Kris Walesby
Head of ETF Securities Australia @ ETF Securities

“Prepare yourself to do the hours, listen, learn and it will work out for you.”

Kris Walesby, head of ETF Securities Australia at ETF Securities has worked his way up the ranks from back-office roles at fund management firms to building capital markets teams at iShares, Invesco PowerShares and ETF Securities, both in London and Australia. Kris sat down with Jobs in ETFs to discuss how he took large risks, the biggest challenges he faced in his career and his advice for people starting out in the industry.

JE: Please tell us about yourself and your experience. How did your career start?
I started at Manchester University, doing religious studies, and then I switched to business management. I went on to recruitment sales for a year which I didn’t particularly like. 

Finance was next: various funds, back-office accountancy roles, balance sheets, management accounts and so on. I absolutely hated it! But I stuck it out for three years while I studied for my CIMA qualification.

In my mid-twenties I moved to Australia and into a middle office position, doing product control for traders in Deutsche Bank for about three or four years. That was much better but it still was not what I wanted to do. The silver lining was that when working for traders and salespeople within investment banks, I realized I wanted to be client facing. Australia is a very small market though and changing your career is a lot harder than it is in London or New York. After about four years I returned to England and went to Cass Business School for a year to do my masters in finance.

JE: What was your first job in the ETF industry? How did you decide to pursue the career you have today and what was the pivotal moment?

Kris: Near the end of my masters I applied for literally about 100 jobs and one of them was a position at iShares. I didn’t know much about the ETF industry apart from what I’d read in advance of the interview. It felt very different from banking and I liked the way the role was described, but I definitely didn’t know ETFs were going to see this explosive growth.

I got the job and in my early thirties I ended up on iShares’ advanced degree program. I then joined their Capital Markets team which was just being created. We were a small team but we were doing pretty well, it was exciting and the market was growing more and more and then…the credit crisis hit. Everything changed. However, even though iShares lost a lot of assets, they lost a lot less assets than active managers and hedge funds. ETFs started to accelerate both in the States and in Europe. We found ourselves working for the biggest ETF provider in the middle of the greatest storm that the finance world had seen since the 21st century, helping a lot of clients come through difficult issues and helping them learn more about ETFs. It was a sort of baptism of fire.

JE: Was there a time throughout your career where you were unsure about where you were going? What would you say was the biggest challenge?
One big challenge was when ETF Securities asked me to come over to set up the capital markets client-facing team there, from scratch. I was there for three or four years and I briefly went to Invesco PowerShares to do the same thing for about a year.

I left ETF Securities on very good terms, so when they were in the middle of launching the ANZ franchise they knew I had aspirations to go to Australia and run a business so they approached me. I’ve been here for almost a year now. Together with my team we are trying to build the exchange traded fund from scratch, which is by far the hardest thing I’ve done professionally but it is exciting at the same time.

JE: How would you compare working for a larger and smaller company? And what would you advise to someone starting out in the industry?
It’s a hard question to answer because the reality is that both of them work. If you work for big companies you’re going to get technical knowledge, be surrounded by very senior people with a lot of experience and not necessarily just in ETFs. The downside is that it can be harder to rise up the ranks.

If you go to a smaller provider and if you are good, you’re going to rise through the ranks much more quickly. Prepare yourself to do the hours, get in earlier than everyone else, leave later than everyone else, listen, learn and it will work out for you. In your mid-twenties, you could be doing a lot better than a 35-year-old at iShares, State Street or Vanguard. However, if you display weakness at a smaller company, like ETF Securities  for example, it is really obvious to everyone immediately. So if you go to a small company, you better be confident and good. The ETF industry is so competitive.  

But even in big companies, the industry is small enough to be involved in quite significant business decisions from an early stage of your career. That is very different from a lot of other areas of finance where you might wait 20 years before you’re even allowed to voice your opinion. 

JE: Do you think the industry skills and knowledge are transferable from one geographical location to another? 
Yes, definitely. Moving to a new market is tough because of the way people respond, the lead times – but you can learn all of that. What’s harder is to learn the technical side of ETFs which doesn’t change based on location. A good foundation on how ETFs work, that’s highly transferable. 

On the other hand moving to a new market like I’ve moved from Europe, which is highly institutional, to a market which is highly advisor driven, can be very challenging. I have to say it has taken me a while to adapt. It’s hard work but it’s not impossible. You just immerse yourself in it and hope colleagues will be patient enough to let you learn. 

JE: Looking back, what do you think was the best decision that shaped your career? 
I’d say there were two. The first one was to go back to England for my master’s degree and completely change my career. That was an intense risk. It was very tough because there was no certainty of a result.

The second one was moving from iShares to ETF Securities. It was a massive risk as I had not built a front office department before. But I was confident and that definitely completely transformed my career because as soon as you prove you can do something, you end up on a completely different level.