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Interview: Helena Morrissey, founder of the 30% Club

Investment Week's Katie Holliday talks to one of the most influential and high-profile female CEOs in investment management

10 Dec 2012

By Katie Holliday, Investment Week

morrissey-helena

FLICKING THROUGH Helena Morrissey's CV, it would be difficult for even the biggest overachievers not to be intimidated. The 45-year old Cambridge graduate is chief executive officer of a high-profile investment management company and an ambassador for increasing female boardroom representation through her 30% Club. But perhaps the most daunting thing is she has managed to achieve all this while juggling the pressures of raising nine children.

However, in person, Morrissey is anything but intimidating. Perhaps her sympathy towards journalists stems from the fact she is married to one. Her husband Richard was a financial journalist before he took the decision to stay at home to look after their children, aged three to 21.

The hardest time

Morrissey joined Newton from Schroders, where she started her career as a bond manager including a period at the firm's New York office. She was quickly promoted to head of the bond desk at the age of 28, but was passed over for promotion and this prompted her to leave and join Newton.

Six years after joining Newton, she was asked to become CEO. This part of her career would prove her most challenging yet as she battled the difficulties of taking on a new role amid a tough market environment prompted by the bursting of the dotcom bubble. Newton had also been recently bought out by multi-boutique firm Mellon (now known as BNY Mellon), just prior to her appointment as CEO.

"No-one sits you down and says this what the CEO does," said Morrissey. "The hardest time was right at the start. I had been a fund manager but I was not expected, including by myself, to become a CEO. At the time, the dotcom bubble had just burst, clients and consultants were concerned about the new ownership structure and we had lost some fund managers and some of the management team," said Morrissey.

"There were lots of silent voices out there saying you must run hedge funds or 130/30 funds - the current vogue at the time. But I realised the reason I took the job was Newton had something worth fighting for. It took four years before we were back on any consultant's buy list - you had to be patient - as there was lots of noise around us. I remember talking to one journalist and the insinuation was: ‘Would we even survive?' It did feel very much touch and go, but I never lost confidence that we would pull through," she added.

After the buy-out, Morrissey was keen for Newton to retain its own identity, adding there is little interaction or rivalry with the other boutiques.

"Not everyone has the same situation as part of a multi-boutique operation. We have seen examples over the years where people have acquired a smaller firm and then stamped all over them," she said.

"Certainly one of the advantages has been we have not had to succumb to any industry pressure to do passive investments or have hedge funds, as there are other boutiques in the multi-boutique structure that do that. We do not have to be all things to all people. We can focus."

Breaking the silence

Her progressive thinking also extends past trying to smash the glass ceiling for female professionals. She is keen for the industry as a whole to take on a more vocal role, complaining the fund management sector has a tendency to be "too silent".

"I feel Newton can do more to have an influential role in the industry. It is a very bold statement, but I believe we are at a bit of a crossroads for capitalism. There has been a lot of discussion at a political level, a lot of working practice and thinking, but it is lagging a bit in terms of what needs to happen to make people more interested in having their money invested and saving for their retirement," she said.

Morrissey believes there is still a great deal of mistrust of the fund management industry, as a result of the lingering impact of the financial crisis. She believes it is up to individuals within asset management firms to help dispel these myths.

"Ideally, what we will end up with, just as you have a trusted doctor or lawyer, is you would have a fund manager for financial advice. At the moment, there is a cloud of suspicion over each piece of financial services," she said.

Flagship products

Despite a turbulent period at the beginning of the century, Newton has consolidated its position. Its flagship products boast impressive AUM with its multi-asset offering - the Newton Real Return fund, run by Suzanne Hutchins and Iain Stewart - now at £6.5bn. The Global Higher Income fund, managed by James Harries, is now £3bn in size, while Jason Pidcock leads the popular £2.6bn Asian Income product.

But despite the funds' impressive AUM, plans to stem flows into the strategies are not on the horizon, said Morrissey. She added the only real limitations would be on the Asian Income fund due to the market's liquidity restraints, while other offerings, such as Real Return, have a wider universe of stocks available. The firm has also recently launched the Newton Emerging Market Income fund for Pidcock and co-manager Sophia Whitbread.

"We are conviction investors, so if you only find 40 or 50 stocks to invest in and the fund is growing, you have got to either create more ideas or cap the size. We do not feel we are at capacity yet with Asian Income, but we will keep a closer eye on it," Morrissey said.

Any expansion of the firm's product range in the future is likely to be on the fixed income side, said Morrissey. A quarter of the firm's assets are currently in bonds, including the group's multi-asset funds.

Its flagship bond product is the £684m Newton Global Dynamic Bond fund, run by Paul Brain. Newton is perhaps not as well known for its fixed income expertise, but this is an area close to Morrissey's heart and where she believes the firm has a lot more to offer.

Headwinds and tailwinds

When asked what worries her most about the state of the global economy, Morrissey highlighted the social implications of the eurozone crisis as her biggest concern.

"Everyone thinks we have gone on about it for ages, but it is still a massive issue. What worries me is the increasing threat of social unrest. As the countries navigate through the austerity and bailouts, the human price to pay is so dramatic and so awful. I feel strongly about youth unemployment being a real tragedy and I worry this euro experiment is a vanity project with a human toll. I worry about that as a person."

One of Newton's main investment themes is that the world is working its way through a multi-year, de-leveraging period. The firm's investment outlook is bearish and encapsulated by the title of one of Morrissey's recent presentations: Is there light at the end of the tunnel? No there is an oncoming train. But the CEO is quick to explain this does not mean investors are less able to make money. They can do so through high dividend yielding stocks and asset classes offering inflation protection, such as gold.

"However, we have got to spend as much time minding our eye as we do finding opportunities. That has been the pattern for the last five years and will be the pattern for the next five," she said. "A good portfolio is good not only because of what it has in there, but also what it has not. That is what the financial crisis has taught us."

Campaigning

Aside from contending with ongoing economic uncertainty, Morrissey is continuing her fight to promote women in business through her 30% Club. Morrissey explains the project was born out of frustration after being involved in women's initiatives for several years and feeling she was getting nowhere.

"This was because of two reasons, one of which was we needed to involve more men. The other was we needed a specific goal. I do believe this kind of change needs to be business-led."

In the two years since the club was launched, Morrissey is confident she has witnessed significant changes in the way large companies are run. This is backed up with statistics.

The club's initial seven members have now grown to 55, while the number of female board members of FTSE 100 companies has risen from 12.5% to 17.3%. Morrissey is confident the club will reach its 30% goal by 2015, but is determined for it not to be a "hollow victory" and for more progress to be made not only at the top but at all levels of a company.

"This does not seem much but it is growth of a third, and given we were stuck at 12% from 2007 to 2010, the pace of change is firmly established," she said.
There is no doubt Morrissey is viewed as a role model for young career women and in 2010 she won the FN100 title of Most Influential Woman in European Asset Management (awarded by Financial News) in recognition of this fact.

But what is so interesting about Morrissey is she herself has quashed traditional preconceptions that women are unable to both progress in their career and take time out to have children.

Morrissey's advice to young, aspirational career woman is to stop worrying about what could go wrong, and instead act more like men, by leaping before you look.
"As a woman you have to speak up and tell your company you are ambitious. No-one can ask you, so you have to speak up for yourself," Morrissey said, adding wryly that this is a much easier feat when there is more than one woman in the room.

This article originally appeared in Investment Week

CV: Helena Morrissey
2012. Appointed CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) in the Queen's 2012 New Year's Honours list for her contribution to British business.
2010. Named the Financial News ‘Most Influential Woman in European Asset Management'.
Founded the 30% Club, a cross-business initiative aimed at achieving 30% women on UK corporate boards by 2015 through voluntary, business-led change.
2005-2012. First female director of the UK's Investment Management Association.
2001. Appointed chief executive officer of Newton in 2001.
1994. Joined Newton as a fixed income fund manager.
Began her career as a global bond analyst with Schroders in New York.

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