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Nomad investment banker says go wherever the jobs are

Phil-Southwell1

If you’re working in a senior investment banking role in the Middle East, you should begin to wonder whether a smaller firm might be a better bet. RBS and Credit Suisse have both lost senior bankers to local firms, and Philip Southwell – who has previously held senior positions at both Deutsche Bank and, latterly, heading up Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s MENA operations – has just taken a Dubai-based position as CEO at Exotix, a boutique investment bank focused on frontier markets. It will be expanding, he insists, but having had just two weeks with his feet under the table, clear hiring plans are not yet in place.

Southwell is an Eton-educated career investment banker, who has never had aspirations to work in any other sector. But he’s also a bit of a nomad – travelling to whatever part of the world the right job opportunity presents itself in.

How did you break into investment banking?

I trained as an ACA in the early 1990s, which is a very British way to launch your finance career. It was always my intention to move into investment banking, and after qualification I took a job in the corporate finance and broking business of Smith New Court, which at the time was one of the pre-eminent sales and trading houses in London. It was later taken over by Merrill Lynch, and I left to join Deutsche Bank after three years.

What advice can you give to others looking to break into the investment banking industry?

The best thing any aspiring investment banker can do is to get the right training, at the right organisation. In the early years, investment banking is essentially an apprenticeship, and getting good deal exposure at in the first stages of your career is absolutely integral. You also need to be willing to move where the deals are happening – even if that means switching sectors or countries.

Has your career been conventional or capricious?

Both. The training and work experience has been pretty conventional, but the roles that I’ve taken and locations I’ve based myself haven’t been. I was living in Hong Kong for a number of years and had no plans to leave, but suddenly found myself back in Europe working for Deutsche Bank because it was the right opportunity. I worked in London, Hong Kong, Sydney and Tokyo while at the bank and for the past few years, I’ve been working in the Middle East. The point I’d emphasise is to be willing to move as and when the opportunity arises.

What matters most, talent or hard work?

Talent is important, but what really matters in investment banking is that you put in the work to exercise that talent correctly. I’m not talented enough to have found ways to short-cut hard work.

What do you see as the main challenges and opportunities facing the sector in emerging markets?

If you’re on the sales, trading or investment banking side of the business, the main challenge of getting value out of fundamental research. Emerging markets is an expression used all the time to describe a number of locations that are far from homogenous, yet people talk about them as if they were. The value of good research can’t be underestimated, as it will ensure that you are in the right place at the right time to capitalise on opportunities.

In the Middle East, the fee pool has been falling for the past four or five years, but my expectation is that it will rise again. Underlying GDP growth, and a far more regional focus among the biggest banks and corporates means the macro environment is very positive.

What would persuade you to hire me?

Demonstrate that you have good problem solving skills. Any banker dealing with clients need to be able to deliver a solution that’s going to work, whether that’s a complex derivative, M&A deal or a sales and trading idea.

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

Having a big ego.

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

Really research the company, and understand what it is we do; be objective about your strengths, and particularly your weaknesses – this is harder, but we all have them, and be team-focused; think about what you can contribute, not what’s in it for you.

What would you be doing if you weren’t working in banking?

I spent some time at university working at Covent Garden, and running a music festival on London’s South Bank called Music of the Royal Courts, so there’s a chance I could have ended up in arts administration. I’ve always wanted to work in finance, however.

What do you do to relax?

I exercise. Anything really – tennis, football, riding.

Who do you most admire?

My family. They’ve put up with a lot.

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