Rafael Lopez, SVP, head of investment operations, Asia Pacific, PIMCO, speaks to eFinancialcareers about his career.
Q: Was working in the financial sector what you always envisioned yourself doing?
My family has always been very entrepreneurial; they were in the retail clothing line so I worked in the business during my school days. I always knew that I wanted to be an entrepreneur and work in sales, but as I continued my studies (Lopez graduated with a Bachelor of Science, Commerce, at DePaul University and has a MBA from Lake Forest Graduate School of Management), I developed a growing appetite for the financial industry and wanted to incorporate my sales background into a banking career.
Q: How did you get to where you are today?
My introduction into the businesses world in the US was at Bank of America, where I worked for 10 years. I started in the back office operations, processing bank loans for commercial clients, before moving into other aspects of the businesses, including middle and front office.
During the second half of my career at the bank, I fell in love with trading and asset management. I was in trade support working closely with high-yield trading and distressed debt. It was here that I felt that I could incorporate both my entrepreneurial and sales skills. I had finally found an area which I could excel in, while sharpening my people and presentation skills.
After working for a firm with tens of thousands of employees, I wanted to join a lean firm which was growing. So I joined PIMCO in 1999 as an operations manager. My initial time here was short-lived (slightly under two years), because certain support functions were being outsourced to State Street. I joined State Street for about four and a half years, before another opportunity came up at PIMCO. As the firm has been expanding in Asia in recent years, the role has given me the opportunity to be based in different cities across Asia including Tokyo, Hong Kong and now Singapore; I’ve spent about six years in the region.
Q: You’ve worked in various different roles, what career advice would you give candidates who are thinking of switching sectors?
I think switching sectors is definitely challenging, most employers want staff to be able to hit the ground running. That said, I think there’s a lot of positive upside to moving people internally, firms all want the best talent.
Firstly, candidates need to take an inventory of their skills. If they enjoy quants, analysis and number crunching, perhaps it could lead them into investment or risk management. Or if an operations person regularly services clients, it may pique an interest in marketing and sales. It’s really about what makes a person tick.
Being a trader and being seen on television, that’s alluring for some, but it comes with a huge set of responsibilities. You need to be attuned to geopolitical and macro and micro issues. If that isn’t your skill set, you’ll fall flat on your face, so you really need to focus on where your skills lie.
Q: What’s the biggest career challenge that you’ve faced and how did you cope with that?
Early on in my career I had a manager who told me “I hate to burst your bubble, but you’ll never succeed if you ever want to be in this role.” He said people who made it had specific degrees from specific universities. Being young, that hurt me very much, but it also motivated me. I participated in industry forums and went back to school to get my MBA. I’d like to thank that manager for motivating me to take risks and pushing me to learn something new every single day.
Another story I’ll share was my transition from State Street to PIMCO. When I was at State Street I managed a team of 50 individuals, I got huge satisfaction from mentoring young people in their 20s and helping these individuals progress in their careers.
When I joined PIMCO, I didn’t manage anyone initially. My job was to come up with strategic growth plans. Being on my own meant I had to focus on my technical skills, that transition period of about six months or so, served me very well. I had to take two steps backwards, assess workflows and processes, all the things that I never had time to look at to gain a broader perspective, but it was a very good exercise.
Q: You’ve worked in Singapore, Hong Kong and Tokyo with PIMCO, how different is working in Asia compared to the West?
PIMCO emphasises diversity and talent management. I’m glad to have the opportunity working with people coming from different cultures within the firm and learning the subtlety of the various working styles.
Generally speaking, the business cultures in Asia tend to focus on precision and detail, that’s not saying this isn’t the case in North America, but it’s something especially true here. It’s an approach I’ve learnt to embrace. Getting things right the first time means you won’t have to do it again, it also cultivates patience.
Another thing I’ve observed with Asian clients is that they like having multiple options. They’re very sophisticated and don’t want things shoved down their throat. You’ve got to be very careful in listening to their needs.
Q: What’s a typical day like for you?
I’m typically in the office by 7am and usually spend the mornings on conference calls with my colleagues in North America. Through out the day I work with different teams in the region, trying to make sure that everyone is coordinated. I also do my regular job, which is to squeeze in reporting and individual projects. During the evening I talk to my colleagues in Munich and London.
In my current role I wear many hats. I provide client servicing, trade support, look at risk requests and meet with prospective clients and our portfolio managers, so I can’t be pigeonholed into middle or front office. That’s why I enjoy my job; it’s a hybrid role that’s very challenging and interesting.