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W.L. Mellon Speaker Series: Rajinder Singh discusses regulation and the financial crisis, how to be opportunistic and what he wishes he knew 20 years ago

When Rajinder Singh, MSIA ’96, was a master’s student at the Tepper School, he knew for certain that he wanted to transition from a career in engineering to a career in the financial services industry. But Singh admits that, at the time, there was also plenty that he didn’t know. At his W.L. Mellon Speaker Series presentation on Nov. 28, 2016, he shared with Tepper School students several pieces of advice that he wishes he had known two decades ago.

“Know the direction that you are headed in, but not the exact path that you will walk on,” Singh said, urging the students to recognize opportunities when they arise and adapt, as he did when he secured his first job after graduating from the Tepper School. For Singh, being opportunistic is what set his financial services career in motion.

While interviewing for another position at the Career Opportunities Center, he learned that one of his classmates had not shown up for their interview with FleetBoston Financial. Singh offered to fill the slot and meet with the FleetBoston Financial recruiter, who ultimately offered him a job.

This ability to adapt and be opportunistic has served Singh well. With the arrival of financial technologies and new technologies — which Singh says has changed customer behavior and provided competitive opportunities to commercial banks in particular — as well as new rules regarding bank consolidation, a lot has changed within the financial services industry.

“What is driving consolidation is that, if you go back 30 years, banking was a state business in the sense that you would get a bank charter for one state and you couldn’t go to another state,” he explained. “When those rules were rewritten in the ’80s, national consolidation starting occurring across state lines.”

Singh also says that since the financial crisis banking has become less risky, but also less profitable, and while revenue within industry has shrunk, expenses have increased, and heightened regulatory standards have further contributed to this trend.

However, while banks may be less likely to partner with one another in today’s environment, for Singh, making connections has proved very important. While people often focus heavily on the industry, company or position that they want to work in when making career choices, Singh says that due diligence should not stop there. The next (and perhaps most important) step is getting to know the people that you are going to work with, and choosing to work for someone whom you can respect and who is taking their own career in a positive direction.

For his third piece of advice, Singh cited a lesson that he had learned from former professor Yuji Ijiri regarding the educational experience: “Education is the only product where people want to buy less of the product for the same fixed price.” Meaning, many students make the error of doing the bare minimum for the fixed tuition that they are paying.

“That’s something that you’ll regret. This is a wonderful institution. For the fixed price you can ‘buy’ as much as you want, so buy as much as you can. You will not have this opportunity again,” Singh shared.

Taking full advantage of a Tepper School education also means focusing on behavioral skills, such as effective communication and organizational management, in addition to the technical courses. Singh learned early on that success in business requires a focus on people skills, and that while any technical skill can be hired, you cannot outsource the ability to communicate well and manage people effectively.

Perhaps it was these skills that helped Singh become the type of manager who would eventually move on to lead his own company.

After watching the financial crisis unfold and deciding that he wanted to work for a smaller company, Singh and two of his partners decided to start their own bank. That is when they bought BankUnited, a Florida bank that failed in 2009.

“For the last eight years we have been building a new bank. It’s somewhat of a combo of a startup and failed bank deal,” he said. Since Singh and his partners purchased BankUnited in 2009, the bank has grown to approximately $27 billion in size with about 1,700 employees and 100 branches.

Recognizing that private equity is a short-term solution not favored by bank regulators, and that eventually BankUnited would need public money and major bank investors as shareholders, they took the company public in 2011. Singh said that going public was a natural progression for the company.

Finally, Singh provided the audience with one concluding piece of advice, stressing the importance of work-life balance, and not making the mistake of skipping vacation time.

“Life is not just what you do at work, it’s also what you do at home. Work-life balance is hard, and it’s something that you need to address early in life,” he said.

Prior to his tenure at BankUnited, Singh led the financial services practice of WL Ross & Co., a private equity firm and one of the original investors in BankUnited. He also served in senior leadership positions within the banking industry, including executive vice president for Capital One’s banking segment, head of corporate strategy and development for North Fork Bank, and managing director of corporate strategy and development at FleetBoston Financial Corporation.

Singh started new year with a new opportunity when he officially became President and Chief Executive Officer of BankUnited on Jan. 1, 2017.