GUEST COMMENT: Here’s how product controllers can escape investment banking

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Adrian Kinnersley

In the mid- late 2000’s product control was typically seen as the entry point into investment banking for most qualified accountants. It was usually viewed as a springboard for a career in finance or sometimes, more optimistically, as a stepping stone to a trading position. Those that stuck with it could eventually make VP or Director managing very large teams of people and earning significant bonuses.

A combination of factors has changed this significantly. Offshoring, together with improvements in technology have combined to reduce the need for large teams in high cost locations.  The hugely complex financial products that were once a big growth area in investment banking are now far less significant than they used to be.

This has reduced banks’ reliance on technical accounting. Meanwhile, instead of having one overarching product control function, banks have moved to having several smaller groups. So while a career in product control is still a very viable option, positions are less plentiful, more competitive and it is easier to get stuck at a particular level.

As a result, candidates are moving for different reasons than they used to. In the past, they would have moved for more money and for a career path to MD-level. Now, with staff cuts and increased regulatory requirements leading to more pressure, candidates are moving for a better work/life balance.

So what can product controllers do when investment banking loses its allure?

The product control skillset transfers well into energy trading. Compensation here is comparable, but the environment tends to be less pressured. From energy trading there’s also the opportunity to move into more core finance roles in a broader energy, mining or utilities business area. There’s also the potential to move out of London and either into the regions or into Europe.

If this doesn’t appeal, there’s also the possibility of moving back into public practice. In the past this would have been unheard of, but now it’s becoming a popular option – especially if you have a skillset that touches upon the regulatory area, or risk. Trying to get onto a partner track is now potentially more lucrative than gunning for MD!

Increasingly, product controllers are also seeking advice on adapting their CVs  in order to move into  broader finance roles. While this sort of move has to be accompanied with a significant downshift in total comp expectations it will also come with the benefit of a vastly improved work life balance. We advise people to emphasise their accounting skills and try to bring out the fact that the skill in producing a P&L for a banking product can be transferred to many other environments.  Spread betting firms and other high volume web based businesses can be interested but this is a tricky move to pull off as the market is still tight for these industries.

It is clear that a change is happening. The heady days of rapid career progression to MD for the humble product controller are behind us. The wider world doesn't seem to have caught up with the value, talent and intelligence that can be found within product control which after all has spent many years paying top dollar for the brightest and best qualified accountants on the market. I'm sure we'll see more ex-product controllers popping up in a whole range of organisations and roles in future and the banks may find themselves at the back of the queue for the new crop of talent in the future.

Adrian Kinnersley is Managing Director of Twenty Recruitment Group

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