Conventional wisdom tells us that if you want to go far in your career you have to go big. Though true in the old days when only the big banks offered big salaries and big bonuses. But with more accessible technology and connectivity, smaller players can punch above their weight and attract high fee-paying clients. For an aspiring financier, the playing field has levelled out and it’s a matter of personal preference which size company you choose.
So what are the pros and cons of working life at the big corporates, the solid small-to-medium-sized firms and the scrappy startups?
Startups: Charged with possibilities
Let’s be clear when we say startup, we are talking about any business under 10 years old. The startup spectrum runs from the bootstrapped kitchen-table coterie all the way to steady firms that began as disruptive services but still have a young, energetic attitude and culture.
For instance, on the mature side of startups, Zar Amrolia runs a fintech company in London’s vibrant King’s Cross development that handles billions of dollars worth of trades each day. While only six years old it is exploiting new technologies quickly where the bigger banks are slow to react. His teams are made up of the new breed of financial services employee – data and technology specialists rather than traditional traders.
Or, we have the brand new – like Paul Anthony and Gabriel Le Roux’s Primer, which automates online payments for businesses. It is just over a year old, has just received $110 million in investment and their teamwork remotely all over the world.
The truth is, the financial services businesses that are getting the most investment are the fintechs. In the UK, they have attracted more investment than any other industry, and are considered the most likely to survive the brutal startup scene. The bulk of job roles on offer require technical skills, but there will always be valuable roles for people who can communicate, build relationships and sell the service.
Ask yourself: Do I want to work in tech, but with a financial angle? Am I ok working independently, checking in on video calls rather than face-to-face meetings? Do I thrive knowing that my contribution is critical to success? Can I be patient while senior staff work out operational kinks? Do I want to work with people trying to change the industry?
SMEs: The family way
The range of small-to-medium enterprises in financial services is vast. They are either on their way to becoming a corporate or doing just fine sticking in the middle. The work pressure is not as high as in a big bank or insurer, and the pace not as fast as in a startup, but the family feel and long-term commitment of the staff more than makeup for it.
Working in an SME doesn’t mean you can’t provide a great service. Smaller building societies like Harpenden Building Society can serve their local communities while holding millions of pounds in assets. Asset management firms like Brompton Asset Management in London’s Knightsbridge or specialised banks can serve niche customers.
US magazine Fortune runs an annual ranking of the “40 best small and medium workplaces in financial services and insurance” surveying hundreds of thousands of employees at US companies to see which firms are best at building trust and developing their employees to reach their full potential. In the top five, you have companies like Bankers Healthcare Group which, with only 600 employees (not huge by American standards), still punches above its weight for both revenue and employee satisfaction.
Ask yourself: Do I want to work for a proven company that serves its community? Am I the kind of person who sticks around in one company for a long time? Do I want to work somewhere that doesn’t make headlines, but quietly does a great job behind the scenes? Do I want a family feel with my colleagues and my customers?
Corporates: Surefire career choice
Climbing the corporate ladder is only a cliché because it works. The pressure is high but so are the salaries, and if your idea of excitement is fine suits, a competitive environment and tall buildings, then perhaps the corporate life is for you. It all depends on your personal preference.
Working for a big corporate means being in the industry news fairly frequently. It means international opportunities and it means your friends and family will be able to imagine what you do. But, the rewards only come from hard work and long hours. If a senior manager asks you to clear your weekends for the next month, then you better do it.
Although these companies have a reputation for being heartless when it comes to decision making, they are still stocked with real human beings and you will make lifelong connections with your colleagues. Your network will stretch across the world. Noel Quinn, CEO of HSBC, has worked his way up through the business by moving around the world – in Hong Kong, the US and Europe.
And if you ever get tired of the high flying lifestyle, there are plenty of startups and SMEs that look for people with corporate experience who want to make a change.
Ask yourself: Am I ready to sacrifice my personal life for a few years in order to climb the ranks? Do I want to earn the big bucks? Am I the kind of person who thrives off a competitive culture? Do I want to travel and live around the world in comfort?
It all boils down to what you want out of life. Weigh up the balance between work and life, energy and security, and there will be a financial services company out there for you.