In the competitive world of private banking in the Middle East, George Azar is something of a veteran, having been working in the region for over 16 years. Like any good salesman, he’s an opportunist and has made career moves to lead big international companies looking for an old head to take the reins at a company new to the Gulf.
In 2011, as US investment bank Jefferies decided to make a tentative step into the Middle East with a two-person Dubai office and Azar took the managing director role at the firm, seizing the chance to work for a big name after over 15 years at private bank UBP.
Now, as Swiss bank Banque Syz & Co opens a new office in the Dubai International Financial Centre to service clients across the region, Azar has switched companies again to lead the venture. So far, there are no firm plans for further hires, but once the bank is established, it may expand, says Azar. He tells us about what he looks for in new recruits.
How did you break into banking? What advice would you offer others looking to do so?
Well, I went to school in Switzerland, which is the capital of private banking for Middle Eastern clients, so I decided to follow what was a natural fit for me. I spoke Arabic, French and English and this by itself is an advantage in this industry. I always liked numbers and had a natural understanding of it and, once in the industry, I loved it.
For people trying to make a career in this field, they need to first like this industry and second have a clear plan to what his or her focus within this industry will be. This industry has become so competitive and clients so educated, you can no longer be a one-stop-shop to the client, but instead you need to focus on the key strengths of the institution and take it to the client.
What was your biggest break?
Every institution provided a break of some sort within my career, depending on the timing and circumstances. However, I would say that the biggest one of all was from 2003-2009 when hedge funds became the top-selling item in the market and it happened that I was working for one of the top-three providers of hedge funds in the world. This also opened the door for me to the sovereign wealth funds world, where I was able to excel.
Has your career been conventional or capricious?
I think it’s a combination of both. You need to know the rules and regulations to work within the conventional business practices of the industry, but with time I had to be capricious and hungry to succeed. In today’s world, if you don’t have an edge to other banks, clients won’t work with you. I might be repeating myself but you have to focus on the strength of the bank you are working for and not on all its product lines.
What three things would you advise someone to do before stepping into an interview with you?
Well, I’m a very straight and spontaneous person. My answers will come from the heart so I would recommend first that the person being interviewed is honest because I will find out very quickly if you are not. Second, I believe in appearances and presentation, so the person needs to have what it takes to impress me in the way he or she presents themselves. We are in the service industry and this is a very important factor in the equation. Third is to be prepared for the interview, since I’m a sales guy and I know quickly if this person is fit for the job or not.
What’s a surefire way NOT to get hired by you?
To give me a list of your prospect names that looks similar to those used by most other bankers to get hired.
What do you do to relax?
Plan and think for the next big thing and how we should achieve it.
Who do you most admire?
People who succeed and still want to work harder. I believe that in life your success is not about making money but about your continuity.