Bounding into a nondescript Manhattan conference room, former Citigroup chief executive Vikram Pandit is a powerful advertisement for swapping the banking world for the glamour and promise of financial technology.
His firm Orogen has invested more than $350m in fintech groups, and while Mr Pandit says he is working more “intensely” than he expected when he set up the venture two years ago, he savours being part of the “significant shift in the architecture of finance” that is gripping the sector.
Fintech groups are growing rapidly, challenging established financial institutions by harnessing new technologies — such as artificial intelligence and facial recognition — to offer new services such as online lending and automated investment advice.
Antony Jenkins, who was forced out as Barclays chief in 2015, is similarly full of the joys of his new life even though his fintech 10x Future Technologies recently lost out on a big contract with Virgin Money.
The former Barclays boss says his new job is “essentially brilliant”; he relishes being more hands on with his 200 staff and was “never concerned with all the status and resources that went with” running a bank with 120,000 employees and operations all over the world.
Jonathan Larsen, the former global head of retail banking at Citigroup who now runs the fintech fund at 10x investor Ping An, says Mr Jenkins’ involvement brings a “huge amount of credibility” to the venture.
As banks face tougher regulation, fierce competition from start-ups and endless cost cuts, fintech has become a tantalising prospect for those who feel the “old” industry has too many constraints, is losing too much ground or is unable to pay their wages any more.
But while Mr Pandit and Mr Jenkins give a glowing account of their fintech reincarnations, interviews with more than a dozen other former bankers paint a more nuanced picture where the freedom, adrenalin rush and rapid growth of fintech is tinged with unrealistic expectations, mismatched skill sets, bruised egos and sharp wake-up calls.
“It’s a complete culture shock,” says Darragh McCarthy, a former senior executive in Morgan Stanley’s fixed-income division who set up FinTrU in Belfast five years ago and now has a team of 330 people offering regulatory solutions to investment banks.
Mr McCarthy recalls the sudden realisation that “I needed to do everything myself from building my first website to ordering my internet line to ordering business cards and printing my PowerPoints”. Some of these were tasks he had not done in “probably 20 years . . . there were a lot of people below me to help, investment banks give you all that”.
The practical support of big organisations is far from the only thing bankers miss. “I have seen several senior financial services people move into the start-up world and expect the world to still judge them as a managing director in a tier one bank,” says Arun Krishnakumar, a former Barclays risk expert who now runs a fintech and the healthcare VC fund Green Shores Capital. “They often don't realise that they start from scratch, and have to re-establish credibility.”
Mr Larsen, who made the switch from a big US bank to the fintech sector in 2017, says the move quickly reveals “how much of who you are is the stature that you have in your job, versus that substance of what you can do and what you can create”.
That loss of stature “comes with the territory” for career changes, says Mr Pandit. “If those are the kind of things that bother you then you should do a lot of soul searching,” he adds. “Knowledge of who you are and what you like to do, and what you’re willing to do in order to do what you like to do, is really critical.”
Sometimes bankers have to learn humility, at least in the early days. Nick Hungerford, a former Barclays wealth manager who founded the UK online wealth manager Nutmeg in 2011, says the biggest wake-up call for him in Nutmeg’s early days was realising he had gone from being a “high achiever in a big bank . . . to suddenly going to be the guy who is by far the most useless person in the company”.
“All the people who were building the product and coding the tech, very quickly I discovered that they were the ones who were critical and my job was making sure that they could do their work. I was the one who was buying lunch and cleaning the bathroom and fixing the office,” he says.
Then there is adjusting to working for something smaller. “I miss the breadth of potential activities you can do,” says Santiago Suarez, a former JPMorgan banker who has just launched online lender Addi in Colombia. “I obviously miss the sense of scale, one of the easiest ways to start recruiting [is to tell people] . . . you will touch 2tn a day of dollar clearing volume. That’s pretty cool.”
Aritra Chakravarty, a former HSBC banker who founded two UK-based fintechs, says: “If you’re in an influential position in a bank then you can still make a pretty positive difference for millions of customers. Start-ups take time to get things up and running.”
A key reason so many bankers go into fintech is that they have credibility, contacts and transferable skills that should give them an edge over outsider entrepreneurs.
“FinTrU does not have a single client that isn’t somehow people that I worked with or worked for or worked for me,” says Mr McCarthy. “FinTrU’s marketing angle is built on the power of my network . . . They know my reputation and trust me that when I say I will do something, I will do it. And they understand that I know the pressures they are facing in an investment bank.”
He adds: “People talk about fintech, they talk about the tech and they forget about the fin.”
Mr Suarez says that when he meets Colombian regulators he makes “a point of bringing up those JPMorgan credentials fairly regularly. In San Francisco, it would be ‘oh my God you worked for a large bank are you a dinosaur?’ Here they [finance credentials] help you quite a lot.”
Mr Jenkins says his personal brand is “quite important”, since the problem 10x is trying to solve — unleashing the power of digital banking — is a “problem I deeply understand”.
“People are willing to listen because obviously I’ve been there,” he says, adding, “it [profile] only gets you so far”.
Mr Chakravarty says a combination of experience in investment banking and digital execution helped him to raise $5m within five weeks of leaving his job at HSBC. Bankers he saw on the fundraising circuit without execution experience were raising less, he says.
He adds that his experience winning budget for internal projects also stood him in good stead. “In the venture capital space, you just need one guy to say yes,” he says, adding that inside a bank “you just need one guy to say no”.
Other senior bankers who have made the switch to fintech include Anshu Jain, the former Deutsche Bank boss who is an adviser to the US online lender SoFi, and Blythe Masters, the former JPMorgan executive who ran the blockchain technology specialist Digital Asset before quitting last month.
Mr Jenkins and Mr Pandit are not blind to fintech’s challenges for some of their fellow finance alumni. Mr Pandit says having a commercial proposition is crucial, adding that “technology is not a business model”.
“It absolutely isn’t for everybody,” says Mr Jenkins. “You have to see the world in a different way . . . that allows you to both identify problems and identify solutions that other people haven’t thought of.”
“When you are doing this type of work it’s an adrenalin ride,” he adds. “Things happen very fast, some things work, some things don’t. You don’t have the security of a large organisation behind you to absorb the ups and downs, and for some people that would be an uncomfortable transition to make.”
Mr Suarez says he advises people that “starting a company should be the last option, not the first option”. He adds: “A totally under appreciated path is to join a company that has a proven track record and is growing like crazy.”
People should not swap from banks to fintech so they can retire sooner, he warns. “If that’s your trade you should go into private equity or a hedge fund,” he says. “The expected value of those careers is just much higher. Doing a start-up, the odds are it won’t work out.”
The dos and don’ts of getting into fintech
Do: Think hard first. “Really think about what motivates you, what you’re passionate about, and think about have you identified a problem and secondarily do you have a solution which is far superior to any other solution out there and then are you willing to go on the journey that inevitably has ups and downs as an entrepreneur,” says Antony Jenkins.
Do: Show you care. “You just don’t hire people that aren’t passionate for the area the fintech is working [in],” says Nick Hungerford. “No one survives a start-up if they don’t believe in the mission, it’s just not worth the emotional and physical and financial stress.”
Do: Temper your expectations. “No one pays you JPMorgan money when you have an 11-person start-up, but it can be quite exhilarating,” says Santiago Suarez.
Don’t: Write off the competition. “Never underestimate the power of incumbents, for the profitability they have, the scale they have, the customers they have,” says Vikram Pandit. “There are incumbents that can move fast.”
Don’t: Expect an easy ride. “It’s very tough to create a new business,” says Jonathan Larsen. “This is a long road and I’m sure there are some people who get lucky very soon but they are few and far between.”
Don’t: Think it’s an escape from regulators. “The notion of regulatory arbitrage as a reason to go and build something new is not a good premise,” says Mr Pandit. “The notion of escaping the intent of regulation is a tough one [to achieve].”
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