I’m an associate-level corporate banker at a big European firm in Singapore and – unlike a lot of people in financial services – I genuinely like my job. Not every day, of course, but overall I feel fulfilled. If you’re a graduate and are thinking of a career in front-line corporate banking, here’s what I’ve learnt about working as a junior in the sector in Singapore.
Lots of people believe working in corporate banking is a ‘flight to safety’, especially in the current market where investment banking and operations roles are being cut in Singapore. Perhaps it is slightly ‘safer’, than investment banking, but that isn’t a reason you should choose it as a career. Nor should money be the main factor – it’s very good, but I’d say I earn about half of what I could be getting in investment banking. So what are the upsides?
Perhaps surprisingly, one of the things I love about my role is the variety of products I get to work with to meet my clients’ demands. Some people say that makes me a ‘jack of all trades, master of none’, but if I want to delve in-depth into a particular product then I can.
I have a lot of daily interaction with my bank’s product group in Singapore – one day I could be asking them about FX or rates; the next day it could be anything from commodities and trade to leasing and asset-back financing. By contrast, my friends and colleagues of the same (20-something) age in investment banking are pigeonholed into ECM, DCM or M&A during their first few years. And if they work in one product for too long they’ll find it hard to move out of it later in their careers.
Junior investment bankers at my firm also spend much of their first two or three years on pitch books – sometimes they even have to make sure all the colours and fonts look good – so they don’t get much direct contact with clients.
When I joined my bank in Singapore as an analyst I had a great boss who didn’t just see me as providing office support – I got to shadow him to client meetings almost immediately. I was thrust up to associate level only a year or so later and given my own book of small/medium-sized clients. This threw me straight into the deep end, but thankfully I enjoy managing relationships.
Don’t be under any illusions – the client-facing stuff in corporate banking is something you need to build up over the long-term. If you prefer working deal-to-deal, then investment banking is a much better bet.
My bosses always say it takes at least two years to establish a trusting relationship with a corporate client. When you’re only an associate, some clients initially think you’re too junior to be taken seriously and some even see your appointment as a sign that the bank doesn’t value them very much.
All you can do here is try to solve problems for them as soon as you possibly can. If you can offer product solutions for their companies within the first six months, you will begin to be treated with respect, and the relationship will strengthen further as you help them with more and more transactions.
This need for relationship building in corporate banking calls primarily for qualitative skills and a high EQ (these are needed in IB too, just not to quite the same degree). If you’re a very technical person and love number crunching and spreadsheets, I would again say that IB is a better career option.
It’s hard to succeed as a corporate banker if you’re introverted, but that doesn’t mean you need to be overly loud and flamboyant. Many of my teammates here in Singapore are actually fairly quiet in the office, but they really know how to charm clients. You must be able to turn on your client-facing mode like a light switch.
Another important aspect of the job – perhaps the most overlooked one – is the need the for curiosity. By this I mean you must be very interested in why a client wants (or doesn’t want) to do something – you must actually care about the success of their business rather than just sell products to them.
Always try to look at the reasons behind a business decision they make. Don’t think ‘they say they want X, so that’s what I’ll give them’, instead think ‘they want X, but do their business objectives actually suggest that Y product or service would be better’. Above all, I think uncovering what motivates my clients is the best part of my job.
Lucy Ng (we have used a pseudonym to protect her identity) is a corporate banker at a major European bank in Singapore.
Image credit: Tomwang112, Getty