Career Advice Successful High flyers’ story

Make the best of career opportunities, says CFA Institute president Paul Smith

Some people instinctively know which career path to follow and, from early on, are able to focus their efforts accordingly. Others, without a clear vocation, find that their direction in life is a matter of taking what’s available at the time, working hard, and getting lucky. In 1980, when Paul Smith opted to sign up as a graduate trainee with accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), he was quite definitely in the latter group. 

“It was a deliberate move, not because I wanted to be an accountant, but because I needed a job and couldn’t think what else to do,” says the president and chief executive of the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) Institute. “But the more I look back, the more I feel that decision really set the agenda. It turned out to be great training for what was to come, and everything flowed from there.” 

In those days, he notes, getting a place on a trainee programme in Britain was considerably less competitive than it is today. With the major firms boosting headcount and few candidates from countries in the EU, never mind from India and China, it was an obvious way to start earning, while also gaining a professional qualification.  

His initial stay at PwC came to a premature halt when his wife at the time was posted to Paris in 1984. He followed, but without a job offer and only a schoolboy knowledge of French. 

Before long, he landed a role with asset management firm Ermitage International Ltd, where he headed up the group for seven years from 1988. 

“Moving into asset management wasn’t a planned career move; it was a totally fortunate step. But like a lot of things in life, once you’ve got a break, it’s up to you to make the most of it,” says Smith, who read history at Oxford University. 

Differences about plans for the business led to a falling out with the firm’s bosses, who preferred to stick to a more traditional course. That left Smith, with a mortgage to pay and five children to educate, looking around for other options. 

“It was no great principled stand, just that my boss and I spent every day arguing. Leaving was a shock — I was staring down the barrel of a gun — but if you react in the right way and recover, it is one of the best things that can happen to you. In fact, I divide the world into two camps: people who blame others and those who take at look at themselves, put things right and don’t dwell on setbacks.” 

That attitude paid off handsomely when contacts alerted him to an opportunity in Hong Kong, with what was then known as The Bank of Bermuda Ltd. Moving to Asia in 1996, Smith felt he was undoubtedly in the right place at the right time. His promotion to worldwide head of funds services preceded a corporate takeover by HSBC, and there he was appointed global head of alternative funds administration, working in Hong Kong and New York. 

“In general, asset management is a combination of art and science,” he says. “To be a portfolio manager or deliver other services, you need to synthesise things and understand how humans behave, and that requires a lot of the softer skills.” 

Putting his own skills to the test, Smith opted to break away from the bank environment in 2006 for something more entrepreneurial. As founder of Asia Alternative Asset Partners (Cayman) Ltd, a hedge fund investment management firm, he had the scope to enhance client services and improve public perceptions of the finance sector. 

In due course, those priorities made Smith a natural fit for the CFA Institute, the professional association of asset managers, which he joined in 2012 as the Asia-Pacific managing director. He was tasked with overseeing expansion in China and India, which led to a change in role in January this year. 

In round numbers, the institute now has 127,000 members in 80 countries. It offers a wide a range of training courses, seminars and workshops. And it places strong emphasis on respect for regulations and maintaining high standards of probity. 

“The challenge for financial services is that we lost the ‘service mentality’ when everybody went public and quarterly reporting started,” Smith says. “I’m trying to influence employers to change their behaviour and assess actions from the stakeholders’ perspective.” 

When asked to give career advice, he draws on his own experience. “I tell graduates, it is not where you start, but where you finish. That is down to you and the effort you put in. If you work hard in life, you will get on. You don’t necessarily need to plan everything out. When a good opportunity comes along, recognise it and grab it, and don’t be frightened about what might happen.” 

This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Opportunistic eye.