Beavering away behind the scenes as a solicitor for six years may not seem the ideal way to launch an equity capital markets (ECM) career, but Hong Kong banker Eliot Fisk managed to do just that.
By the end of the 1990s, Fisk – who’s now taking a career break to travel and climb mountains – had worked at law firm Lovells in Hong Kong for six years, but he’d already got a taste for investment banking via two earlier internships at Merrill Lynch. “Interning there compared to working at a law firm was like being in a gymnasium compared to in a library – there was so much more energy,” says Fisk. “In my law job a lot of the day was spent at my desk drafting documents. That’s great if you’re more of an introvert, but I have a more extraverted personality, so ultimately I knew I’d enjoy investment banking better.”
In 1999 the Asia head of ECM at Merrill offered Fisk a role as an associate in his team – he wanted to tap his legal skills and knowledge of financial regulations to help boost relations with the firm’s compliance department. “Suddenly becoming a banker was a huge learning curve and I didn’t sleep much at the start. I’d never even done a PowerPoint before – the other associates could do the same work in half the time.
Associate ECM roles at Merrill in Hong Kong at that time combined both pitching and execution work, explains Fisk. “It was the only bank doing it this way, so it was an ideal environment to learn in. We were mainly focused on the market during trading hours, mainly executing deals, then we’d work on pitch books. At other banks it was all about bashing out pitches.”
“Also, in the 1990s Merrill was the type of bank I wanted to work for in terms of its culture. Big banks now are much more homogenous, but back then Merrill had a distinct culture of caring for employees rather than just shareholders – these were the so-called ‘Mother Merrill’ days,” says Fisk. “It sounds clichéd, but principles like ‘client focus’ and 'respect for the individual' were still hung on office walls.”
So why did Fisk end up joining J.P. Morgan in 2002? “Sometimes the best decisions for your career are made by other people and don’t seem positive at the time. Stanley O’Neal had taken over as president of Merrill in 2001 and was downsizing the firm from 70,000 to 50,000 people after the dot-com bubble – my team was affected. That was the end of Mother Merrill.”
By 2001, however, J.P. Morgan was heading in the opposite direction as the dismantling of the Glass-Steagall Act allowed it to build up an ECM team. “I had a provisional job offer from JPM in Hong Kong – then 9/11 happened and everything was put on hold. But by 2002 JPM was back on track. While I was sceptical about joining at first because they didn’t have a strong ECM track record in Asia, they expanded quickly and hired top people from firms like Goldman, Morgan Stanley and Credit Suisse.”
Three years later, in 2005, the move to J.P. Morgan really paid off for Fisk. “I was only a senior associate but they put me in charge of the Asian ECM syndicate desk, managing a small team. My main strength was in execution rather than origination, and sometimes you have very good managers who recognise where your skills lie so you can focus on what you’re good at. Banks too often tie people to things that they’re not good at – that’s like telling Pete Sampras to play football, not tennis.”
Fisk says working in ECM syndicate has changed a lot over the past 10 years, especially in Asia. “For starters, back then there were fewer main bookrunners on each deal; nowadays issuers appoint pretty much every bank as a bookrunner. And in the mid-2000s the big Chinese state-owned enterprises needed the help of the foreign banks just to make their IPOs marketable. Now local banks are increasingly capable of helping issuers.”
But some of the fundamental skills remain the same. “It’s not just me – everyone basically needs to be an extrovert in this sector as you must really enjoy talking to people. You’re going to be doing 20 to 30 calls a day – to issuers, other banks and investors.”
And you must put your communication skills to work to ensure syndicate deals don’t fall apart. “Half your mind should think like a salesperson and half should be aware of the buyer’s concerns. You must bridge the gap, which can sometimes be very wide, so you must be a good facilitator between people to avoid a deal reaching an impasse.”