Former AIG manager cooks up new career as chef

Financial meltdown prompts insurance expert to act on his passion for pastries


The collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. and other U.S. financial giants changed people’s lives around the world, and David Cisan, a former manager at American International Group in Japan, is one of them.

In the global financial meltdown last year, Washington bailed out AIG and a small number of other institutions, but Lehman and some others went under.

Amid the financial turmoil, the 40-year-old Hawaii-born insurance expert decided to leave the industry after almost 20 years and take his life in a different direction by becoming a professional pastry chef.

Now he runs classes in English teaching how to bake muffins and brownies at Notting Hill Cakes & Gifts, a British-style cafe in Nishi-Azabu in Tokyo’s Minato Ward owned by British baker Mark Peterson.

“The whole financial crisis made this decision much easier,” Cisan told The Japan Times in a recent interview.

“The timing was good to make a change,” he continued. “It was a difficult decision to make, after long years in the financial industry. But then, looking at the whole industry and the way things are going, I thought maybe now is the right time.”

Cisan is one of thousands who left foreign financial institutions in Japan in recent months.

Many got new jobs in the same financial services industry, according to job consulting experts. But others have opted for entirely different career paths.

“After a while in any industry, people get tired — people want to change. And that’s what happened to me,” Cisan said. “It’s very common in the U.S. that people do that kind of thing. That’s a midlife career change.”

But such changes may not be so familiar in this country, where the job market generally lacks flexibility.

“There were two big trends in their job hunting,” said Yuichi Misato, a career consultant at Intelligence Ltd., which helps people find new jobs, referring to businessmen who left foreign financial firms in Japan during the financial crisis in 2008.

One trend is to work for small consulting companies specializing in certain areas, such as mergers and acquisitions. Another trend is to get jobs as financial experts at corporations, Misato said.

Others sought jobs as bureaucrats.

Many applied for several openings at the Financial Services Agency, a financial watchdog. When the agency posted job listings on March 13, the first such advertisement after the financial industry’s meltdown last year, 120 people, including many who had worked for foreign financial firms, applied. Only four were hired, the agency said.

Amid such job-hunting, Cisan’s drastic career change may be unique. But he said he had been preparing for it for a long time.

Passionate about baking sweets since he was a teenager in Hawaii, Cisan attended a professional pastry program on weekends at Le Cordon Bleu in Tokyo while he was working as a manager at AIG. A year and a half later he received his diploma in pastry-making from the famed French cooking school.

Before he resigned from AIG in November, he had already offered baking classes at home to friends and colleagues on weekends.

Later, he relocated classes to his community center’s kitchen in Tokyo’s Ota Ward, which was larger and better equipped for classes. After he met Peterson earlier this year, he started to teach at Notting Hill.

The classes at the cafe have so far proved increasingly popular.

In July, Cisan and a couple of other instructors had six classes, each with eight students. In August, they expanded to 16 to 20 classes, and hope to have 26 to 30 classes by September, Cisan said.

But business in Japan is not always so easy, he said.

“Japanese consumers are very brand-conscious, quality-conscious and price sensitive,” he said, adding that presentation, packaging and wrapping are also very important to customers.

“Japan is one of the most difficult consumer markets in the world. But if you can crack it, it’s the most lucrative,” he said.

Cisan said he is happy he has a challenge.

“Because if I don’t try now, and I do something else or get involved in something else, and then, 20 to 30 years from now and in the back of my mind, like ‘Oh, you never did try baking and now I’m too old.’ I don’t want to have these regrets later,” he said.

“If I do this and fail, so what? At least I know I tried,” Cisan said.