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Elizabeth Corley

AGI CEO Elizabeth Corley

Starting out from the ground up, AGI CEO Elizabeth Corley knows the trick to success is balancing multiple skills

Juggling two careers is tricky for most people, but when one of your jobs is Chief Executive for one of the world’s largest financial institutions, it’s unsurprising if the other career takes a backseat. Elizabeth Corley, the new CEO of Allianz Global Investors (AGI), can be forgiven for spending more time focusing on her day job over the last few years instead of writing a new crime novel.

Appointed CEO at the start of the year, Corley has been right in the thick of the financial crisis since joining AGI as CEO for Europe in 2005. With €300bn under management and operations in 19 countries worldwide, the responsibility of managing AGI is vast, but after a career spanning 37 years, her experience has helped her navigate the company through a number of tricky situations.

Starting her career immediately after leaving school, Corley learnt the basics of management through a correspondence course and evening classes. She then spent ten years at the UKs Sun Alliance Life & Pensions, where she rose to deputy head of broker sales. In 1985 she joined Coopers & Lybrand Management Consultants, before joining Mercury Asset Management (later becoming Merrill Lynch Investment Managers) in 1993, where she remained until Allianz came calling in 2004.

The disparity at boardroom level of major financial institutions between men and women is definitely stark, and so the significance of Corley having been appointed CEO is a great continuous step forward. A recent study by Corporate Women Directors International (CWDI) shows that women account for just 21.7 percent of directors serving on the boards of Europe’s largest banks. This is significantly better than in the US, which has just 16.7 percent representation of women directors at top banks, and Asia-Pacific, with a meek 10.9 percent.

It is a much-debated subject, and some have suggested that were there more women in senior roles during the last ten years we wouldn’t have seen such a serious financial downturn, notably IMF head Christine Lagarde, who jokingly posed the question “what if Lehmann Brothers had been Lehmann Sisters?” The European Commission is currently carrying out a public consultation on the issue of gender inequality at the boardroom level of companies, and some countries, including France, Norway and Italy have already installed quotas.

Discriminating factors
Although she says she was discriminated against early on in her career, Corley is not evangelical about reforming the gender make-up of boardrooms. She puts a lot of it down to ignorance and naivety, describing an incident to the Financial Times when she was taken to a Playboy Club for lunch by one of her managers. “I just thought it was rather silly, bordering on amusing. It was innocent stupidity, just a poor guy who didn’t realise that this might not be the appropriate thing to do – because that was where he took all his business contacts.”

She doesn’t believe that companies should be forced to employ female executives as it attached a stigma that implies they’re not as good as their male counterparts. In a recent interview with the BBCs HARDTalk programme, she said, “I’m against quotas. It should be a last resort when we have failure. However, every woman or minority would be looked at in the wrong way.”

The view is echoed by the majority of senior female executives, where only 36 percent of those asked in a recent Financial News study think quotas should be introduced. The survey did show however, that most women feel they have had to work harder to get where they are because of their gender, and Corley feels that companies do need to improve the representation of women and minorities. However, she thinks that in order for women to succeed they need to have greater self-confidence than men when aiming for the top positions, and be certain they will make a difference.

Sharing business ideas
She shares the running of the business withChief Investment Officer Andreas Utermann, who she first worked with in 1993. She believes it works well, and is a strong proponent of the collective running of a company, telling the Financial Times recently “if you can get that co-head structure working really well, with trust, it is incredibly powerful. You have a sparring partner, somebody to share ideas with; if you have to make difficult decisions you have someone you can really talk to. A strong team is more powerful than any one powerful individual. My job is to get the best out of the team and the team’s job is to get the best out of me.”

She is enthusiastic about AGIs global team, believing it is essential to have teams on the ground that understand and engage locally with clients. AGI plan to integrate the businesses that they have acquired around the world, but maintaining a familiar feel for existing clients. She says the company is “not an activist investor, but an active investor,” and won’t attempt to overhaul any business they have stakes in. However, they will point out where these companies’ policies are ‘inconsistent’ with AGIs.

Living in London, she travells between the headquarters in Munch, the US and Asia. She says the part of her work she enjoys the most is interacting with people, as well as the competitiveness that breeds success, telling the company website, “the thing I most like is people, whether it’s clients, employees or other industry contacts. But also the challenge and the thrill of success. It’s great when you win.”

Corley believes there will have to be a shift in people’s perceptions of their pensions. Whereas pension funds were traditionally thought to be secure, she thinks that people must now get used to more individual responsibility as they realise their employer and the state are not capable of providing for them. She says pension holders are going to have to come to terms with the prospect of lower returns on their investments, ultimately meaning they will have to retire later and save more.

Corley however, has an alternative career to fall back on. Although she understandably stopped writing during the economic crisis, she says it’s not good when she isn’t working on a book. With four crime novels published, including Grave Doubts and Fatal Legacy, she is due to finish her fifth this year.