Former military personnel of different ranks and backgrounds have successfully switched to wealth management. This publication examines their experiences for lessons.
Wealth managers cannot afford to ignore certain backgrounds when it comes to finding the best talent and one area that seems to feature is the case of people with a military background.
The fact that financial services such as wealth management might be a destination for former military personnel arose recently when Barclays issued a study showing how female ex-Forces personnel faced a tougher time getting into the industry than was the case with men. That study highlighted a “gender gap” issue in the workforce. What it also did, however, was remind the journalists at this publication, who regularly receive reports about managers moving around the sector, of how many of them have an Army, Navy or Air Force background.
In some parts of the world, such as in Singapore, Israel and Switzerland, military service is compulsory, so having time in uniform on a resumé if you are from those places is part of the deal. In the UK, the size of the UK armed forces, membership of which is still voluntary, has been cut since the Cold War ended. As at 2016, 0.4 per cent of the UK labour workforce was in the military, below a global average share of 0.8 per cent. Both the UK and global shares have been falling since the 1990s (data from the World Bank).
When this publication solicited readers with military experience and who are now in private banking, asset management and wealth advisory to come forward, the response was considerable, and suggests that the forces – particularly, it seems, the Army – are disproportionately represented in the industry. So what’s the appeal for employers and employees?
“Good soldiers are essentially problem-solvers. They have the ability to stay calm when others are losing their heads. They can assess a complex situation, understand it in detail, design options, make decisions and then follow through in a disciplined fashion. That is what I do now for Schillings’ clients. Our clients have built a good name over many years and don’t want to lose it in five minutes. They want a sound plan at reasonable cost which will solve their problem; not make it worse. That sounds like what a politician wants from a military campaign!” Tim Robinson, partner at Schillings, the law firm, told this publication.
In Robinson’s case, he graduated from Sandhurst, the Army college, in 1991 and left the Army as a major general in 2016, having served in Iraq, Northern Ireland and Bosnia before ending as a chief of staff of the Field Army, which is the grouping of the British Army’s fighting forces. He commanded an armoured brigade and spent time at the Ministry of Defence.
Robinson’s record is particularly distinguished, but what’s clear is that all along the line, people with different military skills have found a home in wealth management because it fits certain requirements, including a problem-solving, client-service focus. Another example is that of Nick O’Sullivan MBE, representative of St James’s Place, the UK-listed wealth management group. He joined the Royal Marines in 2005, and undertook two tours in Afghanistan, moving in a number of roles before moving into the civilian world.
“To me, wealth management seemed like a new way I could help people and make a difference (the same motives that led me to join the Royal Marines), but also one in which I could have more control and achieve a better balance for my family, which were my motives for seeking a change,” O’Sullivan said.
These days, it is not unusual to find executive search persons in the wealth management space, for example, such as Tim Gibson-Tullberg, of Private Wealth Search; he is based in Switzerland and was formerly in the British Army. Another headhunter is Mark Somers, of the Somers Partnership. Somers was a Captain in the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards from 1991-1998. Meanwhile, in the case of one wealth management and merchant banking house by the name of Salamanca Group, some of its founders, being ex-Army, chose the name because it was the scene of a great Spanish battle won in the city of Salamanca by the British during the time of Napoleon Bonaparte. (It is unclear whether this fact is pointed out to any potentially French clients.)
Learning from military life
This trend also runs alongside enthusiasm from business managers to tap into insights about leadership and a winning mentality from ex-military people. In the US, for example, former US Navy SEAL members Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, who served in Iraq, shared their lessons about leadership in a New York Times #1 Bestseller, Extreme Ownership, and founded a business, Echelon Front, that works with companies and other organizations to inculcate a winning mentality. Stanley McChrystal, one of the most senior US military figures of the Second Gulf War campaign, regularly talks about leadership and, like several others, is a regular on the TED Talk circuit; he is also the author of several books, such as Team of Teams. In the UK, a recent example is that of Ant Middleton, whose book First Man In: Leading From The Front, is a bestseller on Amazon. (Middleton recently also appeared in a Channel Four series showing what recruitment into the Special Air Service is like.)
In some countries, the military connections with business are sometimes even more explicitly made. In Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel's Economic Miracle, the authors Dan Senor and Saul Singer notice how the bond shared by all Israeli adults of serving in the IDF means everyone has a ready-made network to plug into. In May 2014 The Harvard Business Review had an article identifying the IDF as a central force driving entrepreneurship in Israel.
There is also a “levelling” aspect to military training in jurisdictions such as Singapore and Switzerland, where even the most high-ranking wealth managers (if they are citizens of those places), must get out of their civilian lives to spend time serving in the field.
Oren Kaplan, who is co-founder of SharingAlpha, the “professional fund buyers’ community, joined the IDF when he was 18, serving through to his 40s in the reserves.
“I learned early on that planning and practice are essential. In the army the price for failure is human lives and in business it's money. I'm not a great believer in luck. I believe that lucky people worked hard to improve their chances,” he told this publication. And Kaplan has this observation on what former military personnel can bring to wealth management: “They shouldn't fear the challenge although the military training doesn't involve financial issues it does emphasize integrity and trust which are at the core of the wealth management space.”
Of course, as the Barclays study showed, there remain some issues to overcome. A number of firms make a point of connecting with those from the services. Schroders, the UK-listed investment firm and private bank, has an armed forces programme that is designed to help service leavers build a career at the firm. St James’s Place, as mentioned above, makes a point of reaching out to the ex-military. Banks helping military personnel transition include Barclays, with its AFTER programme. (In the US, banks such as Morgan Stanley and Citigroup have various schemes.)
There seems little doubt that time spent in the forces has proven valuable to those now working in the wealth sector.
“When these organisations hire military people – so long as they have been discerning and looked behind the image – they should get someone who is honest, well-organised, resourceful and who will go the extra mile. Their ex-military employees will pick up the local skills quickly, so don’t worry about lack of direct experience. They’ll have non-military people like that too of course. But as a concentrated pool of talent, people coming out of the armed forces are a pretty potent force, ready for you to use creatively,” Schillings’ Robinson said.
“The battlefield is full of lessons for the boardroom and vice versa. Understand what strategy actually means: it’s the harmonising of ends, ways and means to achieve a desired outcome. Never forget culture. An organisation lives or dies by its culture. And its values. Be authentic: on the battlefield, soldiers smell bullshit instantly. For Schillings clients – and the C suite generally – it will be their employees…and the media. Communicate clearly and honestly: there’s so much obfuscation around. Do the right thing, not necessarily the easy thing. Military and commercial success is nine tenth’s grind and hard work and one tenth genius. Finally, think to the finish and plan ahead: remember that ‘a person who’s surprised is half beaten’,” he said.
Making the transition has its challenges, so what did St James’s Place's O’Sullivan make of it?
“When looking to leave the military and start a new career, I realised that not only myself but most people I knew were financially uninformed. I simply knew my salary paid the bills with a bit left over and that my pension was apparently ‘good’ (not that I knew what questions to ask to ascertain what ‘good’ looked like). I realised I should know a lot more, and that if I should know more, then others were likely to need to as well,” he said.
“I then started to realise that I could have made a significant difference to my family’s circumstances had I known more. The need for financial advice was clear to me, as was the potential positive impact it could make to people willing to take it," he said.
Asked to advise those thinking of making the switch, O’Sullivan had this to say: “Firstly, make sure the decision is a joint one with your family. Secondly, have the courage to deliver the change – you have an immensely valuable and relevant skill set. Thirdly, don’t be afraid to ask for help. There will be people around you, friends and family or indeed professional service people that want to help. For many, including myself, it is what drives them.”
Finally, Robinson reflected on the most difficult aspect of leaving the Army: “I wasn’t a general anymore, no one laughed at my jokes and I had to make my own coffee.”