If you think investment banking offers the only route to forging an dynamic international career in finance, don’t tell Russell Graham. The Englishman, who now runs a consultancy in Thailand, has worked in senior roles at global banks in the UK, US, Hong Kong and Singapore – and he’s got to the top by specialising in transaction banking.
“Sadly, I still don’t think enough graduates are considering working in transaction banking – many aren’t exposed to it on their rotations so they don’t understand the benefits,” says Graham. “You get client-facing and revenue responsibilities early on in your career and it’s a truly global function at the larger banks.”
But when Graham graduated from the University of Birmingham in the UK he had no intention of embarking on a global career. “Back then most British banks offered either local or international programmes. Ironically, given that I’ve spent the majority of my working life outside the UK, I choose local when I joined Midland Bank in 1984.”
He soon left the local track, however, and ended up in Midland USA’s New York office looking after the American banking needs of British companies. But it wasn’t the move to New York that gave Graham the biggest shock; it was shifting to Delaware in 1997 to co-manage a team of 40 people in a new US dollar clearing business formed from the sale of a J.P. Morgan unit to HSBC, the firm that had by then acquired Midland. “I’d always worked as a sole contributor, now I had a big team. On the first morning in charge I wanted to run back into my office and close the door.”
How did Graham cope with his sudden rise up the managerial ranks at HSBC? “I formed a cross-mentoring society with the other manager and I was honest with my staff – I said ‘I’m new to this, so be open with me and say when you think I’m wrong’.”
Heading to Hong Kong
Graham’s next move was an international one – he became regional head of implementation and service at HSBC in Hong Kong. “In 2000 the head of payments and cash management in Asia came to Delaware to get my ideas for building a US dollar clearing business in Hong Kong. That was on a Wednesday – on the Friday I was asked when I was moving to HK. I hadn’t actually realised it was a job interview!”
Starting out in Hong Kong brought a few surprises. “At 11.59am on day one I looked around and the entire 23rd floor was empty – in Delaware everyone eats lunch at their desks; in HK everyone goes out.”
“During the early days in Hong Kong I’d go on late conference calls and tell my team I wanted them all out of the office when my call ended. Then one day my secretary told me that while my heart was in the right place, I was a bit misguided. Some of the younger staff were living in overcrowded family apartments and wanted to stay in the office as long as possible because it was less stressful.”
After eight years in Hong Kong, Graham was poached by Deutsche Bank in London for a newly created role, global head of implementation and service. “At HSBC I had great exposure to cash management, but at Deutsche I added trade finance and more European responsibilities. I also learnt that just because something works at one bank doesn’t mean it will at another. I came with a kit bag of key ideas from HSBC – and some of them didn’t work at Deutsche because at first I didn’t look at how their business had got to where it was.”
At Deutsche Graham spent about half of his time on the road. “I was one of the few senior managers in transaction banking who got dust on their shoes. It’s tiring, but you have to do it – you can’t stay in Hong Kong or London and understand what’s really going on elsewhere.”
By 2011 Graham was keen to make a permanent move back “home” to Asia, but Deutsche insisted that his role couldn’t be located there. Standard Chartered, by contrast, offered him a global job – head of service and solution delivery – and based him in Singapore. “I managed to add new products and geographies each time I moved banks, and at Stan Chart I added security services and covered Africa for the first time.”
Entering "the matrix"
He spent the first nine months at Stan Chart getting to grips with the firm’s “matrix system”. “It means you need to talk to about 50 people before you can implement changes. I found it difficult at first, but then a senior manager explained that it was about getting everyone aligned first so we know the change will actually be successful.”
Graham eventually decided to leave Standard Chartered – and the banking sector – in June 2015. “As part of an overall transaction banking initiative, I was already planning reorganisations within my department ahead of Bill Winters’s more recent restructuring announcement. But I realised that over the previous 12 months I’d been attending too many déjà vu meetings – the topics and problems were staying the same.”
In need of a new challenge, Graham teamed up with Lawrence Webb, a former head of trade and supply chain at HSBC, to form SkyTxB, a consultancy that helps Asian banks to build and expand transaction banking businesses. He also moved countries again – this time to Thailand and his newly built house in the northern city of Chiang Mai.
Graham’s key advice for budding transaction bankers? “Don’t specialise too soon in your career and don’t look at jobs in an obvious way. Don’t just do the five core responsibilities of your role, look at opportunities to do a sixth and a seventh.”
Image credit: Thomas Northcut, DigitalVision, ThinkStock