Finance

An audience with John Studzinski: ‘I thought of being a priest, but in banking I do things my way’

John Studzinski urges junior bankers to seize career opportunities as they present themselves — even if such openings have changed from when the City grandee began work at Morgan Stanley in the 1980s.

For a start, dealmakers no longer go to meetings by helicopter.

Studzinski was an associate on a crack team of Morgan Stanley dealmakers serving General Electric, which included Parker Gilbert, its then chair. Before one board meeting, waiting to be picked up by the bank’s private helicopter, Gilbert rang to say that the rest of the team had food poisoning.

“He told me: ‘You and I are the team… and I’m not that comfortable doing board presentations, so you’re going to do it’,” he says. “I said: ‘That’s flattering but I’m just 22 years old. I’m still in short trousers.’ And he just said, ‘I’ve seen you present, and you’ll do fine.’”

That is the kind of client exposure of which juniors, largely cooped up at home doing 100-hour weeks over the past year, can only dream. Studzinski concedes it was a different time — less like the present and more like Mad Men, the TV series about the advertising industry set in the 1960s.

He says that today’s analysts should not view long hours as a negative. “It’s not about hard work, it’s about the experience,” he says, adding that exposure to dealmakers such as Gilbert and Stephen Schwarzman of Blackstone was “gold dust”.

READ Pimco adds former White House defence expert to advisory board

Studzinski has been vice-chair of Pimco, the $2.2tn fund management firm, since 2018, the latest senior role in a 40-year finance career.

Known as “Studs” to friends and colleagues, he scoffs at the idea that he is a typical banker. A first generation Polish immigrant from a town near Boston, he stumbled into investment banking as a “guinea pig” for Morgan Stanley’s first graduate intake.

Studying in Chicago, Studzinski intended to go into consulting until one night when he sauntered into a bank drinks reception and was invited to an interview.

“They said: ‘Tell me why you want to be an investment banker.’ I said: ‘Well, I don’t know. You invited me. Why don’t you tell me why I should be an investment banker?’” he says.

A Catholic who has a private chapel in his Chelsea home, he “very seriously” considered joining the priesthood but ultimately thought he could do more to champion causes “in his own way”, which is a driver of his philanthropy.

Studzinski says that the first few years as a banker did not sit well. He had doubts over a career in finance longer term, but in 1984 Morgan Stanley asked him to move to London to build up its mergers and acquisitions business from scratch.

This was before the Big Bang, when Wall Street banks rushed to London after deregulation by the Thatcher government. Morgan Stanley may be a top European M&A house now but Studzinski says clients often confused it with its rivals JPMorgan or Morgan Grenfell, the City investment bank acquired by Deutsche Bank in 1990.

Morgan Stanley rose to be a top three M&A house under Studzinski’s stewardship, but in 2003 he was tapped by Sir John Bond, then HSBC chair, to co-head its investment bank alongside Stuart Gulliver, who would later become the UK lender’s chief executive.

In the pre-crisis heyday, Studzinski was tasked with building a new investment bank and was given a budget reportedly worth hundreds of millions of dollars to recruit dealmakers. It’s a pattern that has been repeated at HSBC, where Greg Guyett, the current co-head of global banking and markets, is aiming to hire senior bankers with “C-suite relationships” to bring in more M&A work.

Studzinski declines to comment on specific banks but says any transformation is as much cultural as anything else. “Culture is something that is in your DNA and you can’t change your DNA,” he says.

It is a diplomatic response from a man who is known for having long-term relationships. His 65th birthday party this year attracted celebrities including Damian Lewis, the star of the TV series Billions, and Ken Follett, the author, as well as former prime ministers Theresa May and Gordon Brown.

Studzinski rolls his eyes at the mention of famous clients including Pope John Paul II, whom he reportedly knew well.

“Be honest with people when they ask for advice, and take a long-term view,” he says. “Sometimes people make the mistake of thinking every relationship is going to have a commercial angle. Maybe one in four or five does, but relationships are for the long-term.”

Studzinski’s mingling with celebrities has as much to do with his philanthropy as dealmaking. He gives away half his annual earnings to charity — reportedly $13m at their peak — and has been vocal about why the super-rich should donate more to good causes. He founded the Genesis Foundation to help young artists, and the Arise Foundation, which fights human trafficking.

READPimco hires ‘statesman of finance’ Studzinski from Blackstone

When asked why he does this, he admits that his responses — “Have you ever seen a hearse pulling a U-haul?” or “A shroud has no pockets” — sound like something on a greetings card. But he adds that his parents “worked their tails off” during the Depression and he wants to give to causes that help “human dignity”. Covid has made this even more pressing, he says.

Studzinski, who splits his time between London and New York, says he has been stuck on “Webex, Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Meet” for 20 months. He is now back in the office and set to fly to the US again.

Enthused by meeting the latest crop of graduates at Pimco, he says that today’s young people have been too quick to dismiss the financial sector for other industries, despite the lack of helicopter rides these days.

“We’re in the midst of an extraordinary period of transformation — to digital, from brown to green, and how the world is adjusting post-Covid. Whether it’s banking or asset management, you have a front-row seat to this,” he says.

CV

Born

19 March 1956

Education

1980

MBA, University of Chicago

1978

BA in biology and sociology, Bowdoin College

Career

2018-present

Vice-chair and managing director, Pimco

2015-18 

Senior managing director, Blackstone Group

2006-15

Head of business advisory group and managing director, Blackstone Group

2003-06

Co-head of corporate investment banking and markets division, HSBC

1980-2003 

Various roles including deputy chair, Morgan Stanley International

To contact the author of this story with feedback or news, email Paul Clarke

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