People: TJ Lim
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People: TJ Lim

Author: Philip Eade

TJ Lim
Head of international debt markets, Merrill Lynch

TJ Lim has always been prepared to test himself. At the age of 19 he took himself off from his native Malaysia to study engineering at Glasgow University, in awe of the city’s association with James Watt and other pioneer engineers, but blissfully ignorant of its dismal weather.

As an investment banker, Lim is inclined to move on whenever he begins to feel unstretched, or that his job is done. He has, he says “never been bored”. When he left Merrill Lynch in 1995 for UBS he felt that over the previous seven years he had helped “put Merrill on the map” in fixed-income derivatives and foreign exchange. The opportunity to do the same for the Swiss bank was, he recalls, too tempting.

But one challenge that Lim does not relish is that of laying off staff following a merger. In 1998, after SBC bought UBS, Lim was one of the only UBS senior executives to be offered a role in managing a business, becoming global head of rates and derivatives and structured products. Nevertheless, he soon began to feel that he didn’t fit in the new set-up. “It’s one thing joining a firm when you’re building something,” he says. “It’s quite another when you have an overlap and you have to downsize.

At least half the fixed-income people were targeted for downsizing. Executing the plan was much tougher and psychologically draining than I had ever thought.”

Lim joined Dresdner Kleinwort Benson as co-head of global markets and helped establish the bank as one of the top underwriters of deals for European borrowers. But then Deutsche tried to merge with Dresdner earlier this year. An anonymous Deutsche Bank executive told journalists that the Dresdner businesses would be torched. “I was in a state of disbelief,” Lim recalls. “I thought how can this be happening to me again. What did I do wrong?”

It was abundantly clear that in the event of a merger, the DKB fixed-income group would cease to exist. Without waiting to see how he might figure in Edson Mitchell’s plans, Lim jumped ship back to Merrill. “People said I should have been relaxed because I used to work for Edson [at Merrill] but the overlap is huge. I wasn’t prepared to go through all that downsizing again.”

Somewhat cruelly, five days after he left the deal fell through. Lim’s reaction was calm. “One never looks back,” he says. And indeed he does seem cheerful to be back at his old firm, surrounded by a handful of his senior lieutenants from Dresdner.

TJ Lim was born in 1957 in Malaysia, the youngest of eight children. His five brothers and two sisters are still in Malaysia. “I’ve always been the different one,” he says. As a boy he was a good track athlete, and keen on badminton and field hockey. He spent his time from the age of 16 to 19 at Malaysia’s Royal Military College from where he could have graduated with a commission. “I wanted to be a fighter pilot,” he recalls, “but my eyesight set me back, maybe for the better.” The Army was another option. ”If there had been a shortage of recruits they might have put pressure on me to stay in,” he says.

Instead he went to Glasgow University, where he met his future wife, a Glaswegian. After graduating top of his class, he was offered a place to study for a DPhil at Oxford, but decided that he was by now more interested in management and finance. As an undergraduate he had found himself increasingly fascinated by Wall Street. He took an accounting course to see whether he had an aptitude for this kind of thing.

He went to Canada to do a master’s degree in management science at the University of Waterloo in Ontario – an even chillier spot than Glasgow. “Minus 20 was considered perfectly normal,” he says. He then did an MBA at the New York University Graduate School of Business Administration. “It was right by Wall Street, and when I came down to check it out, I said that is my school.” Again he graduated top of his year.

Lim almost joined a manufacturing company, but instead, in 1983, went to JP Morgan and has “never looked back”. After his training programme he joined the highly regarded International Financial Management Group under the leadership of Roberto Mendoza. He was one of the first few to join the nascent swap group, responsible for building an extremely successful and profitable derivatives operation for JP Morgan.

JP Morgan, though, was still a commercial bank and the Glass-Steagall Act prevented it from properly participating in the US capital market and securities business. His former boss, Connie Volstad, had left to go to Merrill, and Volstad and Edson Mitchell jointly hired Lim in 1988 to focus on the non-US dollar swap business.

Over the next seven years, Lim did much to develop that business, playing a central role in the formation of the first separately capitalized swaps vehicle, Merrill Lynch Derivatives Products. He was an influential member of the management group who transformed Merrill’s international fixed income, foreign exchange and derivatives activities into a cohesive and successful division in the bank. By the early 1990s, Merrill was considered one of the leaders in debt markets.

When UBS offered him a job in 1995, Lim was lured by the idea of developing the derivatives side of this triple A firm. “I’ve always liked the idea of revamping something,” he says. “And I was ready for a bigger job than I had had. It was a very difficult decision to leave, but maybe Merrill should have come a bit earlier with a different sort of challenge for me.

“I wanted to try creating something on my own, to see if I would sink or swim. It was a real test of my character.” After struggling in the first year, towards the end of 1996 he was given the additional responsibility of restructuring the global foreign exchange operation, with a further 500 people. He was the first non-Swiss person to hold this position. Under his guidance, the fixed-income derivatives and global foreign exchange businesses posted record profits for UBS in 1997.

Now back at Merrill Lynch in London, Lim is excited by the task of “helping to position the bank for the new millennium”. Equally excited is his boss Kelly Martin, head of global debt markets, who describes Lim as “an exceptional person, [...] the complete debt markets executive with a proven track record, capable of managing a far-flung international business.” Lim will need to be all those things if Merrill is to recover the ground lost in the debt markets to the likes of Deutsche Bank, Salomon Smith Barney and Morgan Stanley Dean Witter. 

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