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Aon Benfield CFO, Maggie Westdale

The chief financial officer of the world’s largest reinsurance broker’s take on female progression in the accountancy profession is an all too familiar one.

“When I got out of school 22 years ago, 50 percent of the starting accountants were women and today 50 percent of the starting accountants are still women, but you are not seeing them go from that entry-level role up to the C-suite,” Maggie Westdale, CFO and chief operating officer of Aon Benfield, tells Financial Director.

Westdale’s experience, though coming from a background in the US, chimes with Lord Davies’ recent report on boardroom gender equality. Lord Davies recommends that the boards of a quarter of FTSE-350 companies should be made up of women by 2015, or businesses will run the risk of quotas being imposed on them. Women currently account for just 12.5 percent of FTSE-100 directors; the statistics are similarly poor among top FDs. According to the 2010 Financial Director Salary Survey, women are now earning a pitiful 68 percent of the average remuneration of their male counterparts and only make up four percent of FTSE-100 and 250 FDs.

It is perhaps not surprising, then, that most think the glass ceiling remains very much intact. Research for the Institute of Leadership and Management found that 73 percent of women believe the glass ceiling still exists and more than a third of women believe their gender has hindered their career progression.

Even though she is part of a miniscule minority, however, Westdale is a perfect example of how it can be well and truly shattered. She has landed the top job in a male-dominated profession. But she herself can’t bring any more clarity to the problem of why she is a minority.

“I don’t personally know what that disconnect is. Is it that women are making personal choices simply not to go in that direction? Is there a glass ceiling still, to this day? Are the requirements of the job not conducive to other choices that women might want to make?” she says. “I don’t know the answer, but I certainly think there is something.”

Maybe part of the problem is that women are often compared to other women when they reach the highest echelons of business. Westdale was recently picked out in a list of 25 women who are doing outstanding work in commercial insurance, reinsurance, risk management, employee benefits and related fields. Being selected as a “woman to watch” is certainly prestigious, but Westdale thinks it can also be unhelpful. She believes women should be compared to all their peers, male and female.

She recalls an article she recently read about Ruth Porat, CFO of Morgan Stanley (The New York Observer ran a piece about her entitled “Morgan Stanley CFO may succeed despite her ovaries”), which highlights the problem. “It didn’t talk about her as a Wall Street CFO; it spoke about her as a female Wall Street CFO. And it compared her to the only two other female Wall Street CFOs in the past. I thought that was interesting, and a little sad,” admits Westdale. “She is a very accomplished woman, and I don’t know why she couldn’t be compared to her peer group.”

But things are shifting. After serving as CNA’s senior vice president for corporate financial planning and analysis, and later becoming internal CFO for its property and casualty operations, Westdale took four years out to start a family. Leaving CNA with no maternity arrangements – and no expectation that she’d return – Westdale found herself in familiar territory after coming back to the workforce as CFO for Aon Benfield, in charge of integrating CNA.

“It was amazing to me how easy it was to come back to the workforce, especially because I came back at the height of the economic blowup,” she says. “When I first decided to go back to work, I called up six headhunters and said, ‘OK, remember me? I’m back – what’s going to happen, what’s the reality?’ And five of the six looked at me and said there would be no issue whatsoever, and that I would be back in a nanosecond. The willingness of an industry that is, frankly, male-dominated to accept back a woman – and a woman who had made the choice to stay home for four years – was phenomenal and a change in the environment.”

This is something Westdale thinks is unusual and significant within her industry. It is often cited as a reason why the glass ceiling persists, but taking a break to have children has not seemed to stop Westdale from breaking through. Just three months after deciding to come back to work, she landed the Aon Benfield CFO role, and the new job was even a step up from the last one.

It was Wesdale’s experience managing a large-scale consolidation projects at CNA that really set her up for the job at Aon Benfield. Aon Group had recently completed its £1.43bn acquisition of rival broker Benfield, which was to be merged with its own reinsurance broking division, Aon Re. The firm needed a global restructuring plan in order to integrate the two businesses. Westdale says her experience at CNA sharpened the analytical skills that a CFO seeing through a large merger would need.

“Aon Benfield was trying to take its technology from multiple platforms down to one,” says Westdale. “This job really ticked a lot of boxes from what I had done at CNA. And what I had done in that role was far more analytical than financial.”

Westdale adds that one of the chief priorities of a CFO managing a merger is to implement standard metrics and measures to understand the business globally. At CNA, Westdale built a consolidated data warehouse that had all the financial information of the organisation in one place, with one set of global definitions.

She says something similar was required at Aon Benfield. When Westdale joined the company, it was running a different operating system for each of the 50 countries in which it operates and was calculating regional growth in a way that made providing a combined number for the whole company nearly impossible.

The integration model also anticipated a certain amount of redundancies, lost business and the rolling out of a single operating system worldwide.

“We originally had a three-year plan, but we largely completed the plan in the first year,” she says. “The fact that we moved on it so fast meant there was just that bit more complexity and challenge. Finance is the keeper of the truth as far as the success of the integration was concerned, and in terms of holding everyone accountable for the commitments that were made upon the merger.”

Creating a single operating system for a global business and a single set of reporting definitions was top of Westdale’s integration agenda.

“People would ask very basic questions of me when I first walked in. They would ask what organic growth is globally, and I would suggest we do a combined number. But we weren’t really in a place where we could legitimately do a combined number. Each country was calculating it just slightly differently,” she says. “I now use exactly the same definitions across all 50 countries. So I actually, really understand what is underlying that growth: I can understand the metrics and tie them to forward decisions.”

CV

2009 – present
CFO Aon Benfield

2002 – 2004
Senior vice president corporate financial planning & analysis, CNA Insurance

2001 – 2004
CFO property casualty division, CNA Insurance
Public Company; CNA; Insurance industry

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