Eric Sim, CFA: The Diversified Career Portfolio
Eric Sim, CFA, does not have a “neat” career trajectory. His professional path has had more than its share of forks, pivots, failures, and rebirths.
And that idiosyncratic track may in part explain why he occupies such a singular place in finance today. Former UBS managing director, finance professor, author, the most-followed CFA charterholder on LinkedIn, and the founder of the Institute of Life, Sim sits at the intersection of several key aspects of the investment world: the C-suite, academia, social media, and networking and mentoring.
His career portfolio, which spans five continents, is a diversified one with a host of critical lessons for finance professionals and those who aspire to join their ranks.
Chief among them? That the diversification process is not an easy one. For Sim, much of it has been built on disappointment and adversity and transforming failure into success.
Which is why he works to instill two important mindsets in his students at the Institute of Life.
“Number one is to make use of your failures,” he said. “And that your weakness can be your strength.”
The foundation of Sim’s finance career rests in part on two early and seemingly unrelated professional experiences: his post-college rejection by Singapore Airlines and a summer bartending job.
Unlike some of his classmates at the National University of Singapore, Sim wasn’t from a privileged background.
“My parents didn’t go to school,” he said. “They cannot read, and I spoke a Chinese dialect. When I was in elementary school, I picked up Mandarin, and only during my teenage years, did I start speaking English. My English was so horrible that I had to take extra English lessons even when I was in the university.”
After graduating, he wanted to catch up in another area and to do what many of his classmates had already done: see the world. So he applied to join the flight crew at the airline company.
Go Where You Belong, Not Where You Fit In
“It was a walk-in interview in a hotel,” he recalled. “They asked me to read a passage. They checked my height. I’m tall enough to reach the overhead compartment in the cabin to help passengers with their luggage.”
He was invited to another examination two weeks later at Singapore Airline’s training center in Changi where he and other hopeful candidates were observed in group activities and rated on their sociability. Were they team players? Loners? Did they seek to dominate or disappear into the background? After that round of tests, two names were called out of Sim’s group of 10: his and one other’s. They could stay.
“The rest of you,” the testers said, “you can leave now.”
After 10 more such group activities, only 20 applicants remained to take the swimming test. Those who passed that dried off and gathered for tea. They were asked one question: What’s more important, food or service?
Coming from his working class Singaporean background, Sim answered “food.” It was the wrong answer.
“Thank you very much. You may leave now,” they told him.
The rejection was crushing. But Sim came to view the experience as a valuable one in hindsight. His answer reflected his experience and who he was at the time. He could have answered differently and told them what they wanted to hear. He may have even been hired. But it wouldn’t have worked out.
“I wouldn’t have enjoyed the job,” he said. “I wasn’t a service-oriented person at that point, and never even ate at a restaurant.”
And that rejection made him available for his first opportunity in the world of finance.
No Time to Customize? Then Standardize.
Banking might not have seemed like a good fit given Sim’s educational background. “I was an engineer by training. I knew nothing about finance,” he said. But he managed to land an interview at DBS Bank. The hiring manager asked what he had done during his school holidays. So he shared an anecdote from his time tending bar at a nightclub.
His bartending station was an island set-up off the dance floor. His first few nights on the job weren’t so busy, so he had the time to concentrate on the drinks and precisely follow the directions of the 10-page cocktail recipe guide. But his third night was ladies’ night when women were admitted for free. And a band was playing. In between songs, patrons rushed to the bar, three or four people deep, and Sim couldn’t serve them all in time.
“I couldn’t cope, and it got worse on a Thursday, towards the weekend,” he said. “Come Friday, I was very disappointed with myself because half the customers didn’t get their order and they went back to the band when it started playing again.”
On Saturday he had an epiphany: What was important was not the precise drink request so much as the alcohol — and serving it fast.
“Four layers of customers waving their drinks coupons at me and shouting their orders — I looked at them,” Sim said. “I told them, ‘I’m going to make bourbon and Coke now. Who wants bourbon and Coke?’”
Half the crowd changed their orders from Singapore Slings, White Russians, etc., to bourbon and Coke. He lined up a row of cups and filled them all in three easy steps: ice, bourbon, Coke.
“I cleared the crowd,” he said. “The customers were happy because they got the drinks. The managers were happy because we got more sales.”
And the DBS hiring manager was impressed enough to offer him a front office job selling FX.
Address Your Shortcomings
But Sim’s tenure at DBS wasn’t altogether successful. By his own admission he didn’t do well there.
“I lacked the social skills,” he said. “So I decided to reset by going to graduate school, so I went to the UK, to Lancaster.”
Sim earned his master’s in finance at Lancaster University, finishing his degree in 1997 ranked first in his class. He also strengthened his command of English and worked on polishing his interpersonal skills.
Reflecting on his time in the United Kingdom, Sim singled out one instructor, a practitioner, Dr. TS Ho, who had a transformative influence.
“He taught us just one module on corporate finance,” he said. “Because he was working for a bank, whatever he taught was very practical and useful.”
But with no job prospects in London, Sim returned home to Singapore only to be hit by the 1997 Asian financial crisis which had taken hold and ravaged the economy. Sim wanted to be a derivatives structurer, but after applying for dozens of jobs, he had few interviews and was running out of money.
Find a Good Boss
So he settled for a risk management position at Standard Chartered. It ended up being a propitious choice. He had a great manager, Prasanna Thombre, who mentored him and gave him the support he needed to recover from the six-months of self-doubt amid the frustrating job search.
“Before joining Stanchart, my confidence level had dropped to almost zero,” he said. “I really appreciated my boss for believing in me.”
Under Thombre, Sim enjoyed stints in Hong Kong and London, experiences that helped prepare him for an international banking career.
But he wasn’t free from disappointment. Intent on pursuing a career in academia, he applied for a PhD program in operational research and financial engineering at Princeton but was rejected.
“I was devastated!” he said.
Prepare for the Future: What Will You Need?
Though forced to defer his academic aspirations, Sim succeeded in other areas. In 2001, after four years with StanChart, he earned his CFA charter.
“I didn’t have asset management and much accounting knowledge,” he said. “I thought to be able to analyze financial statements will be very key for my future work. So I went to sit for it.”
As a newly minted charterholder, he jumped to Citi, working in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Singapore, as director of structured solutions over the next eight years. Then, in 2011, he made the leap to managing director at UBS.
At UBS, Sim synthesized the diverse array of skills and experiences he had acquired since his nightclub bartending days.
“Because I learned different things, I could speak to different types of customers,” he said. “As an MD in investment banking, I needed to bring in the deals, not to do the calculations. And I must understand my clients’ industries and personalities.”
But even though he had risen to the top of the investment banking world, he remained focused on gaining new expertise and tackling new challenges. Sixteen years after his PhD dream was dashed, Sim was appointed adjunct associate professor at The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
It was a roundabout way of realizing his goal, but looking back, he believes what he’s learned during his career made him a different type of teacher than a Princeton PhD might have. He designed his courses based on his banking experience winning mandates and executing complex transactions. The practical experience and instruction that made TS Ho such a good instructor, served Sim well too.
Of course, the demands of teaching and serving as an MD at UBS created some conflicts. And it forced Sim to reconsider his priorities and what kind of life he wanted to lead.
“I don’t buy exotic cars or expensive watches. The money I have is already enough for me to live comfortably for the rest of my life, so why not set up my own education business which is more meaningful and fulfilling?” he thought.
Build an Online Network
Teaching, in turn, opened up other areas for Sim to explore. With in excess of two million followers on LinkedIn, he has mastered the medium and built an online professional community with numerous networking success stories. Indeed, Sim offers something of a template for how to do it right.
“These online networks, if you build them now, they can become valuable to you in five to 10 years,” he said.
But his embrace of social media occurred almost by chance.
Many of his students asked him for career advice. Instead of answering them one at a time, he wrote an essay on LinkedIn to benefit more students.
At first, he worried about his mastery of English and saw it as his Achilles heel.
But what he perceived as his weakness oddly turned out to be a strength. To address what he saw as his English deficit, he wrote in short, simple sentences. And he leaned on one of his hobbies — photography — to help get his message across, accompanying each post with eye-catching visuals.
“I let the picture tell the story,” he said. “So I can write less.”
The results were encouraging. His success on LinkedIn also taught him the value of online networks, that many underestimate how powerful digital relationships can be.
“A lot of times people say nothing beats the in-person meeting,” he said. “The truth is, the person you meet in person has some commonality with you: You’re in the same city, you might be in the same industry or share common interests. You are unlikely to spend time with random people.”
That creates almost a bubble effect, where you are limited by your geography, your age, your sector, and you’re not learning from and interacting with a broad spectrum of people.
“Once you network online, you’ll get to meet people from other countries, other industries, different age groups. It makes your life so much richer,” Sim said. “One of my online connections is Chris Mattia. He is based in California. I’ve never met him in person, but he’s now my remote live production manager. He produces my live shows.”
These online networks can really help you increase your cultural awareness and achieve things you couldn’t before. They will open up your world.
“I now have coaching clients from LatAm and Europe too,” he said. “I also have had the opportunity to teach investment banking for Oxford University’s master in financial economics program.”
Indeed, coaching and mentoring is another essential aspect of Sim’s professional portfolio.
“I thought I should help the 22-year-old Eric Sim, son of a street food vendor.” he said. “There must be some children of taxi drivers and cashiers at supermarkets who have very little resources and access into this industry.”
“Get a Side Hustle”
One of the themes that Sim emphasizes at the Institute of Life is developing your interests outside of work. These could be hobbies, volunteer positions, or freelance assignments, something that doesn’t necessarily overlap with what you do for a living.
“It’s important to have these,” he said. “They’re good conversation starters and help you to talk to different people.”
But that’s only one aspect of why these side hustles are so important.
“If you’ve got three or four roles, when one job disappeared, you are not jobless,” he said. “There is still the other two or three.”
Those jobs may not pay that much. Indeed, some may not pay at all. But having that hobby, the photography, the coaching, the volunteer position to fall back on can make you better at your current job, prepare you for the next one, and help you through those times when you may not have any paying job at all.
And that’s the message that Sim has sought to pass on both through the example of his career and in his coaching and mentoring.
To be successful at work and in life, you have to be able to draw on different skills, just as you rely on different asset classes when building an investment portfolio. You need bonds, you need stocks, you need all these things in order to get to where you want to go. And when one aspect of the portfolio doesn’t do well, you can rely on the others to pick up the slack.
In investment portfolios, Harry Markowitz said, “the only free lunch is diversification.” Sim demonstrates that the same holds true in our professional lives: Diversification is the only free meal in our career portfolios.
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All posts are the opinion of the author. As such, they should not be construed as investment advice, nor do the opinions expressed necessarily reflect the views of CFA Institute or the author’s employer.
Image courtesy of Eric Sim, CFA
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