Hiring Circle meets Stefano Dusnasco; Private Equity Associate at Bain Capital
Georgie Banfield caught up with Stefano Dusnasco.
Stefano shares a fascinating insight into his career at Bain Capital; how he got there, what he has learnt along the way and his advice for anyone considering a career in private equity.
You began your career in consulting then moved across to the buyside. Tell me more about this early stage of your career.
If I'm honest the early stages of my career were not really planned. I studied in a non-target school in Italy and my family has a non-finance background so I had to undertake a journey, literally and metaphorically. I travelled in places like China and Ireland and the trigger to join consulting was from one of those internships abroad. In Dublin my manager at the time was a former consultant. He noticed that I was thriving under high stress conditions and that I was good at solving problems so he encouraged me to apply to Roland Berger, his former employer, and that’s how I moved into consulting. This was a good start in my career – I learned a lot especially business acumen, problem solving, structuring a project and people management, all of which are useful life skills too.
I stayed within consulting for almost 4 years, but after that time realised that I was missing some technical and financial skills, which intrigued me. Once you have spent some time in consulting and have mastered the basic toolkit, the job revolves mostly around people / process management and client relationships. To get a comprehensive view of a business, I decided to move to a finance-related job. At the time it was not clear whether that was going to be through PE or banking. But I also did know that after almost 4 years working in consulting, I needed a change; I wanted to become more well-rounded and meet new people from all over the world and that was my motivation to do my MBA.
Tell me more about your decision to do an MBA and in your view, what are the main benefits?
I would say in certain situations, doing an MBA is a stepping stone to move into finance, especially if you come from a consulting background like me. I attended LBS, one of the top European MBA programs. I wanted a full 2-year program; I didn’t want to rush in an accelerated program. 2 years gave me the opportunity to explore personally and professionally and in that time I did two internships – one at a major investment bank and another at a mid-market PE firm. In all honesty, the decision to do an MBA is a dilemma! It needs to be pondered thoroughly since it is an investment that requires significant investment: both money and time wise.
In my opinion there are three main benefits of doing an MBA. Depending on your individual situation and background each one of these three holds a different weight:
- Academically. You learn important core skills such as accounting, finance, marketing and strategy which are vital for people that don’t have a business or finance background.
- Opens new doors and provides second chances. Doing an MBA can transform your career, or facilitate a career change. Moving from consulting to banking would have been impossible for me without an MBA.
- Network – both internal and external. Your network is the ecosystem and environment that helps you in the future. When I talk about internal relationships, I mean the peers you study with. You don’t always understand how useful this is when you are junior but you will grow with your network and become senior together and you may find that picking up the phone is easier than a cold call later down the line. In terms of your external network; I did two internships and cultivated a network that will always be there and with whom I regularly stay in touch with. It’s difficult to quantify and to put a value on these things, which I call intangible assets.
You worked at Goldman Sachs before moving to Bain Capital. How does working in an investment bank compare to working in Private Equity?
At Goldman Sachs, people are very driven. It was a good working experience, even though extremely intense, but overall I'm glad I went there and improved my hard skillset.
Because it is such a large organisation, when you are working on deals you are a small piece of a puzzle of a larger transaction, but the reward is exposure to plenty of high-profile transactions. For example, in just over a year I completed a sell-side, a buy-side, a financing, was involved in preparing one of the largest capital raisings in the UK history as well as numerous pitch books.
It was a great experience and I was impressed by the senior people at GS for their knowledge and commitment.
In terms of a comparison, while IBD work at junior level is focused on valuation, financial analysis and process management, private equity involves also getting answers to plenty of why questions, which requires a deeper understanding of the business. It’s an extremely complete job, placed at the intersection of consulting and investment banking, but with a key difference: the investor mindset, rather than an advisory perspective. Putting your money where your mouth is requires a much firmer grasp on the asset, but provides also a greater source of motivation and full alignment of interests.
On a WLB perspective, private equity can also be very intense when you are on a deal, but in banking the fast pace is more constant. Even when there is nothing live, you are working very hard chasing transactions to win mandates, so that puts pressure on.
Why the move to the buyside and why Bain?
I am interested in looking thoroughly and thoughtfully at a business to get comfortable with its business model, competitive positioning, what strategic and operational improvements can be made etc – i.e. aspects that you don’t really deal with in banking, at least not to the same extent. So it was about the intersection between those more “commercial” elements and finance that fascinated me. Also, I'm a curious person and like to ask in-depth questions. In banking you stay quite high level and don’t go into such a great detail. In PE you need to understand the details, where often the devil is. That fits my personality better.
Bain, with its consulting heritage and typically complex deal profile, seemed a perfect match. Also, I would describe the interview process with Bain as being quite fun. I really enjoyed the lines of questioning and analytical rigour in their interview process, so I knew this was a company I would be suited to.
Can you describe a typical day at Bain as an Associate?
There are no typical days at Bain. I could spend an entire day in calls and meetings, another day I could be by myself building complex financial models. Mostly you do a different thing every day, looking at different companies, different sectors and coming up with different investment thesis. I really enjoy the variety of PE. If I had to simplify, I would say there are three main areas. Often you work on them separately but sometimes they overlap and this can vary significantly by funds, but generally they are:
1) Live deals – this is where you are in full-on execution mode. It’s the most intense time, but also the most rewarding, personally. The pressure and the workload are quite high, probably similar to banking, but very fruitful, as you know the asset in great deal. It depends on the fund and how big the team is; at Bain as an Associate you are owner of the financial model as well as responsible for your independent work stream. You may be working with external consultants on the commercial due diligence, financial due diligence, or working on the exit strategy with banks.
2) Prospect work – i.e. working on a preliminary investment thesis. This means getting comfortable with the assets that might come up in the future for sale and be prepared for when the process launches. Here the role of an Associate is much broader and independent as you are typically the main resource working on the file. You get assigned a company, start by studying some market broker reports, conducting expert calls (which personally I find one of the best parts of our job – talking to experts). You also might do a quick LBO model and once you have generated a broad view of the asset, then you would pitch internally to the seniors. What I like about this part is that you are really the owner, you can express your investment judgement and present it to senior people to validate it.
3) Portfolio work. You would typically get assigned a company for which you were part of the deal team and this work stream involves tasks such as reporting, but also sometimes resettling strategy around the firm, financing, bolt-ons, preparing for IPO, exit strategies etc.
As you can see the Associate role at Bain is varied. They know that if you are there you are smart so able to work independently – they are willing to teach you but also trust you to get on with it. The role is challenging but rewarding.
Can you tell me more about the culture at Bain?
Bain’s culture is one of the best I’ve encountered so far. I like the fact that the firm isn’t very hierarchical; you often have direct contact with MDs and everyone is expected to express their opinion. Bain relies on hiring smart people and everyone has, and is expected to share, their own judgement regardless of seniority. There is also a great focus on training, feedback and personal development in general.
I started to work at Bain in June this year, which was obviously a strange time but they tried to make it as less absurd as possible! In ‘normal’ times everyone is able to eat lunch together in the canteen and it’s a great opportunity to speak to people. Now that this cannot happen, they often organise chats on zoom to check how you are doing – it’s not always about talking business. The culture is good and I am impressed by the level of talent concentrated in one single firm. This is stimulating and very much a source of motivation.
Tell me more about Mentors4u and your involvement with NOVA.
Mentors4u is an Italian not-for-profit creation of a friend of mine, Dimitrios Tzivelis. He realised there was no concept of mentorship in Italy so he decided to launch that initiative in 2014. It matches professionals in banking, consulting, PE or large corporates as mentors with university students. Each mentor is assigned a few mentees and these change every year. The idea is that you are aligned with someone close to your age who can share practical information such as what qualifications you need, how the recruiting works, what your day-to-day role is etc. Now it is common to have mentors but when I was young and at the early stage of my career it wasn’t, so I really enjoy being involved and giving back to current students who don’t necessarily have an environment around them to make informed decisions.
NOVA is a different concept – it is a networking community of Italians who did MBA’s abroad. I enjoy being involved because while it is important to progress and move forward in your career, I also believe you should maintain relationships within your native country and stay close to your roots, because after all that’s what has established who you are today.
How does the Italian finance market compare to the London market?
Finance in Italy is still in its infancy – we don’t have a broad infrastructure of local banks and financial advisors as in London. Opportunities are concentrated in Milan, where the financial sector is nascent but fast growing, so it’s starting to attract back some talent.
In London, Italians comprise up to 10-20% of professionals working in finance, especially in large organizations such as Goldman Sachs and Bain Capital. Italians are popular employees in London because we get a good education but there aren’t enough firms to attract that talent back in Italy. We are also generally open to travel and relocate abroad, and the result is there is a brain drain back in Italy. The Italian government tried to reverse that with a tax incentive for those who return to the country and it’s partially working. There may be a decentralisation from London at some point, particularly with Brexit looming, and we have seen some of that already, but it won’t happen over-night.
Finally, do you have any advice for current candidates?
I would say my advice for current candidates is as follows:
Do your research. The London market is unique and quite different from the rest of Europe. Research doesn’t mean looking at the website – what you read online is only partly useful. It is important to talk to people and ask questions.
Plan ahead – always think one step ahead, ask yourself what is next, how do I get there, what is the right path? Remember that it is not necessarily the quickest way, but the most thoughtful way will get you where you want to be.
Be patient – working out your career often takes time.
Learn from failures. Use a methodical approach to observe and recognise failures – both your own and others you see around you. Sometimes people treat failure as something to avoid, but they can be an excellent learning opportunity.
Finally, I always keep in mind advice from my grandfather: “If you are the smartest in the room then you are probably in the wrong room.” I have always kept this in mind and it has encouraged me to work in settings that challenge, inspire and motivate me.