Rise of fintech firms in Asia opens up jobs for bankers

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When Henri Arslanian left the Hong Kong banking sector for fintech last year, he didn’t set up his own company from scratch – he joined an existing start-up as an employee on the payroll.

With many fintech firms now growing rapidly in Asia – regional investments in the industry reached a record $4.5 billion in 2016, four times as much as the previous year – more vacancies are opening up for people like Arslanian who are willing to leave the trappings of banking behind.

“I enjoyed working at a large investment bank – the client interaction, the pressure, the hours and the excitement,” says Arslanian, who was a director in prime brokerage at UBS before becoming head of corporate development and strategic partnerships at Aprivacy, a Canadian financial-data privacy start-up with an office in Hong Kong.

So why make the move? “As a banker I was also very active in the Hong Kong fintech community and I had a friendly meeting with the founder of Aprivacy after being introduce via the Canadian Consulate in Hong Kong,” explains Arslanian. “I knew immediately that its technology would not only change the financial services industry, but any type of digital communication, and I wanted to play a role in driving that change.”

Most fintech firms in Asia are more interested in hiring bankers like Arslanian than they are poaching banks’ IT professionals. “Typically I wouldn’t look at banks’ tech people since they’re usually very focused on traditional banking and unfortunately are rarely best in class – if they were they’d be working in a more dynamic IT environment than a bank,” says Singapore-based Dominic Gamble, CEO of fintech firm Findawealthmanager and a former Credit Suisse private banker.

Gamble says this year there’s a lot of “hiring appetite in the Asian fintech community” and his firm is on the lookout for bankers skilled at handling client relationships. “My business has a strong relationship component with clients. And there are a lot of bankers on the market who are disillusioned working in investment banking or private banking. We particularly target associate level – they’re well trained and academically strong, yet are amongst the most disappointed with the banking sector.”

More back-office fintech jobs are also being created in Asia. Former Deutsche Bank managing director Tanmai Sharma, for example, is currently hiring for the operations team of his Singapore start-up, Mesitis Capital. “We need operations people with banking experience – they aren’t that hard to find in Singapore because banks have been offshoring these jobs,” he told us previously.

Cynthia Siantar, co-founder of Singapore fintech firm Call Levels, says her company will also be growing its headcount later this year, after new investment is secured. But while financial professionals are an ideal talent pool, they often rule themselves out of the running by demanding exorbitant base salaries in a sector in which stock options are key to compensation. “High staff costs can be deadly for any start-up as you’ve got to have enough cash runway,” says Siantar.

No easy move into Asian fintech

Money isn’t the only thing getting in the way as Asian finance professionals apply for jobs at fintech businesses. “Some candidates here initially love the idea of a start-up. The simple stuff excites them – like wearing jeans, flexible working, vibrant office spaces, less legal and compliance, and no more huge hierarchies,” says Gamble.

He adds: “But when reality hits and they talk to mum and dad – who can’t pronounce the name of the start-up let alone understand what it does – then the risk-aversion mindset kicks in. Fintech is more challenging than banking, and there’s wider responsibilities and less job security. That either excites candidates or petrifies them.”

Arslanian from Aprivacy says he now gets one or two LinkedIn messages a day from bankers contemplating becoming employees of start-ups. “My advice is that they shouldn’t do it just for the sake of joining one.  However, if it’s a firm they believe will change the world, then they should make the jump – life’s too short not to. But chose wisely – while there are some really amazing start-ups, there are many more bad ones.”

His own move into fintech came mid-career. “I decided that I didn’t want to be in my 50s thinking I should have taken that risk when I was in my 30s. So I took a risk at this stage of my life, when my wife and I had no kids nor serious obligations – although ironically, we learnt that she was pregnant three weeks after I left the bank.”

“You should never be sitting in a chair – be on the edge of your seat on the lookout for what’s happening around you so you’re ready to step up and react,” advises Arslanian. “Unfortunately I still meet many bankers who are overpaid, unhappy and unaware of the technological changes taking place. That’s a very dangerous position to be in.”

Image credit: Tg-pint, iStock, Thinkstock

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