Refugees from Wall Street return home to strike out on their own

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Abhishek Som had everything going for him immediately after graduating from Case Western University, Ohio. At 23, he began his career at Lazard Freres & Co, among the top investment banks, in New York. Two years later, in 2006, he joined the former Vice Chairman of Merrill Lynch in New York to launch a $250 million real estate fund for India’s Dalmia group along with one another colleague.

Som, who has just turned 30, has left Wall Street after nearly six years to set up Principes Partners, an investment bank in Delhi.

In the three years since Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy on September 14, 2008, several others like him have left or are still leaving Wall Street to try their luck back home in India.

Meet the trio of Nalin Moniz, Anant Jatia and Radhika Gupta, who left careers in Wall Street firms such as Goldman Sachs and AQR Capital, a $20 billion asset management company, and set up Forefront Capital Management in Mumbai in 2009, which attracts wealthy investors for quantitative investment products, a relatively new business in India.

Yogesh Sundaram left the position of senior quantitative equity analyst at Quantitative Services group, Chicago, to join as director of iSystematic, a long/short quantitative fund of Gurgoan-based start-up Estee Adivisors.

Aditya Bagree, who recently joined Citibank in India as director of credit structuring, worked with Lehman Brothers, New York. Chintan Shah too moved from Merrill Lynch to Citibank in India as vice-president of credit trading.

Amal Dutt joined Som at Principes Partners from BNP Paribas, where he was senior analyst at its leveraged buyout division.

Madhu Kannan left Bank of America-Merrill Lynch in New York in 2009 to be the youngest CEO of the Bombay Stock Exchange.

More than the bleak days that came after the 2008 crisis, it was the potential that India offered that pulled these Wall Street whiz-kids back home.

Says Moniz, who left Goldman Sachs ignoring a promotion: “I chose to start Forefront in early 2009 because Dalal Street was full of once-in-a-generation bargains.”

Most of them saw India's long-term prospects as better than America's. Favourable demographics and financial services have historically flourished where the real economy is creating wealth.

“Starting Forefront was the best decision I've made. The last couple of years have been a tremendous learning experience. But there have been the occasional entrepreneurial hard knock,” says Moniz.

Sandeep Tyagi, who returned to India in June 2008 after several years in the US to start Estee Advisors says people in the age bracket of 30-40 are keen to return to India to strike out on their own.

“They have the passion to set up something in India, unlike those older who have developed deep family and personal links in the US,” he says. Tyagi who started Inductis, a consulting and outsourcing firm in the US, had established its Indian subsidiary in November 2001, before merging the firm with EXL Service in 2006.

“India is a once-in-lifetime opportunity. We don’t want to miss it,” declares Samir Gilani, head of equities at MAPE Securities in Mumbai, who left an investment-banking career in Canada in 2004, where he was part of the deal team in the largest oil/gas merger in North America.

Som of Principes Partners, which has partners in Rome, Milan and New York, admits India is not an easy place to work in. But he is working on at least three cross-border deals. “In India things take their own time and Indian firms work more slowly. Overseas companies are much faster in their decision-making process.”

Gupta of Forefront was portfolio manager at AQR Capital Management firm in Greenwich, Connecticut, and built quantitative models to trade in developed and emerging equities, currencies and fixed income. She is satisfied with the progress of their business in India in the two years, doubling assets in difficult equity market conditions. “The funds are also doing well, beating the benchmarks,” she says.

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