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Q&A: Bob Tull, Managing Director, Fifth Third Bank’s FX Group

Describe your career path.

I graduated with a degree in economics from the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio. While there, I had two internships in finance, one with a bank in Portland, Oregon and the other in Maryland. After graduation I was accepted into a training program at a financial institution, which included work in credit as well as time on the firm’s federal funds desk. At that time, both federal funds and foreign exchange were not as automated as they are today, so I was able to gain exposure to the markets, federal funds, interest rates and foreign exchange. I found a home in foreign exchange in new client generation. Essentially, I helped small businesses execute foreign exchange transactions. I was also trading currencies and covering the bank’s portfolio. I then moved to another institution, becoming a senior sales person in foreign exchange, with responsibility of covering the northeast region of the U.S. When I joined Fifth Third Bank in 2000, my initial focus was opening strategic foreign exchange operations. I was also tasked with opening various foreign exchange desks in markets where we had a presence or in areas where the bank wanted a stronger capital markets presence. In 2007, I was asked to lead the foreign exchange group, and shortly thereafter, I was asked to lead the commodities group for the bank.

Describe your role at Fifth Third.

I oversee the bank’s foreign exchange trading and sales functions, which includes everything from managing the positions Fifth Third Bank has as result of hedging that we execute for clients to ensuring the systems are operating properly. I make sure our credit function is operating properly and meet with clients to create solutions for their foreign exchange exposures, regardless of where the client has operations. I help to identify risk – be it transactional, translation, economic, or contingent and assist in implementing risk management processes.

What is a typical day like for you?

I’m up by 5 a.m. and am usually in the office by 6:30. Before I head into the office, I check overnight markets. I also check orders that clients leave with us overnight to ensure they have been executed. At the office, I check to see if there are any issues with counterparty banks that we need to be aware of. I’ll read risk position reports and see where exposures are on the currency side. Once I’m armed with this information, it’s meetings, meetings, meetings. I’ll contact clients and make them aware of movements, both long- and short-term, and discuss how those movements may affect their bottom line. I’ll meet with the bank’s credit department to look at any possible internal risks. I will have a lot of external meetings where I meet with clients to create solutions. If a client is looking to execute a transaction, I’ll make sure it’s within the policies and procedures of Fifth Third Bank.

What advice do you have for undergraduate students or aspiring foreign exchange professionals?

As an undergraduate, a strong knowledge base in math and economics is paramount. You need to have a love for finance and geopolitical issues because they are so closely linked. Markets aren’t always logical – they can be emotional as well. You need to work through the emotion and understand the logic behind what is happening in markets. Internships are invaluable, as they allow you to get exposure to markets and learn. It’s important to get on-the-job training and education outside of school. Theoretical knowledge can be developed in school, but practical knowledge is very difficult to teach. I’d recommend reading publications like The Economist. Also, there a number of foreign exchange Web sites that provide free information on a daily basis. FXCM.com, for example, allows you to set up mock trading accounts and provides insightful articles. Traditional sites such as Bloomberg.com and Reuters.com provide good macroeconomic-level information on foreign exchange, interest rate, equity and the commodities markets. These provide historical data and are helpful in learning more about this business.

What skills are most important to be successful in foreign exchange?

First, you need to have strong communication skills. You need to be able to communicate clearly and concisely. Markets move rapidly and actively – being concise is critical, especially when giving a price and discussing strategy with clients. Time is money and foreign exchange is event-driven, with gains and losses the end result. Strong written skills are also important. It’s also critical today that you be able to build relationships and be trusted internally and externally with clients. You must be honest and have integrity, as once you lose your integrity in this business, it’s very hard to regain it. Also, to be successful you need to be consistently reading. You are fed information throughout the day: newsflashes, opinions from economic think tanks, newspapers and a variety of other sources. Foreign exchange is unlike the equities or bond markets. This is a 24 hour a day, six day a week business. You may leave your physical office, but the good foreign exchange traders are reading at 10 p.m. and up at 2 a.m. That is what differentiates the good from the great in this business.

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