As John Perez rides the rails of Western Europe, he sometimes thinks back to his days as a finance student at Miami University in Ohio.
"Banking 101 would have a chapter on international business," Mr. Perez said. "I'd read through it and think, 'This is all fine and good, but when am I ever going to use it?'"
In college, Mr. Perez aspired to be a trust banker. Today, at age 29, he's the Brussels representative for Fifth Third Bancorp, the first foreign-based employee at the $18 billion-asset Cincinnati company.
Indeed, U.S. banks are warming up to Europe again, and overseas career opportunities are becoming more commonplace for bankers who never thought they'd leave these shores.
In the 1980s, many U.S. banks tried to crack the European markets by establishing overseas offices, only to subsequently close their doors and withdraw to the States. Mr. Perez said he's met with skepticism from European business owners who recall U.S. banks entering and quickly exiting markets.
In recent months, there has been a movement by a number of banks back into foreign markets. Most of the recent entries to Europe, Asia, and elsewhere are through partnerships, but Mr. Perez contends U.S. banks can still run inexpensive one-person operations in foreign countries.
Fifth Third said it will spend $300,000 this year to keep Mr. Perez, an assistant vice president, in Europe. Mr. Perez's primary responsibility is to call on European-based manufacturing companies that do business in Fifth Third's markets, which are Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky. "For banks our size, this is the way to go," he said.
Mr. Perez works out of his home. Brussels was selected in part because his wife, Lissa, an accountant with Deloitte & Touche, was able to transfer to the firm's office there.
Mr. Perez spends his days traveling Western Europe. Since early April, he's been to France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.
Fifth Third officials said they've been contemplating sending a representative to Europe for about three years. They added they realized they would be bucking an industry trend in the process.
"By and large, the regional banks have pulled back," said Timothy Chamberlain, vice president of international banking and Mr. Perez's boss. "We think this is the best time to get in."
Fifth Third officials saw growing opportunities abroad as foreign manufacturers set up shop in southern Ohio and northern Kentucky. Toyota, which is relocating its North American headquarters to northern Kentucky has a large automotive plant in Georgetown. The 13-year-old plant has attracted more than 100 suppliers to the area.
In some respects, Fifth Third is taking a risk sending Mr. Perez. He had no experience in foreign markets and, likely, doesn't completely understand European cultures. If he were to be viewed as an Ugly American, Mr. Perez's presence could actually be a business deterrent.
"In most cases banks opt for indigenous talent," said Peter Crist, president of the Chicago executive search firm Crist Partners Ltd. "The price tag drives that, culture drives that, and good business sense drives that."
Most of his clients speak English, but Mr. Perez is learning French and Flemish. He's also brushing up on European culture, especially reading up on dos and don'ts.
And of course, there's the culture shock. Mr. Perez, who grew up in Dayton, Ohio, was surprised the first time one of his business customers drank wine with lunch. Being used to calling on midsize companies in greater Cincinnati, he's had to adjust to a much different style of doing business.
Labor disputes and political unrest can "bring everything to a halt for a traveling representative," Mr. Perez has learned. A recent unannounced strike in Brussels backed up traffic there for miles. Mr. Perez was forced to cancel appointments.
"There need to be more people versed in international business coming out of college," Mr. Perez said. "As more and more companies do business abroad, someone's going to need knowledge gained from being abroad."
Mr. Crist said demand for executives with foreign experience is high. So even though Mr. Perez said he'll return to Fifth Third, he could become a hotter prospect in the job market.
Still, its a tough learning experience.
"Some days I want to put my head through a wall as I say, 'Let me think why this was a good idea,'" he said.