Bringing Back Office to the Forefront: Why Fund Admin is the Place to Be
Join Funds Partnership Asia‘s exclusive interview with Usman Tariq, Director & Partner, Vistra Alternative Investments. Hear his thoughts on why Fund Administration is an increasingly attractive place to be – both for fresh graduates and mid-career switchers:
- What’s your career trajectory in a nutshell? What made you relocate to Singapore?
I started my career pursuing a Chartered Accountancy degree in Pakistan, which included a 2-year full time study programme followed by a training in any of the ‘Big 4’ audit firms thereafter. At 21-years of age, I remembered being one of the youngest working in PwC (Karachi office) in 2001 within the Banking and Capital markets division.
Through the foundational 5.5 years auditing for banks and insurance companies, my interest in financial services sector continued to grow. Due to the limited opportunities within the financial services in Pakistan, I knew I had to broaden my exposure beyond. The moment I became a qualified accountant in 2006, I wasted no time in applying for positions in all major global financial centres – New York, London, Hong Kong, and Singapore.
Singapore was the first to open its doors through Deloitte, so I moved to Singapore in March 2007 as part of their Global Financial Services Industry (GFSI) team, auditing Banks, Treasury centres, Fund Administrators and Funds (including Private Equity and Hedge Funds).
After close to 2 years with Deloitte, I was still very much a ‘generalist’ having spent more than 7 years with the Big 4, and I wanted to start focusing on a specialised sub-sector within the financial services industry.
So in 2008, when State Street (ex-Mourant) was just launching its Singapore office, I decided to jump at the chance. Despite being an Assistant Manager at Deloitte, I didn’t mind ‘taking a step down’ and starting as a Senior Fund Accountant so I could deepen my understanding in Private Equity. As part of the Alternative Investments Solutions (AIS) division focusing on real estate, I had the opportunity to work for very big funds such as Blackstone and Merrill Lynch Funds. These 5 years at State Street were pivotal in equipping me both the hard and soft skills in the area of Fund Administration.
In August 2013, Citco offered me a position of Account Manager in their Hedge Fund client service team with a special mandate to take on Private Equity/Real Estate clients and to train the existing staff on Private Equity/Real Estate and the Investran system. By the end of a year and 2 months, I had conducted numerous internal trainings and grew the team substantially. My experience at Citco helped me to build my people management skills. It also made me realise that I was missing my key core-area, being Private Equity and Real Estate Fund Administration capabilities.
And finally in September 2014, through the help of Ayyaz at Funds Partnership, I was approached and offered the role of Head of Fund Services at Vistra (which was known as Orangefield then), focusing on Private Equity and Real Estate. Since then, I’ve spent more than 4 years at Vistra, was promoted as a Director in January 2016 and very recently was offered ‘Partnership’! It’s quite crazy to think that in just over 10 years, I’ve worked for the three major Fund Administrators in Singapore and am now a ‘Partner’.
I find my role very fulfilling and I know that this is where I intend to stay for some time to come!
2. After being in fund administration for some time, what would you say are the advantages of working there compared to the buy-side?
To be honest, the buy-side seemed very attractive and rosy at the start. It seemed like a place of glitz and glamour and an opportunity to earn a lot more compensation and carry.
But when I started talking to my peers who moved to the buy-side, I realised that the grass is always greener on the other side. And this only reaffirmed my decision to remain in the Fund Admin industry.
Here are some reasons why:
- Speed and Scope of Learning
In fund admin, one day you could be working on a Venture Capital Fund, and the next day, Private Equity! You get exposed to many Fund structures, regulatory updates, new situations and challenges every day. You’d get to work with a variety of clients, industries, and functions.
For example, if you’re an accountant, compared to working in-house, you will do so much more besides just number-crunching.
Yes, you may start off as an accountant, but very quickly you’d go up to senior fund accountant, and then you might start supervising people, which will also include doing interviews, dealing with senior management, and working on efficiency projects.
There’s infinitely so much more you can learn with a service provider that you can’t get access otherwise.
2. Dynamic Culture
Honestly, in buy-side, the culture of your work place can be a hit or miss. For sure, if you work for bigger Fund Managers, you can be guaranteed of a good and diverse culture. But for boutique fund managers just starting out (with one or two employees), the culture is very unpredictable. It very much depends on the mind-set and backgrounds of the team and partners. Due to the lean team size and hierarchy at most times, it is unlikely that you can grow your career and also unlikely that people will have they the time or energy to invest in mentoring you or helping you build your career.
Whereas in fund admin, you can be 99% sure they will have proper procedures and policies that you can fall back on.
There will always be senior team members who can help you grow and develop, and there tends to be more of a dynamic, multi-cultural environment.
3. Global Opportunities
Because of the global presence of most Fund Administrators, you are able to have access to data and skill sets worldwide. For example, you can tap onto your Luxembourg team for regulatory updates, and contact your Cayman colleagues as well. You will start building up an international network, which may give you opportunities to relocate! On the other hand, if you’re in the buy-side, depending on your seniority and company, your opportunities for learning may be limited to your local office or network.
4. Growth and Progression
I think this is one of the major factors that has kept me in this industry for so long – growth!
Because of the way the organization is structured and the rapidly expanding industry, it is not uncommon to move up relatively quickly.
If you look at my growth trajectory, I went from being a Senior Fund Accountant to Fund Admin Manager, to Assistant Vice President, to Head of Fund Services, to Director and now Partner in a span of 10 years. Compare that to a Fund House, where the hierarchy is generally very flat – there is just one associate, one CFO, and that’s it. It is pretty difficult to move up if the senior role is already filled-up, as there are generally no in-between positions.
5. Job Security and Expanding industry
Currently, because there are very limited players – about just 8-10 major Fund Administrators in Singapore – you’d always be in high demand (and constantly poached)!
We are always on a look out for talented individuals – if you do a good job, there’s no reason why you won’t be offered a promotion since we are growing at a fast pace.
However, in the case of working on the buy-side, you never really know how the Funds will perform and there is really no guarantee that you will still have the role in 2-3 years time. What’s more, with an increasing trend towards outsourcing due to cost, expertise and quality considerations – Fund Managers may very well conducting a manpower review exercise, which may mean internal roles may no longer remain in the future.
3. How is the work-life balance and compensation in fund admin?
Compared to working in auditing in the Big 4, I’d say work-life balance is a lot better in a Fund Administrator. For auditors, we typically know between December to May, audit peak period can be crazy. As a service provider, once in a while there will definitely be last-minute requests and you have to stay late during the quarterly reportings.
However, majority of the time, you will have visibility of your timelines in advance. There would be sufficient opportunity to organise your workflow and plan your key events accordingly.
Regarding compensation, if you work in a fast-paced company such as Vistra, you’d be rewarded well and there will be ample opportunities for growth if you prove yourself as a consistent performer – it’s all about you making the most of them!
4. What types of finance skills does one need to enter? Is an accounting degree or specific certification necessary to enter? For a fresh graduate or a mid-career switcher with no prior experience, what do you recommend as the best route to entry?
I would say it’s still really important to have the basic skill-sets in Accounting, along staying up-to-date with major Accounting standards. Once you have that, you can join a Fund Administrator at an entry level and they will teach you the fund-related funky stuff – like carry calculations, equalisations, investor statements etc.
The important Accounting qualifications we look out for are typically ACCA, CPA, ACA. CFA will be a bonus!
Even if you just have a Bachelors’ in business or finance, that’s fine! However, if you are serious in building a career here, you do need to eventually pursue some accounting qualifications. Nevertheless, we are more than happy to provide training to entry-level hires – and then encourage them to sit for their Accounting examinations while working for us.
On the other hand, I started my career with the Big 4 – and it does give you varied experience in accounting/auditing as well as grooming you for client service. It is definitely an advantage if you have such a foundation, coupled with a little bit of Fund industry experience through their audits.
5. And how important are soft skills for the fund admin industry?
Once you have the foundation in place, soft-skills are what will REALLY set you apart:
- Time Management and multi-tasking
You will definitely have a lot of clashing deadlines and multiple projects happening concurrently so it’s so important to stay on top of your game. Multi-tasking is definitely going to be an asset when dealing with multiple clients at the same time.
2. Relationship Management and Emotional Intelligence
This is something that is often overlooked, but Emotional Intelligence is so important! It is very normal for clients to call and be upset, but how you manage and not crack under pressure is extremely crucial.
You need to be able to remain cool, understand their needs, express empathy and yet be able to stand your ground when necessary.
6. What do you think is the future of the fund admin industry?
Singapore is poised to be the forefront in the Asset Management/Fund Management industry for years to come. With the recent MAS policies encouraging global Fund Managers to set up their shop here and even with S-VACC (Variable Capital Company) structure planned to launch next year, there’s going to be ample opportunities for the whole ecosystem to thrive. As it would be much cheaper and easier to set up fund structures in Singapore, there will be an injection of capital creating growth for Fund Administrators, Auditors, Compliance providers, Outsourced fund managers and other ancillaries.
In conclusion, Fund Administration is a great place to work and build a career in – you’d want to hop on this side of the ship which has definitely taken off and will stay relevant for many years to come! This is an exciting space where you’d get to challenge yourself continuously, constantly learn, and be part of driving a thriving ecosystem within the Asset Management sector.