The big interview: Richard Bruens, ABN Amro

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An evening of quiet, contemplative work on an MBA course might not be everyone’s ideal way to wind down after a gruelling 12-hour day in a bank dealing room, but it worked for Richard Bruens.

“It might sound nerdish, but it was actually quite relaxing sitting down to read and think for two or three hours,” he says. “It is not something you would do in your day as a trader.”

Mr Bruens, now 39, was a trader in ABN Amro’s London dealing room when he began his distance learning MBA in 1994 at Manchester Business School Worldwide.

His routine during the three years that he took to complete the course involved returning home from work at 7pm, having dinner with his girlfriend and then working on his MBA until 11pm or midnight. “Being forced in a pleasant way to do that every evening is actually quite nice,” he says. There was more work at weekends, and regular trips to Bangor or Manchester for class-based sessions with other participants in the programme.

The hard work has certainly done Mr Bruens no harm, as he has risen to become ABN Amro’s head of investor relations and, as executive vice-president, part of its top executive group. Next month he moves to Hong Kong to become the bank’s head of global markets for Asia. And his girlfriend Angelique is now his wife.

A distance learning MBA may not be for everyone, but for Mr Bruens it was the obvious choice. A goalkeeper for the Dutch professional football team BV Veendam in his late teens, he realised he was not quite good enough to make a career out of the game, and took a four-year degree course in business administration at the University of Groningen.

Mr Bruens’ special project in the final year of the course involved a six-month spell at ABN Bank, during which time the bank merged with Amro Bank. Although he had never thought previously of a career in banking, he liked the people at ABN Amro, and applied for a job in its international division – at the time the bank ran a career expatriate system.

His first application was not successful, mainly because at 23 he was considered too young, with limited experience abroad. But after a spell as a hotel marketing manager in Gibraltar, Mr Bruens returned to the Netherlands and a traineeship at ABN Amro. Following a year as personal assistant to one of the bank’s senior executives he applied again to the career expat scheme, and this time was successful.

That was in 1992, and after more training Mr Bruens was transferred to London in 1993 as a dealing room trainee. By that time, he recalls, the MBA qualification was becoming better known within the bank, and Mr Bruens detected a shift in thinking towards a view that, at least for the career expat programme, the MBA would benefit both employee and the bank, which would foot the bill.

Within two or three months of starting in London, Mr Bruens began to think about a full-time MBA programme, but discounted it partly because he was still only 26 and did not want to be absent from the bank at that stage of his career.

Also, he was quite happy in the bank’s career expat scheme and was not looking to make the kind of radical career change that, for many full-time MBA programme participants, justifies the heavy financial outlay. “Why should I give up two years of work experience and pay an awful lot of money for what is a great programme, but not do anything with it except go back to the same career in the same company?” he says.

When it came to executive and part-time courses, many of them involved attendance during the working week, and Mr Bruens could not make that commitment, as there was always a chance he would get transferred to another country, which would make weekday attendance impossible. Conversely, however, he did not want a distance-learning programme that offered little or no teaching on a face-to-face basis. “Other distance learning courses really were distance learning, you could do everything from home, and that didn’t appeal to me,” he says.

So a distance-learning course with regular face-to-face sessions, held mainly at weekends, led Mr Bruens to choose the MBS Worldwide MBA. It did not take long to become accustomed to three- or four-hour train rides on Saturday mornings for weekend workshops, returning the following day. “The interaction in the class sessions, and the assignments, were a lot of fun,” he says.

The content of the course was also crucial. The Groningen course was not officially an MBA but did cover much of the same ground, says Mr Bruens, whereas what he wanted was to learn more of the theory of banking, corporate finance, options, for which the MBS Worldwide MBA in Finance fitted the bill perfectly and avoided unnecessary repetition.

Mr Bruens needed to be aware that, as a career expat, he was unlikely to stay more than three years in one place, and in 1996, with his MBA still incomplete, he was transferred to Athens to become treasurer of ABN Amro Greece. By that stage he was writing his thesis – on the impact of the euro on the foreign exchange options market – and had to attend only two one-week sessions.

Naturally, Mr Bruens does not know how his career would have developed had he not done the MBA, and he was already on the fast-track expat scheme. “But I showed the bank that I had a lot of discipline and commitment by doing it in my own time in three years,” he says.

He admits he was apprehensive before starting the MBA, in terms of measuring up against all the other bright people on the course. So doing well on the course – Mr Bruens achieved a distinction – was good for his confidence. Overall, the course provided a “helpful toolbox”, he says, for thinking about and analysing business issues, while the theoretical study of finance provided a strong foundation when he was working as a trader.

From a professional perspective, Mr Bruens does not believe he would have progressed any further by now with a full-time MBA. From a pure personal development angle, though, if he could do it all again he says he would have relished the experience of studying at Harvard or one of the other top full-time programmes.

Education with worldwide appeal

■The distance-learning arm of Manchester Business School (MBS) was established in 1992 and, during Richard Bruens’ time on the MBA programme, was known as the Institute of Financial Management. This was a partnership between MBS and the University of Wales, Bangor. Now the school, which was renamed MBS Worldwide in 2002, is fully part of MBS.

■In the mid-1990s, workshops were held in Bangor or in Manchester but today they are held at Manchester or at MBS Worldwide’s other permanently staffed overseas centres in Dubai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Jamaica and Dublin.

■The school offers a suite of distance learning programmes including a DBA (Doctor of Business Administration) and three profession-based MBA programmes: MBA for Financial Managers and Finance Professionals, MBA for Engineering Business Managers, and an MBA for Construction Executives. MBS Worldwide is to launch a distance learning general MBA – the Manchester Global MBA – next month.

■The term “distance learning”, however, is something of a misnomer when applied to MBS Worldwide because of the amount of face-to-face interaction that students experience via weekend and other workshops. MBS Worldwide students get 50 hours of face-to-face contact with the faculty staff per semester (250 hours over the whole MBA), which is approximately two-thirds of the time that a full-time, campus-based student would get.

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