Leading the charge for the “invisible enablers”
Recently named among Financial News’ 100 Most Influential Women in European Finance, Laura Weatherup, Global Head of Integration & Change at Columbia Threadneedle Investments EMEA APAC, is navigating through a particularly busy period at Columbia Threadneedle Investments as the firm integrates the recently-acquired EMEA asset management business of Bank of Montreal (BMO GAM EMEA) and establishes its new OEIC boards. Hot on the heels of the closure of the BMO GAM (EMEA) deal in late November 2021, FBC caught up with Laura to talk about a range of fund board-related topics including the governance considerations of integrating two sizeable fund businesses, what makes a fund board effective, and her efforts to build the talent pipeline of future board directors.
Looking down the list of the senior women celebrated in Financial News’ recently published plaudit, “The 100 Most Influential Women in European Finance”, it’s hard not to be struck by the fact that very few come from the world of asset management operations. Indeed, it would be fair to say that Laura Weatherup is something of a rarity in lists such as these – a fact she acknowledges in her recent declaration on LinkedIN that this award is recognition for her teams of ‘invisible enablers’.
Yet the relatively low corporate profiles of some operations professionals bely a range of important skills which Laura believes are often well-suited for fund board roles – not least the ability to translate “chaos into certainty” and to cut through complex data sets, technology-requirements and ask “do we know that it’s achievable?”
It’s partly this toolbox of skills that have helped Laura carve out her own high-powered executive career since she joined in 2004, one which now sees her jointly responsible for Columbia Threadneedle’s Investments’ operations and investor services covering US$714bn in client assets and overseeing nearly 750?employees in four countries while also being CEO of the ACD board and chairing the Luxembourg ManCo. All this, while navigating a period of significant change for Columbia Threadneedle Investments at both an operational and governance level as the firm integrates BMO GAM (EMEA) into the fold and establishes new Open Ended Investment Company (OEIC) boards.
Dedicated governance workstream fundamental to integration of BMO
When two firms go through a merger or acquisition, much of the discussion and speculation tends to focus on proposed structures, people changes and even name changes. Far less airtime is usually given to the governance implications of bringing together two sizeable firms, each with their own fund ranges, cultures and boards. As Laura puts it, now that the acquisition has closed, “the hard work begins”. Hard work which she says is made somewhat easier by the cultural similarities between the two firms – both placing significant emphasis on their research-based investment approaches and on Responsible Investing. For the foreseeable future, the plan is to continue to run the governance around the two legacy fund areas separately but with support from Columbia Threadneedle Investments’ General Counsel Office on the workings of the boards within the firm’s wider governance structure. As part of the integration, governance will specifically considered alongside the work plans.
However, this is not the only significant governance change afoot at Columbia Threadneedle Investments. The firm has recently bolstered the independence of its governance structure by establishing new, majority independent, boards for its UK OEICs. The appointment of two independent non-executive directors, together with a representative of the ACD, created these new OEIC Boards in the summer. This new governance layer brings additional independent perspective and challenge and the firm believes that this greater oversight of the UK retail fund range will benefit investors in these funds.
This move has required some deep thinking about how best to adapt the internal board process, with the result being a ‘joint’ approach. “The ACD board – which is predominantly executive – and the OEIC board – which is predominantly independent – often look at the same things but with a different focus so we decided to trial an approach whereby we have a joint meeting and then separate sessions. It’s still early days and it may well be that we have to evolve this approach over time.” In addition, ‘nested’ sessions on areas of interest to multiple boards take directors through factual information such as cyber security strategy, distribution strategy or investment performance. This gives the directors context so the board meeting focus can be on those elements specific to the remit of that board.
Be open about what you want to achieve
It’s clear that in addition to a busy executive day job, a significant part of Laura’s time is devoted to governance matters. Asked how she strikes the right balance, the conversation quickly turns to the importance of the team around her and to giving them opportunities to expand their own governance expertise. According to Laura, this not only frees up some of her bandwidth and allows her clarity of perspective but also provides important development opportunities for the next generation of board directors. “If I think about my own career, I always knew I wanted to be on boards, I wanted to be where the decisions are made, helping to formulate “the how”. You quickly learn that no-one’s going to ask you what you want to do in your career, you have to be open about what you want to achieve and then find the opportunities to get the right experience.” Such opportunities for those in Laura’s team might include presenting at board meetings – a measure that Laura says gives them exposure and experience while also allowing her to walk into the boardroom with her focus entirely set to that of a Board Director, rather than as a Head of Operations.
Alignment of purpose key to fund board effectiveness
While the boardroom may be a relatively new terrain for many involved in fund governance – with many fund boards having been set up in the wake of the 2019 Asset Management Market Study remedies – Columbia Threadneedle Investments’ ACD board has a more established footprint. As a member of the ACD for more than six years, and more recently as its CEO, Laura has clear views on what contributes to its overall effectiveness. “We are all aligned to a common purpose – that we are here as the voice of the client and we all have a laser-sharp focus on that.”
It’s clear that a healthy culture is also an important contributor to the board’s effectiveness. A gender-diverse board – Columbia Threadneedle Investments is one of a small number of ACD boards to have a female majority of directors, including two female independent directors. It is, according to Laura, a “highly-engaged, low-ego” group where each member feels respected, valued and heard and where strong working relationships enable constructive disagreement.
This concept of constructive disagreement chimes with the FCA’s belief that robust challenge lies at the heart of board effectiveness, something with which Laura agrees. “Challenges are flushed out – it’s important to get everything on the table even if it’s only a single person who is opposing a particular point or who has differing thoughts to the majority. We don’t leave it until we have fully understood their point of view.” Laura ends the point by highlighting the importance of spending time with independent directors outside of board meetings, giving them exposure to other parts of the business and to developing relationships not just with fellow board directors but with others around the organisation so they get as a complete a picture as possible.
As our discussion draws to a close, Laura is keen to emphasise that anyone wanting to take a step towards board roles needs to be thinking about it early, finding an internal sponsor who’s on a board and offering to support them in their board work. It’s clear she is a keen advocate for fellow operations professionals, leading the charge for greater visibility for the next generation of ‘enablers’ in the boardroom. With experienced leaders like Laura championing them – and other talented professionals from around the business – the pipeline of future fund board talent looks very encouraging indeed.
More about Laura:
- School: St Andrews Church of England
- University: Oriel College, Oxford
- Home (county/area): Surrey
- Your first board role (exec or non-exec): Joined Threadneedle Investment Services Ltd in 2016
- Number of current board roles (if appropriate): 4
- Current car (or preferred mode of travel): Nissan 270 Z and a more dog-friendly Land Cruiser
- Favourite book: The Salt Path by Raynor Winn
- Favourite film: Last of The Mohicans
- Music choice: Anything from classical to the Foo Fighters to dance music for working out!
- Top gadget: Food Thermometer, I’m vegetarian so my meat-eating friends like me to use it!
- Your preferred charity, or equivalent: Columbia Threadneedle Foundation and MIND
- Your next holiday: I have just come back from Jordan – Petra was amazing!