SRI head, F&C Asset Management: Career Path

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Things in my life have a history of happening early or at least a little sooner than I'd planned. It's a trait that's stood me in good stead in my career, where I've been lucky enough to get into some interesting areas early in the game.

I'm half Canadian and half French: I grew up in Montreal and studied at the University of Toronto. My first proper job was as a foreign exchange analyst for Continental Grain at the Chicago Board of Trade, which I left to pursue an MBA. Like many other impressionable young graduates in the mid-80s, I had set my sights on investment banking, and 1984 was the year the banks were just starting to demand an MBA as the passport for entry.

Going back to school coincided with moving to New York to get married, so the logical place for me to go was Columbia Business School. I enrolled in 1984.

Two years later, I landed a job as an associate in the corporate finance division of PaineWebber, now part of UBS. It was hard work, not made any easier by the fact that I'd just had my first baby (a little earlier than intended!).

I didn't have a great time as a banker and after three years of hard graft, I quit PaineWebber and the world of finance, and moved into property development. The developer I worked for specialized in the rehabilitation of derelict buildings in run down areas like Harlem. I spent a year or so there before moving on again, this time to the City of New York's development corporation as a project manager working on the rehabilitation of disused industrial and commercial sites.

Emigration

In 1993 my husband got a job in London and we emigrated. Being married to a senior financier with a demanding job can be hard if you work too - most of the working mothers I know have spouses who aren't working, or who are in flexible occupations, like academia or the arts. If you do have a husband doing something demanding and competitive, you need a pretty terrific one, which I'm fortunate to have.

When we arrived in the UK my initial plan was to go back into property or urban development. As a first move I went to visit a small London-based asset manager that managed a German ethical fund called ÖkoVision, to get some information on the companies they invested in (with a view to applying for jobs there). But the asset manager itself was looking for staff, and offered me a job as an analyst instead. So I accidentally moved back into the world of finance.

My time at ÖkoVision didn't last long: six months after I joined, my company was sacked by the German bank that distributed the fund and I lost my job. I looked around and decided to approach Friends Provident, the market leader in SRI. I wrote a letter saying I knew they had a UK SRI fund and I thought they should go global with it. They invited me for an interview and a few weeks later, called to offer me a job as the analyst for a new global fund.

Hence I started the job I'm still doing today, though I've been kicked upstairs as smarter young people have joined. Today there are 13 researchers on my team and we work on funds worth 128 billion. The company has gone through several mergers during the nearly eight years I've been there: Friends Provident bought Ivory & Sime, creating Friends Ivory & Sime, which merged with Royal Sun Alliance Investments and became ISIS Asset Management. Last year ISIS Asset Management merged with F&C Management to become F&C Asset Management.

The SRI sector has also experienced massive change. When I joined it was all about traditional screened ethical funds with a focus on avoiding stocks related to defence, tobacco, alcohol and other so-called "sin stocks", along with throwing out polluters or companies with a poor record on human or employment rights.

Today, we've helped redefine SRI to include good corporate governance and the extent to which companies take account of potential threats and opportunities. For example, climate change used to be seen as a problem for power generators or oil companies, but would have been considered irrelevant if you were a bank; things have changed and companies are beginning to recognize that they need to look at what could happen if they disregard its potential effects on their business, whether in terms of regulatory threats or missed opportunities for new profitable products.

All in a good cause

The great thing about my job is that, despite moaning just like anyone else about daily frustrations, I actually go home at night feeling really glad about what I do, because I am convinced it helps companies run their businesses better and will make a positive difference around me. I have strong environmental beliefs, but does that mean I'm going to dress up as a polar bear and protest outside the Houses of Parliament? Absolutely not!

The feeling of doing something worthwhile was completely absent when I worked on Wall Street. A vice president at PaineWebber once apologized for not putting me on a deal involving a tobacco company; when I told him not to apologize because I wouldn't have done it anyway, he was absolutely staggered, and said I was working for the wrong company.

As team manager, a lot of my time is spent doing things like planning, strategy and performance reviews, which are generic to running any team. But I'm a hands-on manager and there are still quite a few projects that I run myself. One is F&C's participation in the Corporate Leaders Group on Climate Change - it involves a group of around a dozen FTSE-sized companies who've come together from all different industry sectors to lobby the UK government to introduce more ambitious long-term policies aimed at moving to a low-carbon economy.

First-mover advantage

In terms of my career, I think I've been lucky. If I were to apply to do my job today, I probably wouldn't get it, the competition is so tough.

In the late 1990s there were very few people with both a financial and public sector background who were interested in combining their skills in socially responsible investing. Nowadays the landscape has changed dramatically: our mailbox is jammed with applications from people from investment banks, law firms and industry, not to mention NGOs who want to move across to the private sector.

Business school academics now specialize in the field of sustainable development, which wasn't anywhere to be seen on the curriculum when I attended over 20 years ago. It doesn't hurt to get in at the beginning.

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