This entrepreneurial investment banker would rather be playing tennis

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With international investment banks struggling in the Middle East, there’s an increasing tendency for senior executives to go it alone.

Zaid Maleh, 33, set up DACH ADVISORY, a boutique advisory firm that focuses on the German speaking markets in Europe as well as Russia, the Middle East and Asia, in 2011 after over a decade working for multi-national investment banks. He previously headed the Middle East and Africa business of Russian Bank VTB Capital, and has worked for Islamic bank Gatehouse as well as Austrian institution RZB in both Vienna and London.

Zaid is an Austrian national of Syrian origin and speaks Arabic, German, English and Russian. He has an MSc in Economics and Business Administration from the Vienna University of Economics.

How did you break into investment banking?

A combination of luck and ambition. I wanted to work in investment banking, but after completing my degree, I was worked as consultant for the United Nations in Vienna for four years. In 2005, Austrian bank RZB wanted to venture into the MENA region and was looking for someone to lead its efforts. I’d majored in investment banking and credit theory, spoke German but was also of Arabic origin and they jumped at the chance to hire me. It was also a relatively senior position – vice president – so it was a big break.

Can you give any advice to those trying to break into the industry now?

A lot has changed in the past few years; competition has intensified and the requirements for candidates are only getting tougher, so persistence and commitment are key. That said, investment banking is shrinking, so I’d think twice before entering the industry now.

Why did you decide to move from a large international investment bank to start your own venture?

Since the global financial crisis hit, a lot of tough regulation has been implemented for the financial sector and, while not all of this is bad, working as a banker for a multinational institution has become a lot more restrictive, and this can affect one’s ambition. I decided that I could not live with these restrictions and embraced my entrepreneurial spirit to go it alone.

In the Middle East, arguably more than any other region, deep relationships are key and the trust I’ve established with ultra-high-net-worth individuals, sovereign wealth funds and family offices here has transferred across to my new venture.

What are the main challenges affecting investment banking in the Middle East region currently? Are there any opportunities?

The main challenge in the Middle East market is changing the mindset – equity capital markets are suffering globally, but the debt capital markets in the region remain relatively unsophisticated. What’s more M&A is muted because of the attitude towards consolidation here. There’s still a lot of uncertainty because of the Arab Spring, but there’s a lot of growth potential in the region.

Is DACH ADVISORY recruiting currently?

Yes, we’re always on the look-out for good people, and currently have offices in Dubai, Moscow and Vienna. We started out just over a year ago with me and three other investment bankers and now we have 12 people and are still trying to expand.

We’re hiring execution bankers for the deals we’ve secured in the pipeline and these are across a range of sectors and geographies, so it’s a challenging position. Surprisingly, despite thousands of investment banking lay offs globally, we haven’t found it any easier to recruit.

What do you look for?

Because we’re a boutique, the biggest thing we want is someone we feel can fit into the organisation, and this means the right combination of experience, qualifications and attitude. You need to be motivated and a self-starter – working for a large organisation I spent a lot of time and energy trying to motivate certain team members, while others happily worked under their own steam. There’s no room for the first type of person in a start-up.

Has your career been conventional or capricious?

It’s been far from conventional – I’ve worked in London, Vienna, Moscow and Dubai in debt capital markets, M&A and Islamic finance and only entered investment banking after five years in the job market.

What three things would you always advise someone to do before stepping into an interview with you?

Be prepared, be committed and be convincing. I’ve been dragged into enough long meetings working in multinationals to want to avoid wasting my time and if someone doesn’t know what they want, they’re unlikely to make a good impression. It generally takes me 15-20 minutes to know if I like a person and I rely a lot on a positive first impression.

What would you do if you weren’t working in finance?

Playing tennis. I believe that if I’d had the time and the resources I could have made it into the top 50 of the ATP rankings. I’m too old now, though.

What do you do to relax?

I play a lot of sports, particularly tennis, but the arrival of my baby daughter now means I spend a lot of my spare time playing for her, which is relaxing.

Who do you most admire?

Steve Jobs, because of his entrepreneurial nature and his visionary brain. And Roger Federer.

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