From finance to start-up: “I knew if I stayed in banking one more year, I’d never leave”

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Fadel Belmahdi admits that he probably went into investment banking at the wrong time. Starting out at Merrill Lynch in London in 2007 as an analyst working in commodities trading, has was drawn into the industry because he believed the challenges it offered couldn’t be found elsewhere.

It was about to get decidedly more challenging a year later, however, over the tumultuous period in 2008 when Lehman collapsed, the investment banking industry was thrown into peril and Merrill Lynch had to be rescued by Bank of America: “I resigned the day Bank of America bought Merrill Lynch, and moved to Credit Suisse, where I was given the opportunity to work on the advisory side of the business in Dubai.”

The problem of making this switch, of course, was the subsequent uptick in workload. Like the majority of investment banking analysts, Belmahdi says he worked 14 hours most days, and could go three days straight with little sleep during a live deal. Analysts in Dubai tend to work across M&A, debt capital markets and equity capital markets, so the job was full-on most days.

At the back of his mind, however, was always what he describes as the “entrepreneurial itch”. “Banking was always supposed to be a three-year venture, until I worked out what sort of business I wanted to launch. I was getting used to the high salaries, but the team had been cut back through various redundancy announcements and we were totally overworked. The financial rewards were not worth the amount of work required in the job, but I knew if I stayed one more year in banking, I’d never have the courage to leave.”

He left Credit Suisse in 2012, but has only just kicked off his startup venture S’wich, which aims to produce high-end Shawarmas (or donar kebabs for any UK-based readers). It's a business he co-launched with former Citigroup associate Bader Al Kalooti in May.

“The fact is that it’s impossible to even think about launching your own business when you’re working in investment banking – the hours are too demanding,” he says. “I had to quit to develop the idea, which started over a bite to eat with friends. There’s so much work launching a start-up and nothing ever goes to plan, so you can’t hold down a full-time job at the same time.”

Belmahdi says he’s “grateful” for his investment banking background, though, not least because it helped him perfect the pitch to raise $1m from investors. “We went into those meetings and our numbers were meticulous – the fact that we both had a background in banking definitely helped.”

He has, however, no regrets about leaving: “The return for working in banking just isn’t there anymore. Investment banks attract the best graduates, work them harder but pay them less. A lot of well-rounded and smart individuals go into the industry and it would make sense for them to apply their talents elsewhere.”

S’wich is going through its second round of fund-raising, with plans to open more stores later this year, and is likely to generate “significantly more” than the previous amount, insists Belmahdi.

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