The five Southeast Asian tech unicorns that now want to hire from banks

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Forget moving to a tiny fintech firm. Singapore-based bankers and consultants are now wanted by large Southeast Asian technology start-ups.

North Asia has already witnessed a similar trend. Led by Tencent and Alibaba, mainland technology companies have been recruiting investment bankers into corporate development and C-suite roles for the past two years.

But only recently have the major Southeast Asian start-ups got into the act, albeit on a smaller scale than the likes of Alibaba. Most of these companies remain 'unicorns' – valuable but as yet unlisted.

There are five regional tech giants that are most keen on hearing from investment bankers and consultants, says a headhunter who has knowledge of their hiring and who asked not to be named because of client confidentiality.

Two of these are Singapore-based: Grab, a ride-hailing rival to Uber, and Sea (formerly Garena), a shopping and online games company that is Southeast Asia’s most valuable start-up. The others are headquartered in Indonesia: e-commerce firm Tokopedia, travel booking platform Traveloka, and Go-Jek, the taxi and delivery app.

Their senior management ranks already include people with financial services backgrounds.

Last October Grab appointed Ming Maa – who spent 12 years at Goldman Sachs and was most recently at Japanese tech company and Grab investor Softbank – as its president. Sea’s president, Nicholas Nash, also comes from the finance sector. He worked for General Atlantic between 2002 and 2014, latterly as head of Southeast Asia, and before that spent almost two years as a business analyst at McKinsey & Co.

This year their focus is shifting to hiring Singapore-based junior to mid-level bankers to help them with business expansions, including acquisitions, says the headhunter. “I’m getting mandates from these local tech unicorns to hire bankers – mainly TMT specialists – and some of them are moving, even to jobs in Jakarta. That was unheard of until recently.”

“The start-up unicorns are essentially targeting the same bankers as the private equity firms – the best analysts and associates in Singapore at global investment banks,” he says. “And they’re also hiring tech consultants from the likes of McKinsey, Bain and BCG, mainly for post-acquisition roles.”

Markus Gnirck, managing director of tryb Capital, a Singapore-based technology investment firm, says Southeast Asia tech giants are “heavily recruiting” investment bankers and consultants into business development, organisational management, and fundraising jobs.

“They particularly like to hire Asians who’ve worked in the US, where they’ve been exposed to a more mature tech market,” says Gnirck.

One of the reasons these companies appeal to young bankers is that they provide a potential training ground for those who want to set up their own businesses in the future, says Gnirck. “You’re exposed to new technologies, benefit from their growing positive public reputation, and have a potential financial upside through equity,” he adds.

Don’t get too excited. The tech firms typically match banking base salaries, rather than offer large pay increases, says the headhunter.

Image credit: MadKruben, Getty

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