After more than four years at UBS and 16 months at Oliver Wyman, Benjamin Quinlan decided to take a break from his Hong Kong-based banking and consulting career.
But this isn’t another story of a banker shifting to tech or the buy-side. Quinlan instead took a seven-month sabbatical to travel…and become a stand-up comedian.
“It was 2014. I’d never done stand-up before, but people had told me they liked hearing my stories about growing up in Hong Kong, so I gave it a go,” says Quinlan.
Two open-mic nights led to a series of paid gigs at a Hong Kong comedy club where Quinlan still performs most weekends.
He puts his popularity down to being able to connect with his multi-cultural Hong Kong audience. “I’m half Chinese and half Aussie, so I talk a lot about my upbringing – both Asians and Westerners can relate to it. I also focus on observational humour about the common frustrations of life in Hong Kong.”
Quinlan joined Deutsche Bank as head of Asia Pacific equities strategy after his sabbatical, but left the firm in March this year to set up his own finance consultancy, Quinlan & Associates. “While I keep my stand-up stuff separate from my day job, comedy is in my DNA. I enjoy being lively in whatever I do – I don’t think the banking world needs more stiff shirts.”
Adding an appropriate touch of comedy in the office “can help you get through difficult situations with a smile”, he says. “It’s not about making a mockery of your work, it’s about enjoying your work more.”
Quinlan says that continuing on the comedy circuit – both in Hong Kong and occasionally in places like Macau, Singapore and Bangkok – makes him perform better as a banking-sector consultant.
“Comedy teaches you to think on your feet because you’re being judged by the entire audience. And it helps you get people on side – you make sure they’re laughing with you, not at you,” he explains.
The more stand-up shows you do, the better you get at reading the audience. “This is an important skill when you’re making a presentation as a banker or delivering a difficult message as a consultant.”
Quinlan had an eventful career even before taking to the stage. He joined UBS in Sydney as a graduate in 2008, but instead of spending his junior days pounding out pitch books he worked alongside the local CEO in a strategy role.
“I was a guinea pig – the second grad to work in that team. It gave me broad insights into the bank at a young age because in a strategy job you don’t have a narrow focus on a single product like most juniors do,” he says.
“Your work goes directly to the most senior stakeholders, so you’re constantly under pressure to deliver excellent results and you need to adopt a senior mindset,” he says.
In late 2009 Quinlan moved to Hong Kong – the city where he was born – and joined the UBS strategy team for Asia Pacific. “The learning curve was jaw-dropping as I was covering investment banking – the largest and most complex part of the bank – and working on our post-GFC strategy of integrating various business lines.”
His experience of being thrown into the deep end of in-house strategy caught the attention of Oliver Wyman, and in 2012 Quinlan joined the firm’s Hong Kong corporate and institutional banking team.
“It’s rare to work in strategy as a graduate and rare to join a consultancy from a bank – it’s typically the other way around,” says Quinlan. “I wanted best-practice consulting skills for the finance sector and Oliver Wyman is the place to learn these methodologies.”
The transition was tough at first. “At a consultancy you’re surrounded by the most intellectually gifted people around. And clients will often question the value of your work, so you have to go more in-depth than when you’re in-house. It pays to get on well with your new colleagues and have a good mentor.”
Quinlan is now trying to put his banking, consultancy and comedy skills to use at his new company.
“My last employer, Deutsche, offered me a global strategy role in London and it was a light-bulb moment. It meant a long-term commitment and I could have got hooked on the salary and become less and less able to give up the banking sector as I got older. I thought it was a great time to do the strategy/consultancy thing myself,” says Quinlan.
He wants to avoid “cookie-cutter approach” to consultancy and to instead “act like a doctor who makes an individual diagnosis to each corporate problem”.
“But I’ll still always make time for my stand-up comedy – that’s a real passion.”
Image credit: Benjamin Quinlan