Bradford Gibbs is an example of how to have a jet-setting career at the same firm. He spent 13 years at Morgan Stanley, working his way up from an M&A associate in New York and enjoying stints in London, Frankfurt and finally heading up its South African business in Johannesburg.
Now he’s taken the oft-tread path of moving from investment banking into private equity with his new role as a managing partner at Mara Group, a Dubai-based firm focused on investments in Africa. It's run by Ugandan-born CEO Ashish Thakkar, who turned it from a small computer trading firm into a multi-sector conglomerate operating in 16 countries with annual revenues of over $100m.
Gibbs met Thakkar while at Morgan Stanley in South Africa and admits that he swung his decision to join the firm. But, believes Gibbs, Africa is both fascinating and ripe with opportunities.
How did you break into investment banking? Why did you get in?
I was a history major and I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do when I graduated from Brown University in 1993, but I knew I wanted to be in a sector with good training and prospects. Investment banking was a great way to get an introduction to the world of business and a broad range of exposure so, after an internship at Bankers Trust, I secured a role as an analyst in the financial institutions group at Salomon Brothers. It’s an intense job, and you sacrifice a lot because of the long hours, but it’s essentially a four-year training programme condensed into a 22 month period.
What are the prospects for those trying to get in now?
I still believe that investment banking is cyclical industry, and that the outlook is still positive in the longer term. Any job-seeker now needs persistence, creativity and a lot of self-belief. Obviously it’s a very difficult period to start out as investment banker, but it’s still a wonderful training ground. You do need a strong constitution.
Why switch out of it?
I’ve had a great career in investment banking – at Morgan Stanley alone, I’ve worked in New York, London (twice), Frankfurt and finally Johannesburg as head of South Africa investment banking. The last role took me out of my comfort zone – I had to build a team and fly the flag for Morgan Stanley in a remote region, and it gave me exposure to a lot of interesting deals.
The opportunity at Mara was too good to turn down, and I felt it built on the Africa expertise I’d gained in my last job. I think there are fundamental, irreversible drivers of change across Africa and it’ll be interesting to cover this at such an exciting time.
I have conversational German language skills, which was one of the reasons I decided to take the job. However, the M&A deals that Morgan Stanley gets involved with in Germany are only with the very large corporates, like Siemens, for example, where the lingua franca is English. Or, often the executives would speak to me in German and I’d reply in English – we understood one another.
Are you hiring?
Yes, we’re looking to recruit analysts and associates into our Dubai office. They have to be passionate about Africa and either have experience in investment banking or an MBA. I’ve been really impressed by the calibre of business school students from Africa who have studied at top universities in the U.S or U.K and who are increasingly interested in coming back.
What was your biggest break?
There were a few people I worked with which made me realise they could be role models and I aspired to operate like them. When I was an analyst at Salomon Brothers Dick Barrett, the global head of investment banking, was a big inspiration, but while I was an associate at Morgan Stanley, Christian Dyvig, one of the managing directors, really helped me. These people created a step change in my development which really put my career on the right track.
Imagine I want to work for you, what would make you hire me?
Show a demonstrable curiosity – you’ll be in a lot of new situations and you need to be willing to learn. You also need an underlying modesty that will allow you to work as part of a team. I’m turned off by any candidate who may have an impressive CV, be terrifically talented but is arrogant.
What would you be doing if you hadn’t gone into finance?
I’d be teaching history, with a focus on foreign policy.
Who do you most admire?
I wouldn’t name any single individuals, but since I’ve been focused on Africa I’ve had conversations with leaders of minority political parties in entrenched regimes and they’ve been absolutely inspirational. To have the courage to go into politics when the deck is stacked against you and your life could be in danger says a lot about their strength of character.