The St. James's Place CIO with an amazing backstory
For all their talk about meritocracy, financial services firms have long had a habit of hiring the children of the upper middle classes. When US academic Lauren Rivera studied why it is that the children of elites seem to get all the elite jobs nearly a decade ago, she found a process of cultural selection going on. Bankers liked to hire people they'd get on with, and they appraised this using extracurricular activities. People who skied and played tennis were popular. People who worked for McDonald's were not.
Justin Onuekwusi didn't work for McDonald's. But he did work for Allen's Fried Chicken on Cheetham Hill in Manchester while he studied for his A Levels, pulling two shifts a week and finishing at 1am or 2am before going to college the next day. He also played football semi-professionally, training twice a week. "I was absolutely shattered and I drank a lot of coffee (and still do!)," Onuekwusi says.
Allen's Fried Chicken on Cheetham Hill closed during lockdown, but by that time Onuekwusi's days of serving wings n' fries were already in the distant past. 20 years after his A Levels, he's just joined UK wealth management firm St. James's Place as chief investment officer. Poached from Legal and General in April, Onuekwusi spent six months on gardening leave. He arrives at a critical moment in St. James's Place evolution after the firm scrapped exit fees for new investment bonds and pensions sold to clients.
It's a long way from Allen's, but Onuekwusi says he's always been focused on his vision of the future: "I work out what I want to do and then look at how I am going to try and get there.” No one in his family works in financial services. His mother was a teacher and his childhood was tough financially; their house was repossessed at one point. “My mum taught me resilience and that education is key to social mobility. Seeing what she went through has made me appreciate the importance of hard work and perseverance,” Onuekwusi says.
While other 18 year-olds were out partying, Onuekwusi saved the money he got from Allen's to buy a computer for his family.
As a child, Onuekwusi says he didn't know anything about financial services, but he did know that he wanted to earn money and to do well for himself. Watching the Crosby Show and the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, he contemplated being a lawyer. But when he visited his Sixth Form College, a teacher referred to a mythical job called an 'actuary', which he said was "one of the highest paying jobs in the world.” Onuekwusi's curiosity was piqued.
He studied economics at Warwick and applied for "60-70 different roles at actuarial consultants" but heard "nothing, nothing at all" in response. Eventually, Onuekwusi landed a job at Aon Consulting, where he quickly realized he didn't want to be an actuarial consultant after all. "Almost by chance, someone made a presentation on investment consulting and I realized that was where I wanted to work instead."
Onuekwusi moved into investment consulting with Aon, but rapidly found that he had gaps in his skills. While some junior professionals are happy to plod through the early stages of a career, after an awkward presentation to some 60-year-old trustees, Onuekwusi decided to be proactive "I felt very out of my depth. I felt like I needed more grounding in portfolio construction and asset allocation research before I presented on those subjects, so I moved to the Merrill Lynch wealth management business in a fund of funds research role. It was a phenomenal learning curve, but I got the grounding I’d been looking for.”
That grounding prepared him for the senior investment role at St. James's Place. Onuekwusi is passionate about investing, and also about breaking down the cultural barriers that prevent other talented young people from getting into financial services. Many of them simply don't know the industry even exists, he says: "A lot of people at my school didn’t progress their education.
St. James's Place former chief investment officer, Tom Beal, went to fee-paying Pockington School, where boarding costs £36k a year. The company's board is almost entirely male and pale. Onuekwusi didn't discuss St. James's Place, but he says his childhood at predominantly white schools has made it easier for him to integrate into what are often predominantly white workplaces.
"I was one of only two black people in my year," Onuekwusi recalls. "That was pretty tough, but there were advantages too." The advantages came from the fact that he attended catholic schools, where the pupils were mostly English or Irish. He was seen as neither. "I could always choose which side to play football on which actually worked out well as the Irish team was better!"
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