The life of an athlete isn’t always the glitz, glamour and huge pay days associated with football, the NFL and basketball. Many competing at an elite level do so in sports that offer little financial reward, but still require the same focus, commitment and sacrifice. Career planning can fall by the wayside, but financial services firms are increasingly offering opportunities to sportsmen with little or no financial experience.
“There’s a lot of support and emphasis on education and career development within the sporting world, but the difficult nature of training programmes, combined with the increase in lottery funding, has enabled athletes to go full-time, which sometimes can have an adverse effect on career planning,” said Annie Panter, a member of the bronze-medal winning Great Britain Women’s hockey team. “Individuals and sporting bodies, need to be very proactive in ensuring athletes are prepared for their careers after sport.”
Panter now works in Goldman Sachs securities division in role that requires her to be in the office four days a week to allow time for her training schedule. She came through an internship at the bank in December, organised with specialist recruitment firm Add-Victor, which also offered work experience to six other Olympians. Rob Williams, who won a silver medal in the men’s lightweight fours rowing at London 2012, also works at the bank.
This is indicative of a growing trend of elite athletes gravitating towards careers in finance. It may not seem like an obvious route, particularly as the barriers to entry into an investment banking job are high and those that succeed have the right blend of work experience, education and extra-curricular activities.
However, Steve White-Cooper, an ex-England and Harlequins rugby player who founded Add-Victor last year with Thomas Onions, head of corporate advisory at Santander UK, said that banks often overlook a lack of relevant experience when hiring athletes.
“It’s incredibly important for athletes to look beyond their sporting career, and achieve the sort of structured work experience that will open doors for them,” he said. “However, the pressures of training make it difficult for them to go through the traditional route into banking, undertaking internships, for example. There are a lot of synergies between the pressures of elite sport and the requirements of working in the financial sector. Banks are increasingly open-minded.”
Athletes in the City of London and on Wall Street
Henderson Asset Management is another firm that has been active in recruiting athletes. Laura Bartlett, also part of the GB hockey team, joined the company this year as did rower Marcus Bateman. It also employs Michael Brown, who plays cricket for Surrey, as an investment analyst.
The City is littered with elite sportsmen. Jim Staples, an ex-Harlequins and Ireland rugby captain is a managing director within Barclays investment bank; Katy Roberts, another GB hockey player, works for Nomura; Peter Marsland, an ex-Cambridge and GB rower, works at Schroders as a client executive; cricketer Will Kendall works for Rathbones Private Bank; Bill Waugh, a former GB hockey player, now works for UBS wealth management and Abdul Buhari, a GB discus thrower who competed at last year’s Olympics, is a relationship manager at Credit Suisse. Until recently, ex-England rugby star Josh Lewsey worked as a trader at Citi.
Wall Street is also extending the olive branch to athletes. Merrill Lynch Wealth Management unveiled an internship National Football League (NFL) players to gain financial sector experience order to plan for their career after sport. Ex-Giants line backer, Brandon Short, had been working for Goldman Sachs in Dubai, but left last month to start his own Islamic bank. Goldman also employs Peter Hudnut, a member of the U.S water polo team in the 2012 Olympics.
Andrew Gargus was a professional triathlete, representing Scotland and Great Britain, but he now works as a fund manager at Hawkwood Capital in London. “I reached a point where I had to make choice whether to try to continue to improve or start thinking about my career outside sport. I finished earlier than I thought, and focused on trying to break into finance around two years ago,” he said.
What’s so special about athletes?
What is it about elite sportsmen that attracts financial firms? After all, competition for places is incredibly intense, with investment banks receiving over 80 applications for every available graduate position. Investment banking careers also require notoriously long hours, which is not conducive to a punishing training schedule.
Panter said that Goldman Sachs has been “very flexible and understanding” about her hockey commitments, and believes that elite sport has many parallels to working in finance.
“No one succeeds in elite sport unless they’re disciplined and self-driven – you can have all the support in the world but, ultimately, you have to push yourself,” she said. “Operating in a pressurised environment, working towards both individual and team goals, time management and a natural competitive nature are traits that can transfer across to the financial sector.”
In the late-1990s, Neil Owen competed in the 110m hurdles for Great Britain, but these days he’s global practice director at recruiters Robert Half’s financial services division. He takes a particular interest in enabling athletes to break into the sector. While some banks recruit elite athletes for the PR shine it can glean, there are qualities that make athletes ideal for banking even if they have little or no experience, he said.
“Athletes are highly entrepreneurial, whether in managing their career or running their own business,” he said. “They’ve spent their sports careers employing managers, agents, coaches and medical support staff, so they understand how business works and have experience negotiating contracts and endorsements.”
There’s a chance that Goldman may replicate the internship with Add-Victor this year, although this is not yet confirmed, but White-Cooper remains convinced that athletes will continue to gravitate towards the financial sector in the near term.
“They’re competitive, intensely focused and have a never say die attitude that will undoubtedly help banks gain market share,” he said.