Costas Kalisperas - from barrister to investment banking MD to start-up advisor and investor

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Hiring Circle's Jane Richards caught up with Costas Kalisperas recently. Costas is a former Co-Head of Barclays’ EMEA Consumer and Retail Investment Banking franchise and has worked at several other global investment banks having started his career as a barrister.  He’s now an advisor and investor working with a number of exciting start-ups.

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Jane Richards

I was fortunate enough to catch up with Costas Kalisperas recently. Costas is a former Co-Head of Barclays’ EMEA Consumer and Retail Investment Banking franchise and has worked at several other global investment banks having started his career as a barrister.  He’s now an advisor and investor working with a number of exciting start-ups.

You were a lawyer before you became a banker? Why did you originally choose law and was your MBA a deliberate strategy to change direction in your career?

I first became a lawyer as I was interested in making a structured argument (thus, I first qualified as a barrister) and then in understanding the frameworks that govern the way the world operates (so I became a corporate finance solicitor). I enjoyed drafting share purchase agreements and shareholder agreements that documented the basis on which companies were bought and sold and how shareholders rights were protected, respectively. This gave me exposure to transactions, but at the end of the process, so I increasingly wanted to understand how the strategic decisions were made that led to companies being purchased,  how they were valued, and what rights different stakeholders expected for different levels of risk. This is what investment banking exposed me to.

In order to make a successful switch to become a banker, I felt I needed to understand the fundamentals of corporate finance and an MBA helped me to do that by teaching me the frameworks that finance professionals used.  The law is an incredibly important and helpful foundation in understanding legal corporate structures, but an understanding of corporate finance principles was fundamental to my progression to being a senior investment banker.

What are the main benefits of completing an MBA?

I don’t think they are particularly valued in the UK so I wouldn’t advise someone necessarily to do one unless they are changing careers.

Yes, the network is great, my Columbia network has certainly helped keep me sane at times but it hasn’t really helped me get a job.  It’s life enriching certainly, but in finance you get hired if you do a good job.  You can build a network in other ways throughout the course of your career.

If you need to update and revise your skill set, you don’t really understand valuation and financing tools and are interested in learning these skills or you think it might be interesting, then it’s perfect. However, I’m a fervent believer that if you are an ACA you don’t need an MBA, or if you graduate with a degree in finance and join a bank, you don’t need an MBA.

You were promoted to MD at Barclays and went on to co-head the Consumer & Retail team there.  What factors do you think are important in achieving that milestone promotion and what do you think makes a good MD?

From my perspective, and this isn’t perhaps the common view, it’s about earning the respect not just of your peers but of the juniors in your team.  There are certainly bankers out there who have not managed this aspect of their career particularly well and who have got to a certain level and failed to get promoted or gain the responsibility of running a group. Having an internal sponsor or mentor can also be hugely important.

In terms of operating successfully at MD level - it’s all about collaboration; most people aren’t successful on their own and banking is a collaborative business.  There are sector experts, products experts, country teams and sometimes your client needs all of the above and one person can’t provide it all. So, having the right personal skills to harness a group of people to spend time on your client is a key component for success.

The other half of the equation and the ultimate key to success, is winning the trust of clients.  And the way you do that, and people do it different ways, I think is by being a straight shooter, by being as direct as can you can and not being afraid to say you don’t know the answer but will work hard to find it and get back to the client. Then under-promising and over-delivering wins the trust and respect of clients. When I was working in New York one of my early mentors, Joe Kennedy, taught me that valuable lesson.  He was so comfortable in his skin and clients loved him.  The reason they loved him is that if he didn’t know the answer he’d happily say “let me do some homework and get back to you”. You always get found out in the end if you’re constantly bluffing. Be authentic, they’ll see through it otherwise.

What’s the value of a mentor and who are the significant mentors from your career?

Mentors at every stage of your career can be hugely important, whether that is providing opportunities or giving you straight and honest advice that you need to hear in critical moments. 

I was fortunate to have had two good mentors, which is key in your early years as it can be a minefield.  How do you find a mentor or internal sponsor? Do a great job for anyone that asks you, and, it sounds a very low bar, but demonstrate reliability.  People then begin to rely on you, they begin to trust you and they then want to help you navigate your career journey.

Joe Kennedy gave me opportunities, James Paterson stopped me getting fired after I managed to annoy a senior banker when I was an Associate!  Later in my career, Marco Valla – when Lehman US was bought by Barclays, was the one who supported me to become head of retail in Europe, Middle East and Africa.

You’re now involved with a number of start-ups, what are they and how has your banking background helped you to help them?  What have you learnt?

There are two key themes in my view impacting the global consumer and retail landscape currently (beyond the pandemic), which are central to the ability of businesses to remain relevant to consumers and deliver financially for investors going forward – namely, sustainability and technology. For this reason, I have become involved, as an advisory board partner, with Future Business Partnership, which is a fund being established to invest in the best ethical and sustainable consumer brands. I have also invested in, and sat on the advisory committees of, two retail tech businesses – the first is Takumi, which is a leading social influencer platform in the UK, Germany and the US and the other is NearSt which I believe will revolutionise retail globally by helping consumers find products in stores in real time locally – something that today, incredibly, is almost unheard of!

I was exposed to and saw the impact of both these themes increasingly in the last few years of my banking career, so I wanted to invest and advise businesses where I felt that my sector expertise could add strategic value. Although the size of these businesses sit at opposite ends of the spectrum  to the ones I’ve previously worked with, the basic corporate finance principles, particularly around raising capital, are the same – you are helping a management team to articulate a story through numbers to explain the business model to investors and to convince them that they will generate a return.  We all like to de-risk our diligence – whether it’s looking for a job or investing – so it’s also important to always think strategically about who might help other people come along the journey; that principle applies both to angel investing or raising capital for multi-billion pound companies.

A big difference from advising larger established businesses, is that you bust the valuation myth. What is a start-up worth? Meaningful valuations are ascribed to companies that have yet to make any profit, sometimes not even generated any revenue. Your focus has to be to think very carefully about the cash flow model – not only what will generate revenue in this business, but what are the costs, working capital and capital expenditures that are needed to generate it. If you’re a bigger company, you can make losses for a few periods and have a buffer to finance them - the outcomes for start-ups are more dramatic. If you run out of money before you become self-financing, then you close down - it’s an interesting tightrope, as you are managing your business while constantly reviewing your cash burn to break even. I’ve learnt to be even more focused on cash than I ever was advising larger corporates.

What's the best career advice you've been given?

This may sound a little flippant but early on one of my mentors told me that you can’t think too much about your career progression other than in six month increments because in banking everything changes every year and intra year and these changes can be quite dramatic.  Often, and particularly as a junior banker, in January you will have no idea how things are going to look in October.  So, take a six-month view and base it on if you are learning – are you gaining valuable experience? If you’re learning a third of the time, you’re doing well.

The same person also told me simply to just try to make it into the office each day! – show up, put in the work and it will never be as bad as you think. Persevere and be reliable. It’s simple advice that has helped me when the going has been tough.

What advice would you give to analyst and associate candidates interviewing for M&A roles?

For anyone with some experience, you’ll need to be able to talk about the deals on your CV in detail.

If you claim to have built a model on a certain deal, make sure you can answer questions on it. It surprised me how many candidates can’t do this.  I also want you to be able to tell me what you learnt from it and what you may have done differently. Give insight into what you had to do specifically. Show that you’re not just focused on processing, but that you have actually thought about what you’re doing and why.

What do you look for in candidates beyond what you read on their CV?

Beyond the “smarts” and broader inter-personal skills, I am looking for a team player, someone who is going to train and mentor those below them and help to build a team that can service clients efficiently, by building trust at all levels of an organisation.  In terms of character, I’m looking for people who’ll work hard and that can own up to their mistakes.