People enter finance for various reasons; prestige, earning power, parental pressure, but passion is rarely associated with a career in the sector. However, it’s essential to get ahead in the food industry. Blame Jamie Oliver or Gordon Ramsey, but grown men never used to get so excited over a salsa verde or the prospect of glazing a pan.
Cooking is now sexy, but it’s also a huge, potentially lucrative industry. It contributes £96.1bn to the UK economy alone and restaurant sales are expected reach a record $660.5bn globally in 2013. Financial professionals have smelt an opportunity and more are quitting their day jobs to take advantage of the foodie revolution.
For Andrew ‘Koj’ Kojima, who had worked in equity research for 12 years including stints at Morgan Stanley and UBS, it was less about monetary gain, and more pursuing a lifelong passion. “When I wasn’t working, I’d spend my time concocting recipes or arranging dinner parties,” he said. “There are terrible hours in investment banking, so I always found cooking a therapeutic way to wind down. My boss used to come to me to arrange team-building cooking trips, or book restaurants.”
He signed up for the television show Masterchef last year, while working as a freelance equity researcher. The idea, he said, was simply to see how far he could go – fail in the early rounds and he goes back to the day job. Succeed, and then see whether he can switch a hobby into a career.
Koj made it through to the final, painting a picture of himself as being unusually mild-mannered – even slightly cutesy – for someone working in the City. His laid back demeanour masks a quiet determination that has given him the confidence to quit finance and become a chef full-time, though. He now cooks for private dinner parties and corporate events.
“From a financial point of view it’s tough; there’s no guaranteed income or chance of a bonus. Plus, I have to spend around two months a year working in top restaurants to gain more experience,” he said. “But it’s not about the money; I’m pursuing my passion. However, the fact that I worked in the financial sector, understand capital, pricing and business models, has made the transition a lot easier.”
There’s also the fact that he does a lot of work in the City. Around 50% of his current client base are either ex-colleagues or people who have been recommended him through his investment banking contacts, he said.
Koj is by no means alone in quitting banking for cooking. Judy Joo left Morgan Stanley in 2002, and is now executive chef at the Playboy Club in London, Nick Gibson, who runs the Drapers Arms in Islington, said he “loathed the work and the values” while at various investment banks in the City, which spurred him to quit the industry.
The business case
Others leaving finance for food have done so for decidedly more pragmatic reasons – because they think they can make money. Stephen Harrington worked as a trader for 20 years before moving into headhunting in 2006: “When the financial crisis hit, the bottom fell out of front office recruitment. It went from being very lucrative before Lehman collapsed, to non-existent for 18 months afterwards. I learned a technique to produce really good bread in 2001, and though it was the ideal time to turn it into a business.”
In 2012, he launched Harrington’s Kitchen, which runs bread-making classes at two locations in Beckenham and Greenwich. Baking is a popular passion among ex-financiers. Tom Molner, an ex-energy trader at Cargill, runs artisan bakery Gail’s, which has convinced Londoners to shell out more than £3 a loaf for top quality bread, while Paul Shackleton, who lost his job at JPMorgan earlier this year, launched Plan Bread – a sandwich delivery company capitalising on the craze for low-carb food.
Similarly, Michael Sohel, who worked for UBS’s investment bank until 2011, started Lovepickle – a new business based around four family chutney recipes – in 2012 and says it’s less about a passion for food and more “translating a family recipe into a commercial entity” and that he left banking because it was “an opportunity to launch a new product”.
“To be absolutely frank, I went into this because I think it can make money, not because of a change in lifestyle,” he said. “I’m working hard to build a brand and a successful business. I would describe myself as a foodie – and we’re selling fine foods to the high end market.”
He’s applying the skills acquired working in a business development and project management position in an investment bank to the new venture: “We understand the language of finance, the market assessment and analysis required to work out whether this is a feasible opportunity. I also have the softer skills – assessing client requirements, and delivering.”
Cashing in indirectly
Timo Schmidt, who worked for Rothschild’s investment banking division before joining hedge fund Petrus Advisers, is now also hoping to capitalise on the relatively new-found taste for artisan food. In 2012, he founded Gousto, which delivers organic, locally produced food in exact quantities required for particular recipes. The venture has now secured £1.5m in seed funding, having recently acquired an additional £500k from Angel CoFund and private investors.
“I enjoyed my previous job, and being a vice president in a successful hedge fund at age 26 after only four years in finance was a great career,” he enthused. “So why did I leave? Whatever I do, I work incredibly hard and, therefore, I have to love what I do. I have always dreamed about starting a business and my biggest passion by far is food and cooking for friends and family.”
The food industry is one that more financial professionals are eyeing following the latest rounds of redundancies in the sector, he argues: “The less financial upside people see in banking, the more people start businesses. My friends at banks survived ten or more firing rounds so surely the opportunity cost to starting a business is lower today than it was pre-crisis. Lots of people are looking for new challenges.”