Chef-turned-banker Bill Rosensweig serves up his ingredients for success

Bill Rosensweig says running a restaurant and a financial institution have many similarities, but the key is serving up what your clients want

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 March, 2013, 3:32am

Running a financial institution or a restaurant may appear to have little in common, but former chef and current partner at global financial services provider Brown Brothers Harriman (BBH), Bill Rosensweig, sees things differently.

While the food and financial services industries may seem like opposite ends of a pole, Rosensweig has found many similarities between the two, the chief of which, he says enigmatically, is that in each case you must "eat your own cooking".

The 47-year old father of two grew up in Connecticut in the United States. After graduating with degrees in English literature and philosophy, he took time off to work in a summer resort at Cape Cod and in the winter, at the Deer Valley ski resort in Park City, Utah.

It was at the Stein Eriksen Lodge in Deer Valley where Rosensweig first donned a kitchen uniform to learn the trade, serving high-end cuisine to big-name customers such as the legendary Norwegian Olympic gold medal skier Stein Eriksen, after whom the resort was named.

But the kitchen was not to be his final destination. After attending culinary school to become a professional chef, Rosensweig started his own food and beverage business at the age of 24.

After five years, he thought it was time for a change so he sold his profitable restaurant business and went back to school to get a master's degree in business administration.

After graduation, he joined KPMG Consulting. There he met one of the 40 partners in BBH, one of the oldest financial institutions in the US. Founded in 1818, BBH provides custodian and other investor services.

Rosensweig was attracted to the partnership model of the firm which has operations in 17 international financial centres. He joined in 2001 to help launch a new business line in the US before moving to London in 2005 for another new product launch.

He moved to Asia five years ago to support the expansion of BBH's operations in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and the mainland, and became a partner in the firm last year.

In an interview with the South China Morning Post, Rosensweig compared how to manage a financial institution and a restaurant, and how to maintain a loyal team of staff.


Why did you become a chef and then join the financial industry later on?

The simple reason is that I really like to eat! But equally important I enjoy being an entrepreneur.

Running a restaurant business is a very creative process as you always have to stay current and create new offerings for your customers. I really enjoyed starting and running my own restaurant.

But at age 29, I started to enjoy the business operations side more, so I sold the business and used some of the money to do my MBA with a concentration in finance.


And what are the similarities and differences in managing a restaurant and managing a financial firm?

There are more similarities than differences.

In terms of differences, banking is a highly regulated industry where, appropriately so, we have to follow strict regulatory guidelines and obtain regulatory approvals before any new product launch.

In a restaurant business, it is much easier. A chef can decide what to cook on any given day, which leads to a much faster creative cycle.

But there are similarities, too. In both cases, using the best ingredients is critical. For a financial services firm, the ingredients are our people. Understanding client needs and ensuring client satisfaction are critical in both industries.

The clients who are most demanding are the ones who drive you to excel. Most importantly, you have to eat your own cooking. A chef should never serve something he would not eat himself and a banker should never promote products or services he would not use.


On a personal level, how do you compare your work as a chef and in the financial industry?

There are many similarities and in both roles I have had the opportunity to express entrepreneurial creativity. BBH has a long history of innovation, fuelled by an entrepreneurial spirit. I would have to say though that the chef's uniform is somewhat more comfortable than a suit.


In terms of recruitment, which people are suited to working in a restaurant and who are better suited to working in a bank?

In any position, it is important that people enjoy what they do. If you work in a restaurant, you need to love food, people and providing good service. If you work at a bank, you need to sincerely like helping clients meet their objectives.

When people join BBH, they are joining a team of high-performing, dedicated and caring people who identify with our culture and are determined to be collaborative for the benefits of our clients. We look for people who are in search of a career as opposed to a job.


Your firm has some staff that have served you for a long time. How do you maintain their loyalty?

Yes, many of our staff have worked for BBH for 20 or 30 years.

As a meritocracy, we award high performers with incentives when they perform well. But I do not think money is the key driver.

We have to provide a working environment that they are proud of and help them develop a career with great prospects.

This involves training and providing long-term opportunities for them to grow. This is a key advantage of BBH as we are a private partnership and can take a long-term view.


Many financial firms are laying off people. Are you doing the same?

Since we have a different business model from most financial institutions, we can take a longer-term approach. This helped us stay profitable even during the global financial crisis.

We have 4,700 staff globally, with 140 in Asia. But with increasing growth in this region, we need more good people to join us.


Do you still cook for your family and your staff?

I always enjoying cooking for my friends and family. Cooking is a good way to express and share one's creativity. And I still love to eat.