Aaron Grunwald: How would you describe the company culture of private equity firms that you know?
Hind El Gaidi: That’s a tough one. I know about our culture, that’s for sure. But we’re not necessarily the same as the others.
Well, what’s your company like?
The culture is very entrepreneurial, and fair, I would say, also, with a lot of intellectual honesty. People don’t try to make this whole political game. It’s very flat, it’s in your face, very direct. Everyone is respected for what they are and for what they bring to the table. It’s not because of a title, it’s because of your competency. And the entrepreneurial side as well. We ask our investors, so deal teams, the people who invest, to be very entrepreneurial and creative in the way they source companies, to negotiate the best deal, etc. But we ask the same from our people in the management company. We say, ‘you’ve been doing this for three years now; can you develop a cool software?’
Maybe it can be tiring for some people, but it’s perpetual improvement. So we have a process, can we make it better?
And it’s actually so interesting and exciting, because for someone who doesn’t like routine, like me, there is this Pandora’s box that just keeps on opening all the time… ‘yeah, two years [ago] we thought this is cool, but now, we should find something else.’
In your experience, is it easy to strike a good work-life balance, especially for women who are mothers?
It’s a challenge. And I don’t believe in striking a good balance every day. It’s more that there is an overall balance. There are moments where you focus on family, and there are moments where you focus on work, and sometimes both will meet [laughs]. And then, you have to seek help or seek an understanding manager at your company. So, in general, my philosophy, whether you’re in private equity or somewhere else, is that, let’s say, this is your big moment at work, and you’re getting that promotion or you’re fundraising and this is the time of your life--that’s something you prepped at home, and your family is understanding that you’re putting in that effort and they’re all behind you. And they know that when you’re done, you’re all gonna go and indulge for two weeks somewhere and have really good family time. That’s the balance for me, really. It’s a bit wider time horizon, rather than every day will be balanced. [With that expectation,] you’re setting yourself up for failure. Because every day, things happen that you haven’t expected, that you didn’t know about. So I find it easier to manage this [way], psychologically and mentally, because otherwise, you’re just beating yourself down every day [with] ‘I didn’t do that.’
So it’s not balanced every day, and maybe it’s not even every week?
It’s not every week. For me, there are cycles. When you want to focus on your family, then at work, that has to be crystal clear. I’m in the extreme example where I’m on maternity leave right now. But they understand I gave my best before I went on maternity leave, and I’m gonna come back and I’m gonna be giving my best again. But now, it’s time to focus on this baby that just came into the world, and I want to set him up with the best conditions and set myself up also with the best conditions, so when I’m back, I’m feeling good, and my family is comfortable about me coming back to work, etc., etc. So that’s a very important message.
I think this has been boosted now with covid. Because a lot of employers, I would say, have realised that flexibility actually is not that bad. It does not sag productivity. So they are maybe a little bit more open.
There are also discussions about remote working because you realise in Luxembourg [not everyone] is Luxembourgish. So [for] people who come from really far away countries, a lot of employers are now thinking about giving them the possibility to go, for instance, for Christmas for three weeks: work one week remotely and then have the two-week holidays there and then come back. Because it’s a very busy season, it’s December. They are working day and night just to go for those two weeks... and then they get there, it’s Christmas, they’re dead. They come back, it’s so rush[ed] and it’s not necessarily making them feel comfortable. And a lot of employers now are looking into their remote working policies; we set up ours already, and I’m sure others have done [too]. I mean, it’s not such a public thing, but when you speak a little bit around, you see that’s it’s top of mind for everyone.
You have three kids. Do you find it easy to work at home?
It’s true, if we are all at home, it’s a disaster. I was lucky with lockdown, the first one, because it was good weather and sunny so they were outside and I was in indoors. But otherwise, it’s really difficult. But if we’re in a situation where [there] is no choice, your colleagues understand. Then, you also have to explain [the situation] to your kids and you also have to live with the fact that sometimes, they miss you and they don’t understand why you’re at home, but they cannot come to you. So that’s where you have to find th[ose] kind of smart ways of saying ‘oh we’re all going to sit at the table, you’re going to do this, I’m going to do that’, but it’s not as productive as when you are, you know, just focussed. When they’re at school, that’s my best moment to work, right?
I found it quite nice to work from home. Although I don’t have a big commute--five kilometres, I go by bike actually--it’s my wind down before getting home. But I found it nice because sometimes, for instance, I would stand up at the office, but then I would speak for another hour to different people, and then I would come home kind of very late compared to when the kids need to see me. Whereas if I’m at home, I just close my office door, and I come down, and I’m there and they’re there. And we can spend time together. So is there a perfect balance? I don’t know. But the answer, maybe, is a combination of both. That’s where I’m heading towards. And now, we have a new baby. So whatever the routine I thought was working, I have to revisit!
Are there some negative things people should be aware of before they look for a job in private equity?
Going back to work-life balance, it depends on which area you are in private equity. Because if you’re in the investment team, it depends on which kind of companies you’re looking at. If you are living in Luxembourg, and your prospects are in the German market, probably you are not going to be a whole lot at home. Even nowadays, we have Zoom, so that’s opened a lot of doors compared to before, but you still will have to [travel] a lot. So, for me, the rule, first is focus, now it’s work or now it’s family, and communicate that very clearly in your family and at work. And the second one, get help, because we cannot do everything ourselves. Just get the help you need to empower yourself and not feel that you have to be everywhere all the time... now, I’m going to the women’s perspective, because the guilt trip is very woman-like, because society kind of sets certain standards, how you should be doing things, how we expect you to be a good mum, or how we expect you to be a good employee. So, just hang that on a coat hanger and leave it there and leave the room. You don’t need that in your life.
Then the aspects that can be difficult... It’s fast paced, clearly, it’s fast paced. Even compliance, that has this image that is kind of more stable and repetitive, is actually very fast paced... So if someone wants to go into private equity, what would we tell them to do? Brace yourself.
Brace yourself. Now the second thing, what we say in our [job] interviews, because it’s very important to us... I don’t want you to know how this works at a high level, I need you to know it very well in detail and to be hands-on, and to do it yourself. Maybe we’ll decide, one day, to have someone else to do it. But as of today, it’s done internally, and I need you to know how to do it. So don’t tell me ‘Yeah, I’ve done valuation’ when you’ve [only] reviewed documents. There is this conception, in recruitment interviews, when we speak to people from the Big Four or service providers, most of them they say ‘I want to go in-house’... and what that underlies in terms of work-life balance [is] less work, less deadlines, because it’s not the way they lived in that Big Four, where everything is client driven. Now you are the client. And we always like to shatter that image very quickly. If you are coming because it’s ‘in-house’, well, maybe it’s not the right decision for you. Because we want you to be competent in a certain area. If you don’t know [something], you say it, we train you, but you need to do things yourself.
What do you want people to know about working in the sector?
Let’s go maybe one or two steps back. Today, if you are in Luxembourg, private equity is part of the landscape. I feel that you cannot be in Luxembourg and not know what is private equity, even for young adults or even for children, because it is shaping a lot of things here in Luxembourg. Before, I mean for years, Luxembourg was seen as the back office of the world because of all those mailbox companies and having kind of an easy way of creating an entity here, having [funds] go through Luxembourg, while having all the activity somewhere else. So that’s changing a lot. But we find that the market and that the people still have that mentality and that mindset.
Yes. There’s still this back office mentality that we really want to get people out of. So, if you are in private equity, and you have the full team here, you probably are out of it. But when you [look at the Big Four], every year, they hire 300, 400 juniors. For the first two years, they don’t see much of the industry. Although maybe they are working on audits for private equity, they’re looking [at the sector] from a very tiny window. I mean, there’s a lot of volume, let’s admit it. That’s the picture today. Does it mean that we have to live with the status quo? No. What we want to bring out of Luxembourg, or at least that’s the talk we’re having [among LPEA members], is to have more skilled talent in areas that are not usually the areas that people would put in Luxembourg, like marketing, like investor relations, like valuation... to push, why would an investor or private equity company not have these roles here in Luxembourg? Why would they have it somewhere else? And then, you can break it down into buckets of topics and see how you can encourage that. But for me, that’s an important way of gaining more credibility and remaining relevant. Otherwise, we’re just going to be the next Jersey or Guernsey of this world. And that’s not sustainable as a position.
Do we have the people here? Does that mean convincing people to relocate? Or does that mean, I don’t know, doubling the size of the Luxembourg School of Finance?
No, you’re right. That’s what I meant. What are those are the buckets? So, one of the buckets is talents, obviously, because that’s where you start. Why would people like to relocate to Luxembourg, why would they refuse to relocate to Luxembourg? Then, you can start speaking about infrastructure... you have to go to that nitty-gritty detail to get this up and moving.
The same goes for schooling. I’m not only speaking about relocating people to Luxembourg. I mean, probably you need to relocate more senior people. But I’m also speaking about upskilling. Because today, a lot of [recent graduates] come to Luxembourg [directly] from a certain university or business school. The Big Fours go into the university and hire them. And then, they take them for a week to Spain or Portugal, where they think ‘this is so great, I love this job,’ because they haven’t worked there yet. And then comes reality; they have what they call the busy season [for] two years. In audit, [during] busy season, people, I think, sleep in the office. And then they’re like ‘why am I doing this job, I wasn’t given a choice.’ Because he or she was young, salary was interesting, company looked fun, they had all this fun stuff, kind of still like business school, like happy hours on Thursdays... but at some point, they wake up, and they’re like ‘what’s next?’ We have to think about upskilling these people.
So you can look at the Singapore example. Singapore did [this] in a very thorough and efficient way, like everything in Singapore, but they’re also a small country, right? They are extremely competitive. They’re one of the most competitive Asian nations, while they’re so small. And one of their theories was investing in education. And when I say in education, I’m not speaking about younger children, but I’m speaking about adults. If there is an area where you want to develop, then make sure that you have people that you relocate, but also make sure that you give a certain budget to people--it can be a government decision--[so that] everyone has a budget of this much to upskill or to change direction.
That’s how you can push it a little bit. You see all the ramifications; it’s a bit of a political thing. But Luxembourg has been very known to be so agile, businesslike, so I’m not afraid that bureaucracy will hinder this process. Because if Luxembourg decides to go ahead with this, I’m sure that it will happen so quickly, and this can only be beneficial. I mean, we’ve gone this far, and nothing can stop us from going even further. That’s my belief.
Originally published in Delano’s Private Equity 2021 supplement. Be among the first to read interviews and features in the magazine by subscribing today.