Mr Keith Magnus – With Grit and Integrity

Esteemed NIC member, Keith Magnus, Chairman of Evercore's Business in Asia, was recently interviewed in an insightful editorial in The Business Times. The article followed his inspiring journey through investment banking during the financial crisis to a successful billion dollar investment banking business at Evercore Asia.

In 1998, aspiring investment banker Keith Magnus walked into the final round of a job interview at then-Chase bank, wheeling a drip stand alongside him.

He had been warded at a hospital but was anxious to clinch the job. It seemed an opportunity of a lifetime, coming in the throes of the Asian financial crisis. There were 4,000 applicants for four positions. “I got the doctor at Mount Elizabeth to allow me to leave the hospital temporarily. It wasn’t anything contagious,” he laughs.

In hindsight it seems almost inevitable that he would clinch the job. But this early experience also hints at the character traits of fierce determination, tenacity and what he calls “grit” that would be germane to the rapid, upward trajectory of his career. Some 18 years since that pivotal interview, he has helmed billion-dollar deals and has been courted by the largest investment banks, earning a reputation as a star investment banker. In 2013, US-based independent investment bank Evercore sat up and roped him in to establish and head its Asian business. Mr Magnus is chief executive of Evercore Asia.

“Investment banking is a very difficult business. If you’re standing still, you’re moving backwards. You need to be hungry for knowledge, and you need to develop a very high level of curiosity about the world. In one word, you have to have grit. That’s passion for the business, for clients’ interests, and the resolve and determination to see something through. If you don’t have grit, you won’t be able to survive.

“The other pillar is integrity. Without that it’s impossible to be seen as a trusted investment banker. Grit and integrity are my bedrock; they’ve been my operating principles.”

At a relatively young age of 43, Mr Magnus is credited with advising on over 100 transactions and S$50 billion worth of deals. Over the past year alone, key Evercore-advised deals included the acquisition by Singtel of a 98 per cent stake in Trustwave Holdings, valued at S$1.1 billion. There was also the S$1.45 billion buyout offer for three-in-one coffee-mix maker Super Group by Dutch group Douwe Egberts. Evercore is also the adviser to Tolaram on its strategic long-term partnership with Kellogg, a multibillion-dollar deal in terms of transaction value.

An early stint at the Ministry of Defence’s (Mindef) legal department as part of his National Service woke him up to the possibilities of deal-making. “I read law in university and was drawn to it. There are other lawyers in my family, but I have always been fascinated by the world of high finance.”

He graduated from Monash University in Australia with a double degree in Economics (Accountancy) and Law, training that has turned out to be invaluable in investment banking which requires a keen nose for the economics of a deal and familiarity with the law. In any case his law pedigree was impeccable. His father is Richard Magnus, retired senior (now termed chief) district judge who has been awarded multiple public service medals, and who is credited with helping to transform Singapore’s judicial system into one of the most efficient in the world.

The younger Mr Magnus qualified for university at 17, and upon completion was posted to Mindef’s legal department handling procurement contracts for the government. “In the two years doing that I realised that I was always supporting whatever deals that had been cut between agencies on the defence front, documenting what had already been agreed upon. I thought it would be reasonably interesting to be at the forefront of dealmaking, at the cutting edge of the thought process that led to value being created and transactions being done. I decided I would give banking a swing.”

The job opportunity at Chase bank was for an Asia development programme for analysts where candidates would be slated for senior positions in Asia. Chase was subsequently bought over by JP Morgan. He was rotated through various positions, including multinational banking, credit and cash management. “Once I got into investment banking, I never left,” he says.


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