I was a “terrible” student, but made MD at UBS. Now I teach junior bankers how to succeed
When former UBS managing director Eric Sim was 14 he failed critical maths and English exams at his high school in Singapore. Sim may have been a self-described “terrible student” as a teenager, but these days he’s teaching the next generation of Asian bankers how to make it in the finance sector.
“My exam failure at that young age actually became a pivotal point in life,” says Sim, who recently left UBS to set up an adult learning school in Hong Kong. “Doing badly academically comes with a lot of stigma in Singapore, so from that point onward I resolved to be a high achiever.”
By 1994 Sim had an engineering degree from NUS and landed a job in the FX team at DBS in Singapore.
But despite improving his academics, he didn’t take naturally to banking at first. “I was from a humble background, was introverted and lacked social skills.”
“I didn’t even know how to book a restaurant for my manager – I’d always eaten in Singaporean hawker centres until then,” says Sim.“The first time I did it I said ‘I’d like a table for my boss and two clients’. My colleagues all laughed at me – as though the restaurant cared exactly who the table was for.”
But although Sim says he “underperformed” during his two years at DBS, both his social and his banking skills quickly got better.
“As an engineer by training, my love of technology started to help me,” he explains. “I’ve taught myself C++ and I once programmed Black-Scholes models on a Mac, which I have yet to hear being done before.”
After a stint at Standard Chartered, Sim was at Citi between 2001 and 2009, where he worked in Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai and became head of structured solutions.
“One day, when I was a VP, the head of HR at Citi needed someone to do a career talk at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore – I volunteered,” says Sim. “The professor liked my presentation and invited me back to teach one of his financial engineering classes. I still teach it to this day.”
“I think failing those exams as a teenager actually helps me identify with where my students are coming from and what their problems are. It makes me more humble,” he adds.
Sim was head of corporate sales, global markets at ANZ in Singapore from 2009 to 2011. He then moved to Hong Kong to join UBS as an MD, advising Asian financial institutions and corporate clients across capital markets, M&A, FX, and financing.
But Sim also continued to teach – he became a guest lecturer in investment banking, financial derivatives, risk management and structured financing at Peking University in Beijing.
“Teaching had become my passion. I knew that eventually I wanted to do it full-time, but I decided I’d need to reach MD and work in that role for a while to gain more credibility. In Asia, students respect someone who’s been in a senior position.”
In January this year Sim left UBS to start Hong Kong ‘edtech’ company Institute of Life (IOL), which runs short courses aimed at educating 18 to 28-year-olds about careers in the financial sector. He's also now an Adjunct Associate Professor of Finance at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, teaching ‘key skills for finance professionals’.
“I’d been in banking for 22 years, so it felt like a good time to commit myself to teaching,” says Sim. “I was on the bus one day and I came up with a list of critical banking skills that you don’t typically learn at university or business school, but which are hugely beneficial to know before you start your first internship or job.”
Sim teaches Asia-focused finance skills – from M&A to fintech to Chinese financial institutions – in his two training programmes at IOL, which run for two and five days respectively in Hong Kong’s Cyberport office complex.
“It’s not just me teaching. My former senior colleagues also come in and share their knowledge of the industry,” he says. “We help you come into a bank already knowing the jargon – what leveraged finance really means, for example. Just seeing what a pitch book actually looks like makes a big difference.”
The course also hones in on the softer aspects of careers in finance, such as public speaking, dealing with office politics, time management, and negotiation skills.
“Ultimately, it will make you realise whether or not banking and finance is the job for you. It will get you thinking about what you should be doing in the future.”