealing with Nigerians is actually fun, they’re willing to engage and spend money and there’s less wrangling than in other African countries. Oh, and my wife is Spanish and I split my time between Madrid and Dubai, which is definitely not conventional.

What matters most, talent or hard work?

Hard work, if I had to choose. I can’t stress enough that if you want to be successful you need to do something you enjoy – you’re not going to work hard enough otherwise.

What three things would you advise someone to do before stepping into an interview with you?

Be honest and sincere, don’t worry about saying something clever and be concise. Know what you want and express this to me.

What’s a surefire way NOT to get hired by you?

Any sign of a lack of commitment to what we’re doing – just be consistent. An example is holes in a CV – just explain what happened, don’t try and fill that hole with rubbish.

What do you do to relax?

Farming. We have 200 acres and I manage it, occasionally flying in and flying out. It’s where the future lies – people want more food cheaper and it just doesn’t work.

Who do you most admire?

My sister. She’s hard-working, honest and a good Christian. She has a big family and a husband, but does most of the work. She’s a great human being.

Related links:

Eight people you should know if you’re looking for a financial services job in the Gulf

The culture shift among M&A bankers

The hot market opening up for bankers. Bodyguards may be required

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