- Having the courage to ask
- Overseas and domestic secondments
- Learning in different environments
- Evaluating job opportunities
Aaron Saito rocketed up the ranks at PwC and now works in renewable energy infrastructure. Enjoy the read!
I grew up in Portland, Oregon. Just a normal kid. Played sports but I'm five-foot-nothing, so I knew I wasn't gonna be a professional basketball player. Had decent grades in school, which opened up a lot of opportunities for me. I attended the University of Michigan for five good years. I wanted to stay longer, but unfortunately I had to graduate a couple of times.
I graduated with an undergraduate degree in business and a master's in accounting. I ended up falling into business. I selected Michigan because it had decent medical, business, and engineering schools. I took an accounting class and landed an internship at PwC with just that one accounting class under my belt.
I still had another year before graduating, so the next year I interned at GM. That was just horrific. I was in their marketing department and actually placing ad sales. I thought I’d learn a lot more by going the public accounting route versus into private industry.
Yes, I started my career at PwC in Portland. It was a great opportunity because it's a mid-sized market. My first year I had 10-12 clients, so I got to see a lot of variety. Different industries, different types of clients, and different types of audits which was pretty helpful. I was in the Portland office for five years and they treated me quite well.
I always asked for opportunities. During those five years, I spent four months in New York on an insurance client. I also spent five months in San Francisco working on an IPO, both times on secondment to another market. Both helped shape my future endeavors.
I was given a lot of opportunities, a lot of which probably came from me asking and being inquisitive. I had a lot of partners and other people that were very supportive and who were very kind in opening doors and letting me see opportunities.
When you're on smaller teams, the partners have to come in and you get to know them on a personal level. Luckily they took an affinity to what I was doing or whatever stupid questions I was asking. I was able to have the courage to just ask. Ask and see what else they know or how they can help. Once you find the right mentors, especially at the partner level, they are more than happy to answer questions.
I just kept asking and telling partners and managers what I wanted to do. I wanted to experience new things like IPOs, debt offerings, and overseas secondments, I would ask how to set myself up for those things. I was always looking a couple of years out. So when I hit the milestones they laid out, I would go back and be like “I checked these boxes we’ve been talking about, can I go do that thing now?”. It's planting those seeds and getting the runway to do the things you want. So as a first-year manager, I actually went overseas on secondment.
I spent two years in Dublin, Ireland. I got there just as the great recession was happening, in 2008. Ireland has a small economy, but a lot of outside foreign investment. The joke is - the closer the business is to the airport, the lower their tax rate. Berkshire Hathaway literally had a post office box across the street from the airport.
Within six months of getting to Dublin, the economy just fell apart. Personally, that was great as the first thing people do in a recession is cut discretionary spending. So while I was on secondment travel became a lot cheaper. For instance, maybe four or five times, I traveled to London just to eat dinner. It’s like a half-hour flight and plane tickets for my wife and I would be 10 euros each round trip.
While in Dublin we traveled a lot. We saw all of Western Europe and parts of Eastern Europe on weekend trips. Also, the work culture in Ireland is so different than here in the US. Over the summer months, everyone takes a 3-4 week holiday. This happens with such regularity, it's not unexpected and people find coverage for your work. It was a total disconnect from work, no phone, no email, no computer. My wife and I did two long trips while we were there, one through Germany, France, and Italy and another to Greece, the Greek Islands, and Turkey.
These were phenomenal recharges. That’s one of the things that we can do better here in America. We think it has to be you and nobody else can take it off our plate. Which is not the case with planning - someone can always step in. For example, in my second year I was working on an IPO that was going to be dual-listed on the U.S. and on the Irish Stock Exchanges. We’d been working on it for six months when the partner announced that he had to take his annual summer break. I informed him it would be very challenging for someone else to cover for him for a month while he was away – the partner told me “no I’m going sailing, get someone else to cover”. Imagine that happening in the US!
It was a huge learning experience. As I mentioned, this was during the dip. So that means one of two things was going on with clients. One, you're helping your client survive because they were either about to go out of business or had cash and were going on a buying spree. This led to me doing six or seven debt issuances and a couple IPO’s.
In Ireland I served both the capital markets, traditional audit teams and was a technical advisor on US GAAP. I got put in these positions since I was from the US and was expected to “know”. Needless to say, it was a huge learning curve. This led to me gaining rich experiences in a lot of different areas and functions and more importantly forging deep relationships with people all over the world.
My wife decided to go back to school and got into a really good school in San Francisco. The firm was great about relocating me to the San Francisco office and giving me a great book of business. After about a year, I decided it was in my best interest to move to private industry.
I went to a company called Trans Bay Cable in San Francisco. They supply about 70 to 80% of the electricity that powers the city of San Francisco. During my time there I cut their close time by 50%, implemented an ERP system, and took over the FP&A team. The company was owned by a private equity firm that was right next door. Since I had capacity to help out, I started to get more into M&A activity with the private equity group, assisting with tax structurings, financial modeling, and general business development.
From there, I joined the Intel M&A Team where I was involved in over $40 billion in M&A and divestitures. As well as overseeing a $10 billion equity portfolio. Now I am at Birch Infrastructure. We develop, own, and operate renewable energy infrastructure. I oversee everything in the back office - finance, tax, accounting, HR, operations, investor relations, etc. I came here because I liked the business proposition of helping green the world. I would like to be a part of that and leave the world a better place.
We are doing infrastructure development. Our value prop is that we provide shovel-ready data centers that are fully powered by renewable energy. The amount of data going through the internet is growing at a 35% CAGR right now. AI, 5g, autonomous driving, more video conferences due to working from home, etc. All of that data has to go through pipes and sit on servers somewhere. Those servers need two things to work, energy and an internet connection.
Don't be afraid to ask your managers and mentors for what you want. Be upfront and frank about it, and make sure that you stay humble.
Secondly, have a medium and long term plan. For me, it was about making sure that I was in a place that I could be close to my family.
Finally, make sure you have mentors that you can go to and get impartial advice. People that provide you information based upon you as a person, not based upon what is best for the company.
I sound like a broken record, but it's a family decision. For me it's about valuing family. It's not all about the money, that's not gonna make you happier. It’s all about family, friends, and liking what you’re doing. I would ask others - do you like what you’re doing and do you think you’re making an impact everyday? If you like what you’re doing, the days fly by. If you don’t, a 10-hour workday seems like 24. Just make sure that you're happy on your own path. If you're not happy, it's going to show through in your performance. And more importantly, it's going to show through in your home life.
Probably when I hear that something’s hard or impossible. Why did I want to do M&A? Well, people said that was hard. People also told me I couldn’t run a marathon, well I did run one. When people say I can’t – that is when I lean in.
One of the things that attracted me to this job at Birch is the renewable side. We can truly make the world better. A lot of emissions come from data centers. If we can green them out and make this place a better place for my kids, that would be a great accomplishment. Might sound altruistic, but pollution is one of the things that I want to try to help out with.