Michael Dismorr gives every impression of being a globe-trotting banker. He’s from Zimbabwe, and has worked in Switzerland, Sweden, Saudi Arabia, the UK, the US and now Dubai. Had he not turned down a job in New York to stay in Geneva, he would never have made the switch from asset management to private banking. He joined Coutts in Dubai as managing director from Deutsche Bank earlier this month, and while other international wealth managers are pulling back from the region, Coutts intends to beef up.
What do you see as the main challenges facing international wealth managers in the Middle East currently?
It’s the same in the Middle East as any other part of the world in that it’s becoming a more competitive industry. The number of private banks on the ground in the Middle East has increased in recent years, clients are becoming ever more demanding and their investment appetite is increasingly borderless. This means it’s more important than ever to attract seasoned professionals and industry specialists into the organisation.
The job opportunities for wealth managers in the Middle East have slowed in recent months. What skills to do you need to succeed in the current environment?
There’s been a definite shift, largely because firms have had a tendency to arbitrarily set a headcount target without really having a clear or realistic business plan. The hiring was achieved, but the business did not follow so people found themselves back in the job market.
It’s a relationship industry and the client comes first, so you need to be able to demonstrate this. Those who have been with an employer for a long period of time – rather than jumping ship every couple of years – and have a proven network of clients are always successful.
A number of international wealth managers have been moving back to an offshore model for their Middle Eastern business. What are the arguments for an onshore presence?
Some banks have retrenched, but I’d say this was down to a lack of success in the region, rather than a reflection of the Middle East onshore market. You have to have a local presence to succeed in order to gain the trust of clients and demonstrate a commitment to the region. The days of the suitcase banker s are long gone.
Coutts has been building its regional team. What skills and attributes do you look for and what are the plans going forward?
We plan to hire an additional 13 people in the region this year, seven in Dubai and the remainder across our Middle East businesses in London and Geneva. We’re looking for seasoned professionals who can provide the level of service that Coutts customers have come to expect. Our clients are not attached to individual wealth managers, but to the organisation, so you also have to share that culture of cooperation.
We are interested in skilled, enthusiastic professionals who can provide a service that stretches beyond the basics. A lot of our clients work with us because we can offer them interesting and sophisticated opportunities through our connections with other wealthy and influential individuals and families. We want to attract new employees who embrace the concept of a network and can interact intelligently with clients.
How did you break into wealth management, what advice would you give to others looking to do so?
I started out in private wealth management at JP Morgan in summer 1995. Before that I had been on the asset management division in New York and London before moving to Geneva. I switched to wealth management when it became a choice of returning to New York with asset management or remaining in Geneva but switching divisions.
When I worked in asset management, the clients wanted to discuss their business interests and their personal wealth in tandem and it was a practice that private bankers often accompanied investment bankers to meetings in family owned business. Being able to combine my deal knowledge with advice on other financial products has served me well since beginning in wealth management.
These days above the normal skill set you need is real enthusiasm and drive in order to break into what is an increasingly competitive job market. There is no point in becoming a private banker unless you can relate to people on issues other than money, you need to be worldly to connect with a diverse range of clients.
What was your biggest break?
I took a COO role at America Skandia Life Assurance and was given the opportunity to turn the business around. The sales experience, business plans and people skills acquired in that role have helped throughout the rest of my career.
What would you advise someone to do before stepping into an interview with you?
Do your homework. Research the role and Coutts. If someone does not have some basic knowledge that they could easily have found on the internet, it’s very frustrating. Equally, they should have found out about the culture of the bank.
Imagine I want to work for you, what would make you hire me?
Demonstrate a genuine love of your career, show me you can sparkle in the role and demonstrate that you will work hard because you want to, not because you have to.
What’s a surefire way not to get hired by you?
A lack of preparation and transparency is a big turnoff.
What do you do to relax?
I am originally from Zimbabwe, so a walk through the bush on vacation is a way that I unwind. I’m also a big reader and I love my Kindle – being stuck in Jeddah airport at 2am and being able to download a few new novels is wonderful.
Who do you most admire?
My wife – she is head of United Nationals Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in Lebanon. It is an incredibly demanding job. She gets very little reward and does it for the love of it.