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The #1 Woman in Finance, Europe

I was sent a list from the American Banker this week, who have just published their annual list of the most powerful women in banking.

Number 1 is Karen Peetz, Vice Chairman of BNY Mellon

Ambank1

  • Generates roughly half of BNY Mellon's pretax income
  • Manages a third of its 52,000 employees in 115 cities around the globe
  • Is the first female vice chairman in the company's 227-year history
  • Started, and still leads, the bank's wildly successful women's network.

In second place is Carrie Tolstedt, Senior EVP of Community Banking, Wells Fargo

Bank2

  • Oversees the largest retail deposit bank in the United States
  • Manages a division with 120,000 employees
  • Achieved a retail bank cross-sell ratio of 5.8 products per household as of the first quarter, up from 5.6 a year earlier, with 7.4% net growth in consumer checking accounts over same period

And in third position is Ellen Costello, President and CEO of Harris Financial

Ambank3

  • Created the 12th-largest U.S. commercial bank by assets with acquisition of M&I
  • Became U.S. country head for BMO Financial Group, formalizing governance oversight for all U.S. operations
  • Led first-half deposit growth of 14% in the personal and commercial businesses
  • Honored by the Anti-Defamation League as a Woman of Achievement, named Business Leader of the Year by the YWCA

Obviously, this is the most powerful women in American banking list, but it’s interesting to see that we have to highlight such success.

In fact, there are many organisations that put forward the agenda for the female sex in banks, such as the not for profit group: Women in Banking and Finance.

There have also been many articles about women in banking since this crisis hit, one of my favourites being: What If Lehman Brothers had been Lehman Sisters?

And there are many events that focus upon women in banking

So is this an issue in banking?

Sure it is.

I regularly write about Sexism and the City, and the issue is regularly highlighted in polls about the City.

For example, a recent survey of 450 female students at Oxford University found that 85% felt they’d face discrimination in financial services, more than in any other area of the economy.

This is translating into applications or the lack of them as, according to one leading bank in the City, women rarely applied for graduate positions before the financial crisis. Now, their enthusiasm is lower than ever.

The problem is so acute that most banks were lucky if 20% of the people they made offers to in technology and trading were women.

So, to provide a little insipiration to our community of female members of the Financial Services Club, here’s my personal number one woman in finance: Elizabeth Corley.

Corley_207386k

Liz is a former speaker at the Financial Services Club – way back in 2004, we must get Liz back! – I was reminded of her when reading the Sunday Times this week. 

In an interview with Andrew Davidson, titled: I don’t know how she does ithe talks with a lady who is about to take over one of the world’s top asset managers with funds worth £440 billion, and yet she still writes detective novels.

Here’s Andrew’s write-up from the Sunday Times:

The best thing about Elizabeth Corley is that she delights in overturning expectations.

 “What do you think?” she grins, stretching out the batwing sleeves of her deep-blue Amanda Wakeley cardigan. “I was told your photographer wanted colour, so I ditched the grey suit.”

And she laughs, flapping her arms. Short, blonde and bobbed, Luton-born Corley is a long way from the stereotype of the icy City Queen.

In January, she becomes worldwide boss of Global Allianz Investors, the asset management arm of Allianz, the German group that is insurance’s global No 1 — with £440 billion of assets to manage, that makes her a very serious player indeed.

But just in case you think the day job is frightening enough, take a look at her hobby. She has published four detective novels since 1998 — Requiem Mass, Fatal Legacy, Grave Doubts, Innocent Blood, you can guess the tone. Where does she find the time?

“I don’t play golf,” she says drily. “Think of how long that takes? I write books because I love it and I need to do it — you might as well ask someone why they go to the cinema, or have a family.”

It makes her an oddity in the City, that’s for sure. Yet even her workaholic schedule — writing on holidays and at weekends — has been put on hold while the eurozone crisis plays out. As one of Europe’s biggest businesses, Allianz has a lot riding on the euro’s survival, and Corley, 54, its highest-ranking British executive, has a bird’s-eye view on German intentions.

“I think the belief in Allianz is that this is now a political crisis,” she says. “We have hugely indebted nations and very few countries with the strength to support them. We see the euro as crucially important for Europe’s success, but make no mistake, it’s a very difficult political burden for anyone to take.”

Meaning Germany will bail everyone out? “I genuinely don’t know. I see passionate support for the euro, but not at any cost, sending good money after bad.”

Does Allianz have a plan for the break-up of the eurozone? “It’s impossible to have a plan, you can run scenarios but … you just have to look constantly at potential risks. Some are market risks you can’t manage but can mitigate.”

Sitting in her bare office in London’s Bishopsgate, Corley is a coiled spring of alertness, eyes wide, smile constant. She started in insurance at Sun Alliance, before joining Coopers & Lybrand consultants, Mercury Asset Management and Merrill Lynch, and she still has the groomed, articulate skills of a super-smart saleswoman.

The reorganisation of Allianz puts her on top of half its asset management empire — second only in size to Black Rock/Barclays. The other half, branded Pimco, remains with its American top team.

She runs Allianz Global Investors Europe with Andreas Utermann, chief investment officer — a colleague from her Mercury days. Corley had quit to write full-time in 2005, when Utermann lured her back.

I write books because I love it — you might as well ask someone why they go to the cinema, or have a family Any regrets? “No,” she laughs. “And, anyway, my agent says I write better when I’m working.”

But running one of the world’s great asset management empires is not just any day job. Corley says she likes the challenge, she is comfortable with Allianz’s long-term values and she feels passionately there is a job to be done convincing consumers of the social worth of financial services. Asset management’s role in securing the funds to pay pensions is key.

“The state cannot provide pensions for all. We have to show we can deliver affordable pensions for those who need to top up their state benefits.”

But how can asset managers do that with the markets in freefall? Cue a long speech on risk and research — Corley can switch to jargon at the click of a finger. Unusually for City bosses, she is also sensitive to her audience. “Sorry, too much?” she laughs, shifting tone again.

Friends in banking say she is one of a kind. “Formidable, bright, warm, you take to her like a magnet,” says Mark Tennant, chairman of Bluerock Consulting. “And unlike many asset management bosses, she understands the consumer.”

Utermann says she brings a valuable international perspective, built up during her time at Mercury and Merrill Lynch, but most importantly she binds the team.

“If you want to build a business you have to give people a reason to stay long term and really work together, enjoying themselves. Elizabeth does that. Otherwise you’re just mercenaries.”

Corley says she comes from a line of strong women who “didn’t moan, they just got on with it”. One grandmother was a French peasant who married a British soldier after the first world war, another was a Yorkshire schoolteacher left with five children to bring up after her husband died. “Our history showed you don’t have to be born with stuff, you just go out and work.”

The eldest of three siblings, she followed her parents into Sun Alliance aged only 18, forgoing a place at university. Her rapid rise was driven by wanting to stay ahead of the graduate intake. “It was a habit that got into me, it set the pace.”

Behind that, she says, is an inbuilt need to take on responsibilities. “I enjoy a challenge. Say something is difficult and I am like Pavlov’s dog. It’s a huge motivator — probably from the older sister bit.”

Her weakness, according to others, remains a desire to take on too much. As for combining a high-pressure job with the stress and exposure of fiction writing, she says it exercises part of her that remains unfulfilled.

Committing murder and mayhem?

“No, it just helps if you are happy in yourself. The best colleagues are those who have found a balance between a passion for work and their own interests.”

Surely it must be awkward? She never sets her books in the City — too sensitive for colleagues who might worry about becoming character fodder. And I’d bet she tones down the sex and violence because, frankly, her employer doesn’t want to be associated with anything eye-popping.

She frowns. “No, some of the books are pretty brutal, they’re not toned down.” And nobody from Allianz has asked her to stop. Quite the opposite. The books are translated into German and she had a following in Germany before Allianz approached her.

Yet some do wonder what message the novels give out. “You’d guess there is a dark side to her,” says one simply.

Corley brushes that off. She would like Allianz to have a higher profile here. Despite being global No 1 in insurance, it is little known outside the City. She hopes that will change, pointing to its impressive performance through the 2008 downturn.

“We weathered that crisis well, we did the right and sensible things. But we have been pessimistic about the economic outlook for some time.”

What will get Allianz noticed, she adds, is the simple stuff: “Working with others to get product ideas that are good for most people.” So what would she buy? “Investors buy towards the top of the market, rather than the bottom, so if you asked me or Andreas, do you know what we’d buy tomorrow? Good-quality equities. But if you said that to an individual, they’d say ‘Couldn’t they go down further still?’”

Then the smile widens: “By the way, I’m not allowed to give financial advice.”

Does she want to get to the very top of Allianz? “No, I’m very happy where I am, as European chief executive of Allied Global Investors. I had no great ambition to be global chief executive.”

So they forced her into it? She laughs. “No, that’s not right either.” It was about taking on responsibility and what she can do for customers, shareholders and society.

At times, she sounds like a politician. Ever thought about it? She shrugs. “I just want to do this well.”

But her approachability makes her a powerful persuader, something the financial services industry could use. Money-maker and crime-writer . . .

Don’t make too much of the books, she begs. Sounds like she’s backtracking. “You must have interviewed other bosses with extraordinary hobbies.”

Collecting sports cars, normally. She giggles. “No, I certainly don’t do that.” Then, ever the writer, she demands five minutes of questions about me.

 

The life of Elizabeth Corley

Vital statistics

Born: October 19, 1956

School: Horsham High grammar Status: married twice, one stepdaughter

First job: filing clerk, Sun Alliance

Pay: undisclosed

Homes: London, Munich and Languedoc

Car: “I don’t have one”

Favourite book: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Favourite film: Gladiator

Favourite music: “Can’t decide — either Brahms Symphony No 1 or Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven”

Favourite gadget: Apple iPad

Last holiday: France

Working day

The chief executive of Allianz Global Investors Europe wakes at her Thameside flat in London’s Docklands after 6am. “I’m in our Bishopsgate office by 7.15,” says Elizabeth Corley. “It’s a 25-minute walk on a good day.” Corley says she focuses on teamwork, strategy and vision. “Being the boss is like leading a flotilla of ships — different cargoes, different pace, keeping them together. And it’s about people knowing their goals and what is success.” She works late most nights, often dining out with Allianz clients. She also has regular meetings with government officials, regulators and industry members. She keeps another office in Munich and travels two weeks in three.

Downtime

Elizabeth Corley writes detective novels to relax — she has published four so far. She started when her stepdaughter left for university. “I think it was because I missed her, and wanted to do something with my creative energy.” Other than writing, she loves opera, theatre, music, travel, gardening, cooking and buying clothes. She is also an ambassador for the Microloan Foundation, which supports women in sub-Saharan Africa. “I visited Malawi last year with my husband, Mike, to see their work and it was inspiring.”

 

About Chris M Skinner

Chris M Skinner

Chris Skinner is best known as an independent commentator on the financial markets through his blog, the Finanser.com, as author of the bestselling book Digital Bank, and Chair of the European networking forum the Financial Services Club. He has been voted one of the most influential people in banking by The Financial Brand (as well as one of the best blogs), a FinTech Titan (Next Bank), one of the Fintech Leaders you need to follow (City AM, Deluxe and Jax Finance), as well as one of the Top 40 most influential people in financial technology by the Wall Street Journal’s Financial News. To learn more click here…

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