Barclays' GCC corporate banking head moved into finance despite parental pressure

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To Rezwan Mirza, head of the corporate banking division at Barclays in the UAE and GCC, loyalty is important. The 42-year-old moved to the Middle East in 2007 after a long spell at UBS’s investment bank in New York because he wanted to be closer to his family in Pakistan after his father’s health took a turn for the worse. Barclays was the third firm he’d worked for in 12 years.

He has taken four roles at Barclays in the Middle East since 2007, switching to corporate banking after 10 years in investment banking. The secret to career progression in the financial sector is to seize the right opportunity when it presents itself – even if it’s outside your comfort zone, he says.

How did you break into finance?

I was always interested in finance and economics at high school, but my parents – who were self-made individuals – were insistent that I studied a professional qualification at university. The deal was either medicine or engineering, so I took the latter option, studying at Rice University in Houston, Texas. While I was there I also opted for a Masters in Accounting, and gained Certified Public Accountant (CPA) status. I was then able to say to my parents that I had a professional qualification, but just not the one they had in mind.

I started at Ernst & Young’s audit group in Texas, which was a great grounding, but after four years I really wanted to move into investment banking, so decided to go for an MBA at the University of Chicago, Booth School of Business. After this, my first break in was at Paine Webber in 1999, which was later acquired by UBS.

So, how did you end up in the Middle East?

I stayed at UBS in New York for nearly eight years, but I wanted to be closer to my family in Pakistan – my father was very ill and I wanted to be able to help my mother out with this. It was also a great opportunity at Barclays, as a director in their Dubai-based investment banking team. After three years, I moved across to the corporate bank – again, this was a good opportunity, but also part of a wider initiative to more closely align the corporate bank with the investment banking activities.

Has your career been conventional or capricious?

I would say that there are very few conventional careers in finance, because it’s subject to such dynamic change. It’s rare that you’ll meet someone who has stayed in a similar job or sector for 10-15 years, so you need to be flexible and seize the opportunities when they present themselves. You’re not born to do a particular role in banking, so you need to do whatever it takes to advance your career.

What advice would you offer to people looking to enter banking now?

I’d tell them what I told 100 students at my daughter’s school during a career day last week – banking is still an absolutely critical element of the economy and anyone who works in the industry is incredibly important to society. Regardless of the challenges facing the industry now, it’s still an interesting and valuable vocation. If you make a loan to a company, that company will often be able to continue to employ hundreds of people, or will expand, and will then be able to buy a product from a vendor which in turn has hundreds on its payroll. You can still make a difference and that should still resonate with people.

Is Barclays expanding its corporate bank in the Middle East?

We’re expanding our corporate banking franchise in the region and have made a number of strategic hires over the past 12 months and will continue to recruit in 2013. We expect to increase headcount by around 10% this year, primarily out of our UAE office in Dubai.

These will predominantly be client-facing roles, and at all levels of seniority from analyst through to director. However, we’re also recruiting across the board – for risk management, but also operations and even communications.

Will you be searching internationally or locally for new recruits?

We’ll be searching on a global basis, but clearly we’re also focused on hiring UAE nationals. We’ve transferred people internally from the UK, but also recruited from other institutions from overseas.

For relationship manager roles, clearly it helps to understand the client base and have a good set of contacts to in the region, but for cash management, debt finance and other technical roles, it’s more about having the product knowledge, which means we can recruit locally, regionally and globally.

Imagine I want to work for you, what would make you hire me?

Aside from professionalism, technical knowhow and expertise, the key thing we look for is integrity– Barclays CEO Antony Jenkins has been very clear about the banks’ values and anyone joining would need to buy into and live by these values. These are respect, integrity, service, excellence and stewardship.

What would you advise people to do before stepping into an interview with you?

You need to be prepared and really understand the organisation and job you’re going for as well as the person interviewing you. If someone asks a question about me that they could have easily found by a simple Google search, then it shows they haven’t done their homework. I recently interviewed a young man who said he couldn’t imagine working for any other bank and he’d be happy working for any Barclays office across the GCC. Again, if he’d researched, he would have seen the corporate bank is based out of the UAE.

What’s a surefire way NOT to get hired by you?

If someone didn’t have a legitimate reason for making a move. When I interviewed at Barclays they saw that it would have only have been the third organisation I would work for in my whole career. When they asked why I wanted to change banks and move to the Middle East, I told them it was for family reasons more than the career opportunity and they respected that.

What would you do if you weren’t working in finance?

I’ve always wanted to try and get a PhD in either History or English Literature. Stories from history have fascinated me, and you really couldn’t make them up if you tried – I’m a fount of random information about historical events. I’m also a big fan of Alexander Dumas and have a great deal of knowledge about his work – not just The Three Musketeers, but the whole series of follow-up novels. This can drive people nuts during quizzes.

What do you do to relax?

I play with my three kids – I’m currently trying to teach my two boys how to play soccer, and am dealing with my 15-year-old daughter’s teenage angst, which is an interesting time.

Who do you most admire?

Martin Luther King Jr. I’m a student of history and he’s an admirable person who wasn’t afraid to stand up for what was right and ultimately made the U.S. a better place to live.