Bryon Lake
Managing Director, Head of International ETF @ J.P. Morgan Asset Management

Bryon Lake is one of the most respected figures in the ETF industry, moving up the ranks over 15 years from interning at hedge fund to managing ETFs at a major asset management firm. He talks to Jobs in ETFs about why he left Invesco PowerShares after a decade and his advice to ‘always do the dirty work.’

“The industry is really competitive, as I said, and everyone is smart, well-resourced and trying to do cool things so the biggest challenge is coming up with the new thing.” 

JE: Please tell us about yourself and your experience. What was your first job in the ETF industry? How did you decide to pursue a career in the industry, what was the pivotal moment?

Bryon: I had graduated college and moved to Chicago, was working in banking and I interned at a hedge fund – just for a cup of coffee, for a year or two – then I got introduced to this financial adviser. He said, ‘You should talk to the guys at PowerShares, they’re doing some really interesting things.’

I drove out to the suburbs of Chicago and met the original founder, Bruce Bond. Prior to driving out there I had done a bit of homework, researched what they were trying to do, how they were positioning themselves, the media they were doing and I got the picture – I really wanted a job there. I articulated to him that ETFs seemed like they had a future and were a good way to invest. He responded to that and gave me a job straight away.

This was ten years ago, and PowerShares was an entrepreneurial start-up with less than $300 million under management, so I think what they first responded to was my eagerness to be part of something new. Building things had always been fun, and I was open minded. Not many people thought ETFs would become a multi-trillion-dollar industry.

Business culture is important. He saw me as a team player, someone who wanted to collaborate and work with others. Plus I had an energy. Warren Buffet says he looks for integrity, intelligence and energy, in that order, and it was probably similar for Bruce.

JE: What has been the highlight of your career?

Bryon: One of the biggest highlights is seeing other people I’ve worked with having success in their careers, or people I’ve had the privilege of managing. Seeing and sharing in others’ success and development has been a real pleasure.

I’ve made some really good friends in this industry – I always joke that, in soccer, you score a goal and slide in the grass, rip your shirt off, that kind of thing, and clearly that doesn’t happen enough in the ETF industry, it’s more like a small fist bump and ‘let’s grab a drink’, but there is something cool in seeing other people succeed.

JE: What is the best bit of advice you’ve received in your career?

Bryon: I’ve been extremely fortunate to have good managers, such as Bruce Bond, [former PowerShares managing director] Ben Fulton, Bobby Brooks: these are the early sales leaders in the ETF space.

There’s the cliché that you should try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes, whether you’re talking to people internally or externally, and try to understand where they are coming from and what they’re trying to accomplish. People like to do business with those they trust, who are working hard and not playing games. Also, treat people like you want to be treated. People say that a lot, but they are clichés for a reason.

JE: If you can give advice to those who are just starting in the ETF industry, what will it be?

Bryon: My advice for people would be to get excited about doing the dirty work, whether that’s building a deck for a new product and all the monotonous data analysis that comes with it, or something else.

It’s definitely like the film ‘Karate Kid’, where Mr Miyagi tells him how to paint the fence: doing the same thing thousands of times helps you develop the instinct to do other things well.

I started on the distribution side and I’ve had about 10,000 conversations with clients about ETFs and after that many times you develop an instinct as to what questions they will ask and what clients are thinking about. When you get into more strategic conversations, you can pull from that experience.

The industry is super competitive, everyone is really smart and works really hard so being willing to do that dirty work and the early monotony of some of these roles is so important. It’s rewarding from a personal level and helps you develop a skill set which is extremely valuable. 

JE: What key skills do you think are necessary to have in order to be employable and successful in the industry?

Bryon: It depends what type of role you want. For the normal roles and skill set, being able to build relationships and delivering complex topics in an easy-to-understand format, and communicating well, are all important.

On the product side there’s a lot of analytical stuff, but again, communication is key, as is being able to connect with people, being dependable and trustworthy.

JE: What has been your biggest challenge so far?

Bryon: That is the fun part, right? The industry is really competitive, as I said, and everyone is smart, well-resourced and trying to do cool things so the biggest challenge is coming up with the new thing. The market is really efficient, it’s a constant challenge we all have but one that I spent a disproportion amount of time on.

JE: Why did you take the new role at JP Morgan?

Bryon: I really respect my former colleagues and the firm, but I found I had an opportunity to build something at JP Morgan that was really exciting. The firm has strong leadership, a clear vision and an ambition to do something really cool in this space so I just got excited about that and felt I wanted to be a part of it.

It was a really difficult decision to leave PowerShares after ten years, particularly on the people side, as I’d grown up with these people and had respect for all of them but found it was probably the right time to take on new challenge.

JE: The growth of ETFs has been phenomenal. What would you say are the most significant changes in the ETF space in the past few years?

Bryon: Education, as I always say. It’s just clients and investors continuing to educate themselves on the product: on how vehicle works and the underlying proposition, as well as thinking of creative ways to use ETFs in their portfolio. There are new, creative products coming to market too, but the level of education has been the main change.

JE: What do you think is the “next big thing” – or what should we all keep an eye out for?

Bryon: Having a solution-oriented mindset. Not just being product developers but really sitting down and working closely with clients, trying to understand what they want to accomplish. JP Morgan is really kitted out to do that.