The Asset Management Career Path Guide

At some point in your accounting career, you’re going to reach a crossroads. You’ve gained some work experience either internally at a company or at a public accounting firm, and it’s time to choose where to focus your ambitions. If your interests lie with investments and private wealth, you may want to consider a career in asset management, which typically means getting on the CFO or COO track. Some people fall into asset management through happy accidents. Perhaps you landed a hedge fund job early in your career, or you started working with venture capital funds and became hooked. VC firms look especially attractive to accountants right now because everyone wants a piece of the tech explosion. The idea of working for an innovative technology company or biotech startup appeals to many people. You can feel a part of these companies if you are working for an investment firm that makes investments in these types of companies. On the other hand, you might just love investing. Maybe you were president of your college’s investing club, and now you want to build your brand around wealth management. The Bay Area offers a wide range of interesting opportunities within the investment management industry.

The Path to Asset Management

The time to plan your career trajectory is before it’s even begun, or at least as early as possible. If you’re passionate about investing or want to work for a particular type of organization, strategize how to get there, beginning with your first job. Here’s how to do it:

1. Start in Public Accounting

If you’re taking the traditional accounting route to asset management, begin at a public accounting firm. I would recommend staying at least a few years.  If you start at a smaller, regional firm, it might be a good idea to try to get some Big 4 experience as well as they tend to have the larger clients.  You’ll need this background to make your next move.

2. Seek Diverse Clients

Don’t just accept assignments that come to you and hope to advance. Work toward a senior position and take on a wide variety of clients in the process. If you’re at a small CPA firm, lobby to work with the VIP clients. If you’re at a large firm where all your time is spent on one hedge fund client, consider moving to a medium-sized company so you can build a diverse skill set. You need experience in hedge funds, private equity, and venture capital to make a successful move into asset management. It’s also useful to diversify your tax credentials. The more skills you bring to the table, the more opportunities you’ll have available to you. Think of it this way: If you’ve only done venture capital work, you’ll find it difficult to break into hedge funds and vice versa. Take on challenging cases within your area of interest as well. Don’t only select clients that are traditional long-short equities when building your hedge portfolio. Experience with credit or distressed debt or other types of strategies signals your ability to handle a broad range of investment challenges.

3. Be on the Lookout for New Opportunities

The secret to a successful asset management career is to never be complacent. Once you’ve reached senior status with a public accounting company, move to a firm where you can cut your teeth from the inside. You can do this as a Senior Fund Accountant or Accounting Manager at a large organization,  But plan to go after a promotion or transition to another company every two to three years. Oftentimes, you won’t find advancement opportunities at large firms unless someone retires or leaves the company. You might get luckier at smaller firms where it’s a bit easier to shoot up the chain as people switch jobs and the firm grows. But you won’t see as much breadth of strategy, so you’ll still want to keep that two- to three-year window in mind. You need to demonstrate consistent progression if you’re serious about being on the CFO trajectory.

4. Identify the Right Fit

You’re going to make trade-offs whether you work at a large or small firm, so figure out what matters to you. Larger organizations offer more structure, which works if you thrive with clearly defined roles and responsibilities. At smaller companies, everyone wears several hats and there’s more of a startup culture. You may do the fund accounting along with accounting for the management company and jumping in on other areas like operations and compliance. Decide which environment best suits your interests and talents. Then there’s the question of work-life balance. Venture capital teams generally work 8-5 or even less, allowing you to have nights and weekends for family and other pursuits. Hedge funds and trading companies tend to require more and longer hours, but they pay higher bonuses based on their management fees. The hedge industry can be volatile, but the high rewards are worth it if you’re comfortable with the risks and the demanding schedule. VC work can pay handsomely, too, of course. But those returns depend on successful exits, so it can be a long time before you make that money.

5. Continually Expand your Skill Set

If you want to be a CFO, you must broaden your skills every two to three years. That might mean leaving your current employer or taking on a new role within the company. As a recruiter, I look for candidates who oversee a bit of everything. When you’re in a fund accounting role, you can take over management company accounting, valuations, or become involved in operations and compliance. Be mindful of silos at big firms and avoid getting boxed into one strategy. Get involved with the accounting for multiple products to expand your knowledge. Just make sure you’re growing in every role.

Building Your Network

Your asset management path will vary based on your goals. You could become a CFO five years out of college if you want to work with a small organization. But if you’re shooting for the C-Suite at a multibillion dollar fund, you need to be strategic and thoughtful. Asset management is a small world within accounting. Only a handful of recruiters work in this space, so ask your colleagues and mentors for referrals of who is best suited to help you. Asset management recruiters know which opportunities are available, and they can make the right introductions when you’re ready. Establish the right relationships throughout your career and choose each step wisely. The recruiters, peers, and mentors you meet at different organizations will recognize your tenacity and can steer you toward the top job. Think strategically about where your professional passions lie and build from there.

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