ADIA at 40: UAE's top young talent fine-tuned in the world of investment

When the Emirati Saif Almashghouni was studying finance at Ohio State University four years ago, he recalls being asked if he was going to work for the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (Adia) when he graduated.

“It was strange, being in the US at the time, that students there would know Adia”, says Mr Almashghouni, 27, who now works as an Associate in Adia’s Private Equities Department.

“It’s an honour to work for Adia,” he says. “People choose to work here for the pride, because Adia is one of the most respected brands in the region.”

When Mr Almashghouni attended the SuperReturn private equity conference in Berlin in February last year, he also felt the impact of Adia’s reputation. “Invitees were on a database where they could see which other investors were coming to the conference,” he says. “As soon as people saw the name Adia, I was bombarded by emails asking to meet me.”

John B McCarthy, who is Adia’s Global Head of Infrastructure, also says Adia feels like a privileged place from which to operate. When Mr McCarthy was headhunted to join Adia three years ago from Deutsche Bank in London, he was reluctant at first to leave the private sector to join a government institution.

“But I was curious, so I came to Abu Dhabi to meet a number of senior leaders within Adia,” Mr McCarthy says.

“The thing that impressed me was the vision for what Adia was and how integral it was for the development of the country. There are certain ethics that go with that vision that are absent in a lot of other companies that I have interacted with in the western world.”

Before Mr McCarthy moved to London, he had worked in investment banking in New York, which he describes as “a year-to-year proposition driven by profit and bonus expectations”.

“It’s a pretty tough dog-eat-dog existence. This [Adia] is much longer term, it’s a place that values people more highly, in my opinion, and has a very distinct culture associated with it.”

Mr McCarthy is Australian, one of more than 60 nationalities currently working for Adia. The broad spectrum of nationalities is something Adia describes as being one of its core strengths, ensuring that a breadth of knowledge, expertise and perspectives is represented in the decision-making processes. But Adia is also firmly committed to developing local talent.

With Abu Dhabi’s relatively small population and other institutions also trying to hire the most promising young UAE nationals, Adia has created an Early Preparation Programme to identify and develop talented school students, and to make sure they understand the opportunities available at Adia when they are assessing their future career choices.

Short-listed candidates then have the option to apply for Adia’s Scholarship Programme, under which they receive support to attend leading universities around the world – but only after undergoing a rigorous selection process involving interviews as well as language, psychometric and competency skills testing.

After graduation, Emirati “new joiners” are placed in Adia’s Year One Graduate Programme. Financial skills are then fine-tuned through a mix of lectures and exams, as well as immersion in real-life case studies, culminating in mock Investment Committee presentations. To date, 92 people have graduated from the programme and are working at Adia, and 44 employees are currently enrolled.

Mr Almashghouni successfully completed his Year One Graduate Programme three years ago. “I got to see the whole Adia investment strategy in a safety-net platform, where mistakes are ok, so you get to learn and build soft skills and technical skills as well”, he says.

“I might never have dreamt about being admitted to Harvard, but here we have Harvard professors coming through as part of our ongoing training courses. It’s a really amazing experience to be a part of.”

Mr Almashghouni sees Adia’s role as going beyond that of a traditional investment firm. “Adia helps the Government in building the human capital of the country. To me, Adia is an innovator, it’s like a Google in a way for this region, setting an example for others to follow.”

Financial gurus who have been invited to speak at Adia’s auditorium include Mohamed El Erian, the chief economic adviser at the multinational financial services company Allianz and the former chief executive of the global investment firm Pimco, and Dan Yergin, a Pulitzer Prize winning author and a respected authority on energy, international politics and economics.

In November, Adia held its annual Global Investment Forum on the theme of “A New Growth Paradigm”, attended by 400 employees, which explored pressing global issues such as the impact of urbanisation on the global economy, technological innovation and the use of big data as a competitive advantage. Speakers included Daniel Loeb, the billionaire founder and chief executive of the New York investment adviser Third Point, and Ed Glaeser, a Professor of Economics at Harvard.

The Emirati Noura Al Qubaisi, 30, a senior investment manager in Adia’s Fixed Income Department, says she found the forum got her up to speed with what is going on in the global market from different perspectives. But it is through the Adia training programme that Ms Al Qubaisi says she has benefited the most in terms of women and leadership.

“I learnt that the most important thing to keep in mind as a woman who would like to reach higher positions is to focus on your brand. What will people remember about you when they say your name?,” she says. “This was really helpful for me in thinking about what I want to deliver in terms of a message about myself.”

Ms Al Qubaisi has noticed more females joining Adia since she came on board in 2008. “It is much more of an accepted thing now for Emirati women to look at going into the financial world as a career”, she says. “If you go into colleges, you see so many ladies studying finance and accounting. They aspire to work at organisations like Adia, because we are given equal opportunities – I never feel that because I am a woman, I am given less responsibility.”

Ms Al Qubaisi’s job involves analysing different companies, to ascertain whether they are investments worthy of being added to Adia’s bonds portfolio.

“When I come in each day, I look at the names that I’m covering, at their financials, strategies, management and what they’re trying to do, and I try to follow up on the news and the prices. It’s very dynamic, and I need to move fast to keep up with the pace of the market.”

She says that now is an extremely busy period for her department, which means staying at the office until after sunset. But she is in no rush to get home.

“I do at least nine hours a day and I just don’t feel the time, it passes so fast because I’m enjoying my job. I feel like I’m adding value, that my hard work is appreciated through the recommendations I’m making to the team. When I see a company in the portfolio making money, it makes me feel very fulfilled.”

Ms Al Qubaisi and her colleagues frequently travel to far-flung corners of the world, in search of the right opportunities and to build their on-the-ground knowledge.

Mr McCarthy’s infrastructure division, for example, invests in airports, ports, gas, electricity transmission generation and renewable energy, all of which is invested outside the local region.

“A lot of people are willing to take your phone call because of the capital base that you represent,” he says.

“The flexibility and the mandate we have to deploy capital is truly global. For example, we’re doing a fair bit of business in India at the moment, but really, there’s rarely a place that you go to where we’re not recognised for what we represent.”


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