As older generations retire, the banking industry provides opportunities for lucrative and impactful careers for today’s young professionals. Ivo Tjan ’99, founder and CEO of Irvine-based CommerceWest Bank, which primarily serves small- to medium-sized enterprises for their commercial banking needs, looks at why students and alumni should consider careers in the field, how to get started and his personal entrepreneurship story.
“I became a CEO when I was 27 years old,” says Ivo Tjan, who founded CommerceWest Bank two years after completing his undergraduate degree in marketing from Cal State Fullerton. In a sector dominated by older professionals – many of them in their 60s – the young entrepreneur found a niche focusing on commercial banking services for Southern California companies with revenues between $5 million and $100 million.
Tjan (pronounced tee-jan), who entered the banking industry at age 18, already had held management roles at Eldorado Bank, Home Savings of America and Great Western Bank, which, supplemented with his business coursework at CSUF, provided a focus and foundation in this field.
“I became a better CEO because I’ve been in there for so long. I was young, but I had the experience beforehand at different banks,” he says. “You have to stick to your core competency of what you’re good at.”
Nearly 19 years later, Tjan’s brainchild employs dozens of staff members, including a number of CSUF and Mihaylo College alumni, at corporate headquarters in Irvine, a second location in North County San Diego, and as business bankers serving clients throughout the Golden State.
The company has not only survived, but thrived, during some of the largest disruptions in modern financial history, including 9/11, the Great Recession, new regulatory environments and the continual introduction of new technologies.
Tjan himself has been recognized as a successful entrepreneur, appearing in the Orange County Business Journal’s OC 500 list, recognizing the region’s most influential professionals, and Vivid Magazine’s annual top 10 Asian American Entrepreneurs list. In addition to supporting a wide range of professional associations, children’s-focused nonprofits and educational organizations, Tjan has been active in his alma mater as a Mihaylo College Business Madness speaker and past member of the CSUF Philanthropic Board.
Finding and Succeeding in the Niche
From the start, the CommerceWest model has focused on being “all things to some people rather than all things to all people,” impacting an underserved market with personalized service, building a relationship with clients and creating products and services to meet individual needs. “Businesses wanted their day-to-day operations to come out of their mobile devices, laptops or computers, and we took advantage of that,” says Tjan. “The adoption of technology equalized large and small banks, as well as what users wanted.”
Looking at today’s business environment, Tjan believes that while the barriers for entry may be lower, competition is intense, which makes specializing essential in banking and many other industries.
“Being in the banking industry for 25 years, I can see that it is easier today to start a business because of technology,” he says. “In the old days, you would have to lease a space, put up inventory and market yourself. Today, a storefront can be put on the web and requires a fraction of the cost and people of the traditional model.
“But even though the barrier to entry is lower, there is more competition, and people are aware of the competition. You have to be able to differentiate yourself to succeed, which is where I believe the creativity and entrepreneurship side needs to stand out.”
Advice for Students and Alumni on Launching Banking Careers
While Tjan notes that many young professionals gravitate toward in-demand spaces in the new economy, such as high-tech startups or health care. But as baby boomers retire, there is a need for a new generation of talent in the banking field, which can provide surprisingly rewarding and engaging opportunities, including the ability to interact with influencers in many fields.
“You get to meet many entrepreneurs and business owners who are starting off, on their way to becoming multimillion dollar successes,” says Tjan of positions in banking. “There are not many people going into banking because it is unsexy. But the unsexy part is the entry into the opportunities you will have. There is a huge vacuum for young people to take new roles and responsibilities that will create good value for them.”
Tjan considers banking the lifeblood of the economy, without which few personal or business pursuits would come to fruition. It is this centrality that assures him that, despite technological, economic and societal shifts, the sector will always provide opportunities.
“How many people buy a car or house in cash? If you look at any product, from Oakley sunglasses to HP printers, nothing would have existed without some creative bank financing,” he says. “When you think about banking and finance, it is the fabric of what you see all around you.”
Even if you have other career objectives, Tjan encourages students to consider the applied benefits of seeing the inner workings of the financial system firsthand through roles in banking.
“If you are an entrepreneur and want to understand different business models and how people start off, the interaction you see in banking – whether in the back office on the credit analysis side or operations side, or on the front line meeting with customers – helps your ability to be a well-rounded businessperson and to meet interesting individuals,” he says. “It also helps you in your personal finances, whether it is the stock market or how to invest or get a loan or a lease or secure your savings and finances. If you are in banking, it teaches you all the fundamentals.”
A versatile and supportive network – including mentors – is an essential ingredient for success, particularly in such experience-focused sectors as banking.
“Always try to surround yourself with the right people. When tough times come, you have to count the noses you have. You’ll notice your real friends are still there, and all the rest leave,” says Tjan.
Looking back at his student days at Cal State Fullerton, Tjan notes that his professors were among his impactful mentors, acting as a bridge between his studies and the applied world of his jobs. “When I wanted to apply the real-world fundamentals to their teachings, they were always open to discussing and talking about it, which helped me accelerate my understanding,” he says.
Above all, Tjan encourages young people to pursue as many opportunities and as much knowledge as possible, ensuring the best possibilities for a rewarding career.
“It’s not the mileage, it’s where the car has been that’s most important,” he says. “You need to judge people by their experience and not their age. Try to gather as much knowledge and experience as you can as young as you can. You’re peaking in your 20s, 30s and 40s, because when you’re older, you might be smarter, but physically you might not be able to do the 12- to 15-hour days. Be confident but not egotistical. Ego prevents you from learning. Always be absorbing.”
How to Get Started
CommerceWest Bank is actively seeking college students and recent graduates as interns, who may gain applied financial industry experience coupled with professional connections. For more information, visit the CommerceWest careers page or reach out to their human resources team at 949-251-6959.
For more on banking careers, including undergraduate and graduate programs offering preparation for roles in the field, visit Mihaylo College’s Department of Finance website.
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