Operations has a growing allure

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The humble back office is taking on the appeal of the front. Until recently, it was chiefly the domain of school leavers and mere mortals subservient to the shining lights of the front office. Not any more.

The internet and electronic trading platforms, as well as banking mergers and a desire to cut costs, have made the back office a more demanding place to work.

Michelle Henry, of the headhunters Sheffield Haworth, says: 'What was a huge cost centre, comprising very narrowly defined administrative roles, has become just the opposite.' Henry says the new style operations is much more proactive than before, offering more scope to high quality staff.

It is also better paid. Mark Cook, chief of staff for global operations at UBS Warburg, says: 'Salaries have been racked up over the past few years and headhunters have moved in.'

Joe Thomas at Wheat, another specialist operations search firm, says: 'The gap between pay for staff in operations and the front office has closed dramatically. A top person in the front office can still earn more, but for average performers the discrepancy is minimal.'

Good senior managers at vice-president level are on packages worth 300,000, while seven-figure packages are now common at the top levels.

Performance-related pay has contributed to operational high fliers' ability to afford Pradas and Ferraris. As the old cost-centre mentality evaporates, the emphasis is now on adding value, and bonuses reflect this.

'It used to be that you just had to turn up for a bonus: everyone would get 20% regardless of performance,' says Thomas. 'At the top end it's now possible to earn bonuses of 200% of base salary.'

High pay and more demanding work are transforming the profile of operations experts in many areas including finance, settlement and risk analysis. In place of the traditional school leaver, the new operations professionals are often highly qualified former or potential consultants.

'Operations requires a business engineering skill set. We have an appetite for the type of people that may otherwise go to McKinsey,' says Cook of UBS Warburg.

As the operational star rises, the back office is developing some stars of its own. Mitchell Lenson, head of operations at Deutsche Bank, Nick Riley, a managing director in operations at Credit Suisse First Boston, Garry Bullock, the head of global operations at UBS, as well as Cook himself, are considered to be among the current or future heavyweights.

But it is not only at the top that things are swinging. 'The lowest common denominator has gone up significantly,' says Wheat's Thomas.

The rise of operations is reflected in the growing popularity in the UK of the Investment Administration Qualification (IAQ). The exam, which is offered by the Securities Institute, has become the emblem of operational competency.

Scott Morris, head of training at the Institute, says the number of candidates taking the exam is doubling every two years as banks adopt it as a norm. Last year, the number reached 16,000.

Despite this large pool of IAQ qualified people, skilled operational professionals can be hard to come by. 'There is a very limited pool of people of the right calibre,' says Sheffield Haworth's Henry. For this reason, Henry says that banks are increasingly willing to contemplate candidates with no previous industry experience.

Equally, there is growing emphasis on nurturing in-house talent. In the past, this could be difficult because promising trainees tended to treat operations as a back route into the front office.

JP Morgan went some way to solving this with a system of rotations and rapid promotion for operations professionals. Today, others are doing the same.

Cook, at UBS Warburg, has a remit to tackle operations from a human perspective, so that it is perceived as a more desirable career path. The strategy could be paying off, as its operational high fliers reject suggestions that they are playing second fiddle to the front office.

Jessica Imhoff, also at UBS, is an Oxford University maths graduate and seemingly an ideal candidate for the front office. She says: 'People don't understand the changes that have gone on in operations.'

Imhoff says that the challenges she faces in operations are not only as complex as those she would face in the front office, but are more demanding because they require longer-term solutions. They also require analytical proficiency in order to see where problems are likely to arise.

So, instead of treading the well-worn path from operations to the front office, Imhoff intends to remain just where she is. The bank says that she has a good career ahead.

UBS Warburg's graduate entrants begin their careers as analysts the good ones then move on to become associates. High performers at director level and above progress to a final level, known as 'alchemy'.

Alchemists will receive training from a leading business school to help them focus on the future of operations.

For those that make it to the top, a career in the back office may yet be worth its weight in gold.

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