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The lorry driver's brilliant daughter running an investment bank

Last week, Laura Janssens was promoted to head the European investment bank at Berenberg. It was an event that could very easily have never happened. Janssens found her way into banking from a very different background and then feared her career was over after having children. From her new vantage point, she's keen to be a catalyst for change, and to perpetuate the Berenberg culture that she says differentiates the privately-owned German bank from its bigger publicly-owned competitors.  

“There were some brilliant women I worked with 10–15 years ago who left the industry because it was too difficult to make it work or they felt overlooked," Janssens tells us. "They weren’t lucky enough to be given an opportunity like I’ve had at Berenberg."

Janssens joined Berenberg in 2011 after having her second child. She'd spent four years at UBS and eight years at Merrill Lynch, and during that time had become one of Europe's top-ranked telecoms analysts. Motherhood changed everything. When she returned to UBS after nearly a year of maternity leave, Janssens found herself labelled an underperformer. "I felt like I was on the back foot," she says. "My career felt like it had ground to a halt. I didn’t have any role models, and didn’t understand that this feeling would pass. I almost quit the industry”.

At the same time, she says the travel that was expected of senior equity researchers was draining the hours she had available to spend with her young family. “When I was a marketing analyst travelling a lot there would be nights when the plane would circle around Heathrow, waiting to land, and I’d watch the time I thought I’d have with my children ebbing away,” she recalls.

Janssens quit UBS. Instead of fleeing finance altogether, she joined Berenberg in a different sort of job. - She became a saleswoman to avoid the travel. Within a year, though, she'd been promoted back into research by Hendrik Riehmer and David Mortlock, Berenberg's overall managing partner and head of the investment bank respectively. It was a very different and more accommodating environment. Over the next decade she went from head of European research, to head of European equities, head of the London branch and now head of the European investment bank. "I feel very fortunate to have been part of what we built in the last decade,” Janssens reflects. 

From Belfast to Suffolk to Cambridge to banking 

It's not just motherhood that acted as a potential impediment to Janssens' progression. In an industry increasingly conscious of its socioeconomic homogeneity, Janssens is a rare example of a person with comparatively underprivileged origins who's made it to the top. Having spent much of her career trying hard to be assimilated in a world where 90% of senior people come from families in higher socioeconomic strata, she's now comfortable discussing her path - and wants to help other students like herself into the financial services industry. 

Janssens family is Northern Irish. Her father was a lorry driver. Her childhood was spent first in Belfast and then in Suffolk, where she went to the local state comprehensive school and was identified for her proficiency at mathematics. This led to a sponsorship from British Telecoms (BT), which in turn changed her life.

“My BT sponsorship paid for me to go to university," says Janssens.  "Before that, I was making ends meet by chambermaiding for 16 hours every weekend.”

The BT sponsorship also fostered her lifelong passion for all things telecom. "From when I was 15, I worked at BT’s research labs every summer," she recollects. "They gave me £200 pounds a week (a fortune then) and I was doing things like soldering circuit boards and even climbing telegraph poles. I loved it, and even now I like my analysts to be obsessed with their subject matter, no matter how esoteric.”

Janssens attended Cambridge University. She began her banking career on Merrill Lynch's graduate program in September 1999 - six months before the dot com was initially pricked and around a year before it burst entirely. “After the crazy TMT bubble of 1998 and 1999, everything imploded in 2001," she says. "My bosses, who had been earning huge amounts of money, just quit."

In an intimation of the opportunities that can arise for ambitious young people in downturns, Janssens - who was just 26 at the time and the junior on the desk - was suddenly catapulted into a senior role. "I inherited the Merrill Lynch telecoms team," she says. "Everything changed overnight, and I think it actually helped to be young and unconstrained. When our team made number one everyone was surprised except us. We had eaten three meals a day together for months, and we knew we had worked harder than everyone else.” 

Berenberg has a graduate program and Janssens - whose own children have had an upbringing very different to her own - is keen to make it as accessible to people from all backgrounds as possible, without discriminating for or against applicants from any position on the socioeconomic spectrum.  To this end, after first having their CVs screened to make sure they meet the requisite academic standards, students applying for Berenberg's graduate program are then judged "blind" based on their responses to a questionnaire that's as non-discriminatory as possible. “We get some fascinating replies," enthuses Janssens. "Reading through them all with the team was a great morning.”

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AUTHORSarah Butcher Global Editor

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