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Helena Morrissey’s favourite motto is “leap before you look”. She says it so often at home that her nine children and Buddhist husband are tired of hearing it.
At work, a willingness in her role in asset management to embrace risk and adopt contrarian positions has brought her influence that extends far beyond the City of London and the world of finance.
Before stepping down in August, the 50-year-old had spent 15 years as chief executive of Newton Investment Management, overseeing assets that almost trebled from £20bn to £53bn. She remained as non-executive chairwoman until the start of this year — in an industry where fewer than one in 10 funds are run by women.
She has used an “only woman in the room” position to help advance her career and several causes that ultimately boil down to dismantling from within the dominance of a small, insular group of mainly white men who run businesses and write the rules by which they play. Her campaigns include increasing the number of women on UK corporate boards, reining in executive pay, demanding more transparency from the investment industry and — in the biggest shake-up of all — pushing for Britain’s exit from the EU.
In 2010, she co-founded the 30% Club, a network of men and women at the top of British business who would lobby for a greater female presence on company boards.
“She identified that it needed to be presented as a business issue, not a women’s issue, and decided the best advocates would be seasoned chairmen, male rather than female,” says Sir Roger Carr, chairman of BAE Systems, the defence company, and an early member of the club. “It was a very good piece of strategy thinking.”
But it was also perfectly timed. The government was about to give the UK’s biggest listed companies four years to double voluntarily the aggregate number of women on their boards from 12.5 to 25 per cent. That goal was reached last year, helped by the efforts of the 30% Club — which, as its name implies, has set an even higher target.
Having become the public face of the club, Morrissey took on celebrity status in the City. So when she came out in favour of Brexit, the spotlight swung on her as one of the very few high-profile businesswomen on the Leave side.
Her decision to campaign ahead of the referendum went against the orders of Newton and prompted speculation that it led to her departure from the firm. She insists this was not the reason for her move, as she had long hankered after something new. This May, she will join Legal & General Investment Management, the UK’s biggest asset manager, as head of personal investing. Her ultimate boss will be Nigel Wilson, chief executive of the insurance company, who was a similarly prominent advocate of Britain quitting the EU.
On Europe, she says she was wrong in thinking the UK would have more time to orchestrate a softer Brexit: “I thought that we would evolve more slowly.” She adds, however, that this did not change her view on the UK’s need to leave the EU.
Morrissey is convinced people can no longer be governed from afar and that the failure to tackle the causes of the financial crisis led to an inevitable revolt against the establishment. She showed her hand three years before the referendum. In a UK newspaper editorial she wrote that a whole generation of young people was paying “a very painful price” for an “imperial, large-scale, flawed political agenda”. At which point she went on holiday and forgot about the article.
“I was swanning around and had forgotten completely,” she says, when a chairman and supporter of the 30% Club who happened to be at the same hotel approached her looking “very flustered”. He said he had spent hours “calling off the hounds” of the press and other passionately interested parties. “It dawned on me quickly,” she says, that what she had written was “much more contentious” than she had imagined.
She describes, in a similarly lighthearted vein, how she came to have nine children. She and her husband Richard, who left his job as a financial journalist to help bring up the children, had always wanted a family larger than those in which they had grown up.
“When we were married, we said, ‘Let’s have five’,” she says. She reels off a series of events that led them to have considerably more, including a happy accident, a ‘rainbow’ baby following a miscarriage and a gamble to have another boy.
This is a rare part of her adult life that surprises her younger sister, Liz Pendry, a teacher. Much else was well flagged during their childhood in Chichester, southern England. “She always liked to be the best and worked very hard,” notes Pendry, recalling Morrissey ironing her outfit before school every day, winning the senior school spelling contest each year, taking a maths A-level unfazed that she was the only girl doing so, and studying even on Christmas Day. “But she was quite quiet about her success.”
In her working life, Morrissey’s understated charm and likeability stand out. “It is something that is natural and because it is natural it serves her well,” says Carr.
In conversation, she allows for give-and-take and her tone often suggests a disarming shrug of the shoulders. At work, cardigans and leather jackets accompany colourful dresses and skirts. Yet beneath such an exterior is a character part of whose career was shaped in the 1990s at the tail end of the “greed is good” era. “I hope it doesn’t make me sound like a [Wall Street] junkie.”
Her first big move was to pile into UK gilts in late 1996 and early 1997. Many thought it foolish, as they imagined a spendthrift Labour government coming to power. In May 1997, Tony Blair, the newly elected Labour prime minister, launched a policy of fiscal responsibility and set the Bank of England free of political influence. The gilts market surged as investors realised interest rates were more likely to fall.
Morrissey, an award-winning bond fund manager, became Newton’s chief executive in 2001. After comprehensive school in Chichester, she went to Cambridge university and credits her degree in philosophy with helping her think independently. Winning people over to her point of view, however, has been a life-long learning process.
“When I became chair of the Investment Association [the trade body for UK investment managers] in 2014, I thought I was chosen because of, not in spite of, a progressive approach,” she says, adding that she soon realised she was “too far ahead of the ‘central point’ of the industry”. Taking counsel from friends, she learnt to “listen more and to walk towards those I was out of step with”, while pushing for reforms such as transparency in investment fees.
She is adept at clearing barriers that stop many other women’s careers progressing, by refusing to accept “no” without explanation and by her willingness to jump into a job before feeling fully qualified.
One example of this is how she became Newton’s chief executive, at the age of 35. Its parent company, now BNY Mellon of the US, asked her to become chief investment officer in 2001, only to withdraw the offer the next day. “Unbeknownst to me, my colleagues at Newton met and the next morning one of them tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Helena, I’m afraid we don’t want you to be the CIO’,” she recalls. “I was quite crushed, to be honest, because I thought they liked me. I thought I had made some good calls. I thought I had a mandate.”
Her response was to ask colleagues to meet her in person to explain their decision. “It was quite a painful discussion. Being talked about in front of you is worse than being talked about behind your back.”
The men were impressed with Morrissey’s courage and came to the conclusion she might be just the person to get Newton through a rough patch, when the departure of several fund managers had caused some investor nervousness. They asked her to become chief executive.
“A rational human being would have probably said, ‘I’m not qualified; I don’t know that I could do that’,” she says. She admits she did not know what the role entailed but, unlike perhaps many women and some men, she took the job anyway.
Such fearlessness has permeated her career. It has also led her to assume she could write her first book — A Good Time to be a Girl: How to Succeed in a Changing World — in the months between leaving Newton and starting at L&G.
Boys may want to take note of what it has to say, too.
This article has been corrected to clarify that the 30% Club was founded in 2010, not 2001 as previously stated
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