What do you call a dozen bankers at the bottom of the ocean with their feet in cement blocks? A good start.
Bankers have been the butt of jokes with increasing regularity in the decade since the financial crisis, but one former banker has turned the process on its head and taken to the stage himself as a stand-up comedian.
As Benjamin Quinlan remains in the industry as a banking consultant, it can be a risky game, but he says even prospective clients can laugh at their own expense.
“I was speaking at a charity event a bank was sponsoring and made a remark about whether it qualified as a non-profit or not,” Quinlan said. “Thankfully, the audience took it in good humour.”
Quinlan was previously head of equities strategy for Asia-Pacific at Deutsche Bank and was also with UBS and PricewaterhouseCoopers.
While the 2008/09 financial crisis prompted many bankers to rethink their careers – some had it forced on them when they lost jobs, while others chose to step away from a tarnished sector – Quinlan turned to comedy during a sabbatical in 2014.
He has stayed in the industry, and founded Quinlan & Associates, an independent consulting firm, where he is now managing partner. However, he used his time off in 2014 to have a stab at a long-held ambition.
“Stand-up was always one of the things on my bucket list, but I didn’t get round to doing it until I had my sabbatical,” he said. “Some of my friends used to find my stories about growing up in Hong Kong entertaining and suggested that I try my hand on stage.”
He enrolled on a stand-up comedy class that eventually led to a regular slot at Hong Kong’s most famous club, TakeOut Comedy, and a series of paid gigs across Asia, including Singapore, Thailand and Sri Lanka.
Among his career highs so far are headlining the comedy event at the MGM Macau and working alongside several established acts, including Gina Yashere, Dwayne Perkins, Chad Daniels, Michael Harrison and George Wallace.
“When you look back as a comedian at your first few performances, you start smacking your forehead at how awful you were, but it goes to show that it’s a really tough,” Quinlan said.
“There are a lot of comics from the US that tour through Asia regularly (after) having been on David Letterman, Conan O’Brien and Jay Leno. The fact that I get to share a stage with them is amazing and you learn a lot from watching them perform.”
Quinlan has had an unorthodox career to date. He was, by his own admission, an average student and struggled to land a job in banking.
He was initially rejected for the UBS graduate scheme, but received an offer for a job in the bank’s strategy division on being referred after the interview.
“I remember when we hired him. He was very different to a lot of the other graduates as he was very self assured and personable,” said Louisa Robb, CEO at Lucella, an independent consulting firm in Switzerland, and previously managing director at UBS.
“I remember, when I asked him a difficult question, he walked to the other side of the room and started brainstorming. He had a very different way of approaching the interview.”
After several years at UBS, Quinlan joined Deutsche’s equities division. He was eventually offered a global role with the bank in London, but turned it down to set up the consultancy in Hong Kong.
He was undaunted about starting a consulting firm at a relatively young age , and Quinlan said lessons from his stand-up comedy sets have helped him.
“Comedy is all about communication and relating to your audience, and that’s no different really to what I do on a daily basis,” he said.
“When you’re dealing with clients, it’s important to communicate with them in a way that allows you to get them on your side, which isn’t too dissimilar to dealing with an audience as a stand-up comedian.”
Quinlan is not the only one in banking to turn to humour for relief – or inspiration. Britain’s Lloyds Banking Group even sent managers for leadership lessons at The Comedy School in London in 2011.
About 20 Lloyds bankers helped create a financial plan for the charity, in return for guidance on “positive leadership styles” in a setting that was far outside their usual comfort zone.
While few bankers see their industry, following the crisis, as a fun place to work, Quinlan reckons there is still a role for humour.
“The environment is difficult enough already in the industry given the increasing number of regulations and the scrutiny following the crisis that you it’s important to have an outlet,” he said.
“If you force your employees to come in straight faced every day, it really destroys morale in the long run.”
Still, with most banks looking to axe jobs it will take a brave banker to make a gag at their boss’s expense in the name of improving morale.