Successful Singaporeans Abroad: 'Accidental' move takes him to top of ladder

Forced by global crisis to work on trading floor, he now heads leading futures exchange

As a fresh MBA graduate, all Mr Phupinder Gill wanted to do in 1987 was trade, make a lot of money in five years, retire and live on the beach.
As a fresh MBA graduate, all Mr Phupinder Gill wanted to do in 1987 was trade, make a lot of money in five years, retire and live on the beach. PHOTO: CME GROUP

Stepping foot into the futures trading industry was a purely "accidental" move for Singaporean Phupinder Gill back in 1987 .

The global financial crisis that sent international stock exchanges crashing in mere hours had wiped out jobs in the United States and nearly left Mr Gill, then fresh out of Washington State University with an MBA, stranded.

He landed his first job as a price reporter on the trading floor of the Chicago Board Options Exchange, earning about US$5 an hour - "because there was nothing else to do".

"What I'd wanted to do was trade, make a lot of money in five years, retire, live on the beach," recalled Mr Gill, 54, in a video interview with The Straits Times earlier this month. "That didn't work out quite the way I wanted it to."

A few months on, Mr Gill switched to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange as a market reporter in the Canadian dollar trading pit.

He is now head honcho of CME Group, one of the largest futures exchanges in the world.

  • NAME: Phupinder Gill

  • AGE: 54

  • JOB: Chief executive of CME Group

  • BASED IN: Chicago, United States

It runs exchanges such as the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, Chicago Board of Trade and New York Mercantile Exchange, with offices across the United States, Europe and Asia, including Singapore.


  • 1 Step out of your comfort zone

    2 Understand the environment you are in and work within that environment

    3 Self-awareness is very important

    4 Having the right mindset is vital

    5 A sense of humility is needed

The group manages three billion contracts a year.

"The choice (to join the industry) was accidental, but the fascination about the business was something that stayed," said Mr Gill, who is known to his friends and colleagues simply as Gill.

"I get confronted by a lot of emotions, excitement, frustration. But one thing I've never experienced here is boredom."

While known for playing a key behind-the-scenes role in CME Group's deal-making over the years, Mr Gill is also widely respected in the industry for his knowledge of the business.

But his rise through the ranks did not come easy.

"When I joined as a price reporter, it was impossible to pay the bills, so I was always applying for a jump to another (higher-paying) job," said Mr Gill, who is divorced with a 15-year-old son.

A few colleagues had told him then that he would not get the job because of his skin colour - he is not "white".

Another co-worker had told him to get a voice coach and change his accent to an American one.

He was not deterred by those comments and applied for at least 20 jobs a week in the eight months he was on the floor.

"(These incidents) are the most unproductive things you can actually focus on," said Mr Gill, who spoke without an accent and, at times during the interview, made the switch into Singlish comfortably while delivering anecdotes.

"Some of these things may not have been intentional, so putting things in perspective and understanding the big picture was important."

His tireless curiosity about other functions within the company also earned him the attention of the higher-ups - along with the opportunity to move to the clearing house as an options specialist.

"It was a fascinating world," said Mr Gill, adding that his colleagues had given him the moniker "Curious Raccoon" on account of his relentless questions and dark circles under his eyes.

"I just got lost in the whole idea of what the firm was doing. I wanted to know how things worked."

In 1998, Mr Gill was promoted to president of CME's clearing house division, overseeing almost every function, including operations, risk management, collateral management, audits, settlements and trade processing.

As head of the clearing house, he led the company's historic clearing agreement with the Chicago Board of Trade in 2003 that paved the way for the merger of the two institutions in 2007.

Mr Gill became president of the group in 2007, before taking on his current position as chief executive in 2012.

He said: "Knowing that the mission is to improve the place - that drove me, even if it didn't mean the best personal outcome for myself."

Growing up in Singapore, added Mr Gill, played a huge part in instilling in him an open and global mindset, while keeping him grounded.

"The fact that my best friends were Chinese, Indian, Malay - and they continue to be my best friends - it tuned me to think about the world not in black, white, Chinese, Indian and Malay," he said, citing his experiences with discrimination in the United States.

"It just taught me about the world. My central philosophy is that there are two kinds of people in this world - good and bad. There is no white or black or yellow people."

Mr Gill's blindness to colour and other physical traits also helped change the way CME Group operated, which had initially been characterised by the "white male".

"But if you look at us now, we've evolved into a company that happens to be based in Chicago but hires the best."

About 40 per cent of CME Group's management team, for instance, are women - "not because I'm trying to get the ratio right, but because they're the best at what they do", said Mr Gill.

"Most people, when they're asked to clean the floor, they will say, 'I'm going to clean the floor.' It's not very often you find somebody who says, 'I know you asked me to clean the floor, but I saw the walls were not clean, so I wiped them down. I hope it's okay.'

"Those are the people you know right away who should be put into the next role. The fact that he or she is black, Indian, Chinese - nobody cares about that."

Mr Gill, who still holds Singapore citizenship, noted that many US companies still do not have as international a focus as those in Singapore.

"What many Singapore companies do depends on what else goes on around the world. As a means of survival and growth, they have been looking beyond Singapore."

He added that Singaporeans are "very well-suited" to succeed in all corners of the world.

"Understanding the world and being a citizen of the world, that's an important perspective to have," he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 25, 2015, with the headline Successful Singaporeans Abroad: 'Accidental' move takes him to top of ladder. Subscribe