Omar Mehanna is HSBC’s Head of Investment Banking for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). He moved to the Middle East five years ago when he took the managing director-level title. However, in a recent Q&A with eFinancialCareers, Mehanna explains that his career owes as much to luck as it does to hard work.
How did you break into the financial services industry?
A combination of luck, persistence and a helping hand from inspiring teachers. I grew up in Kuwait but was fortunate to leave to London on holiday two weeks before the Iraqi invasion in 1990. While the rest of my family was stuck in Kuwait, I decided to stay in London to complete my A-level education, and was lucky enough to be assigned to a very charismatic economics teacher who convinced me to apply to the London School of Economics. From there, I gained a place on PwC’s Chartered Accountancy graduate training course, which gave me a great grounding in the fundamentals of finance, invaluable in my future choice of career.
What advice can you give to someone looking to break into investment banking?
Take a long-term view of the industry. Investment banking is going through significant change, and anyone going into the sector believing that there’s going to be a sudden turnaround or a quick buck to be made will be disappointed.
What would persuade you to hire me?
Demonstrate hunger for the role, a genuine passion for the industry and be direct with your opinions to me.
What’s a sure fire way NOT to get hired by you?
A general lack of conviction. We go through a very detailed selection process and ideally, by the time someone comes for interview, we’re convinced on their education, experience and credentials for the job. Things can change at interview, however.
I was in a situation where I turned to the interviewee, who was a bright and highly qualified individual, and advised them that investment banking wasn’t the career for them. I sensed uncertain desire, stifled conviction– these are not good character traits for an investment banker.
Has your career been conventional or capricious?
A bit of both. It’s been capricious because of the circumstances in which it started, but I’ve made some very conscious choices to steer it in the direction I wanted. If it hadn’t been for the invasion of Kuwait, it’s doubtful that financial services would have even made it on to my radar. In the Middle East, your career is influenced heavily by the elders in your family and for me, that may well have meant a move into engineering.
I’ve been lucky; being displaced at a young age from Kuwait was traumatic personally, but getting into a good school and meeting the right people opened doors for me. If I compare this with my old friends in Kuwait, then I’ve been fortunate.
What matter most, talent or hard work?
Hard work is important, but talent is the differentiator. You can have all the technical knowledge in the world, but if you can’t read a situation, predict future events or understand people and their motivations, you’re unlikely to become a top banker. You need personal skills to be a leader, and that’s nothing to do with hard work.
What are the main challenges facing investment banks in the Middle East? What are the main opportunities?
There are significant challenges still facing the equity capital markets and debt capital markets. Activity is increasingly selective, but I’m optimistic about the M&A market. There are obviously macro-economic problems currently, combined with the uncertainty of the geopolitical situation as a result of the so called ‘Arab Spring’, but there are a number of reasons for growth in M&A.
In the regional market, there’s likely to be more consolidation and furthermore, vendors’ price expectations have become more realistic as a result of the Arab Spring, so it’s been positive in that regard. Secondly, because of the large hydrocarbon wealth, it’s likely that sovereign wealth funds will continue to make investments, particularly in those with a strategic angle back into the Middle East. Then there’s distressed M&A; in the current climate, corporates in the region need to stop living in denial and wake up to the reality that they need to restructure and deleverage their balance sheets.
Has it become easier to attract talent across to the Gulf recently? Why do you think this is the case?
Even when I moved here two and half years ago, I was surprised at the level of talent on the ground. I think it’s natural, given the challenges elsewhere, for financial services professionals to look to this part of the world and, in the medium term, career prospects are positive.
What three things would you always advise someone to do before stepping into an interview with you?
Listen to the interviewer carefully, be punchy with your answers and demonstrate lots of passion.
What would you do if you weren’t working in banking?I think I’d work in politics. I’ve worked in the UK, France and the Middle East and so I’ve accumulated some good perspectives about some of the issues that need to be addressed.
What do you do to relax?
It’s become a Friday morning ritual for me to listen to my wife and eldest daughter playing the piano. It’s extremely soothing and, although I play a lot of sports, it’s this that really helps me unwind.
Who do you most admire?
I was very inspired by reading about a 13th century Egyptian Sultan called Qutuz who, once a slave, was the first ever ruler who, against considerable odds, managed to stop the onslaught of the Mongol armies advancing across Egypt. His was a remarkable achievement, which changed the course of history and helps me remain hopeful about Egypt and the wider Arab region currently.