Singaporean Colin Tay went from banking to beers when he left the financial industry after nine years. Formerly from Deutsche Bank, he now runs two businesses with a partner: Old Empire, a gastro bar, and TSA Wines, a beer and wine distribution company. He speaks to eFinancialCareers about his decision to give up the corporate life.
My former life as a banker
I studied economics and finance at the University of Sydney, so when I returned to Singapore in early 2002, I started looking for banking jobs. I saw banking as something lucrative, a safe route, especially since the sector was booming in Singapore. When I first started, I didn’t have any specific preference on which area I wanted to get into, I just wanted in. I am a people’s person though, so I thought a role where I dealt directly with clients would suit me.
My first job was at OCBC. I worked in retail banking, quality assurance, and finally I assisted a private banker. Three years later, I joined Goldman Sachs where I switched to operations, working in corporate client services. Moving from a front- to back-office function was not an easy decision, especially because I was being groomed to become a private banker at OCBC. I finally decided on the move because I wanted exposure at a global bank.
Goldman was a really good experience. I handled clients in various markets like Hong Kong, Korea, Taiwan, Australia, Malaysia, Japan and Singapore who traded futures all over the world. But most days I worked 14 to 15 hours – I didn’t have much of a life. I kept at it for another three years until I couldn’t do it any more.
I then moved to Deutsche Bank as an AVP in client services for the Asia Pacific team. This was a bigger role, with better pay and hours. My role there was more client-focused, less operations driven, I also travelled to Hong Kong, Australia and Japan to meet clients so I enjoyed that.
A business is born
In 2008, while I was still with Deutsche, the idea for setting up a wine distribution company came about while having drinks with a long-time friend. Both of us have always been passionate about wine and we decided to become business partners.
He worked full-time in our new firm, while I helped out in the evenings and on weekends, so it wasn’t too hard. But the plan eventually was to also have our own gastro bar after a couple of years, and I knew that if I went into the business full-time we could grow it much faster. So when we found a potential site earlier this year, things moved quickly. The bar’s soft launch was in late February and I finally left banking in April.
Why I quit banking
I was still unmarried and didn’t have kids, so striking out on my own was something I could do. It was now or never really. It wasn’t an easy decision. I didn’t hate banking, although I was tired of it. When I quit, I was still asking myself whether I was doing the right thing.
Here’s my analogy: In a bank you are a small screw in a big machine, whereas when you run your own business, you’re more like a wheel. When a screw falls off, the machine’s still able to run, whereas the vehicle can’t move when the wheel isn’t working. But the faster the wheel spins, the further you and the business go. So I left and have no regrets. Still, I don’t regret having been in banking either. Nine years of corporate knowledge has been a great asset in how I manage my business today.
Want to leave banking? Here’s my advice
Think really hard about what you want to do. You need something to fall back on in case things don’t work out. So yes, I invested money in our business, but I kept aside savings for a rainy day. Also, don’t burn bridges. Working in a bank is never a lost cause. Life is unpredictable, so who is to say that you won’t return to banking again one day?
If you do want to set up your own business, realise it’s something that goes on around the clock. It can be longer hours than working in a bank. I do have nights where I can’t sleep because I’m thinking of ways to grow the business, so there’s no such thing as switching off. But seeing your ideas and efforts pay off make it all worthwhile.