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Fly on the wall: Here’s what it’s like to be a graduate trainee at UBS


If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to be a bright young thing being groomed for greater things at a global bank (read: graduate trainee) – wonder no more.

Last week, eFinancialCareers sat in on part of a business dynamics course for 26 UBS graduate trainees from across Asia Pacific. All hail from the middle and back office – including compliance, IT, risk, operations and HR.

The five-day programme held at the UBS Businesses University in Singapore centres on a business simulation, whose premise sounds ripe for reality TV. Trainees are split into five teams and compete fiercely against each other with their mock businesses. The goal: to run a profit-making enterprise at the end of five years.

Intense is an understatement

From the get-go, participants knew that it was going to be extremely intense. The programme kicked-off each day at 8.30am and wrapped up at 9pm, sometimes even later as teams broke out into their own discussions. The first morning started easily enough though with introductions. The trainees, most of which have worked for under a year, talked about their current role at UBS, their aims for the week, their least favourite nickname, their most embarrassing moment and a talent that they have.

Becoming CEOs

Once the ice breaking got out of the way, the trainer solicited responses from the attendees on the factors needed to run a successful business – including the location, debt, equity, assets, inventory, cash flow, employees, customers, nature of the company, suppliers, competition, marketing, research, management strategy, profits, revenue, costs, investments and the regulatory/political environment. The trainer then got everyone thinking about how those aspects related to their roles within UBS.

Next up, trainees were inducted into the basic rules of the game and split into teams. They were an Australian luxury yacht company that has been around for 70 years. While it had previously always made a profit, the last couple of years had been difficult, with the firm sustaining some small losses. Disgruntled shareholders had dismissed the old board and had brought in a new one (i.e. the trainees) in hopes that the firm could be returned to profitability over the next five years.

The rebranding challenge

Some background information was provided: the firm had only operated within Asia Pacific, it had only every made entry-level yachts, never venturing into more upmarket models. The firm also had an image problem, thanks to its rather unimaginative name of Yachts Inc.

Trainees had to first rebrand the firm; coming up with a new name, logo and tagline. Teams also had to allocate the different board roles including CEO, CFO, director of production and procurement, director of sales, and director of marketing. The only proviso? Those who had direct experience in any of these areas had to take on a different function. Each team was also mentored by an experienced manager from UBS who provided some guidance as they went along.

A little drama

More challenges were thrown in during the week. The board faced off against their demanding employees in three town hall meetings, they also underwent cut-throat bidding for contracts. Another spanner was thrown into the works when each board had its sales director suddenly leave for the competition. By the time day five and the shareholder presentations came around, the boards had dealt with several unexpected problems.

One firm had to close down its China factory, while others had to grapple with smaller market share. Investors, as role-played by the trainer and facilitators, were merciless, asking tough questions around cost, profitability, future plans and so forth. Before announcing the winner, Lee Elliott, executive director of operations at UBS, also shared some insights on building competitive advantage within the firm.

In the end, as with any competition, one team, Nauticus, emerged as the clear winner. Cordelia Chan, 26, CEO of the winning team and a HR graduate trainee based in Hong Kong, says the biggest challenge was having to be adaptable when things didn’t go to plan – for instance, when the team didn’t cinch certain bids that it thought were a shoo-in. “My biggest takeaway was that I needed to make sure I understand my internal clients at UBS. It also helped me to be more innovative and think outside the box.”

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