|The Bahamas Investor Magazine
January 19, 2012
January 19, 2012
Rising from humble beginnings in Nassau to having a successful career in financial services that spans nearly three decades, Antoinette Russell, trust centre head and local managing director at Credit Suisse Trust Ltd, has overcome a series of challenges to get to where she is today. “I came from a single-parent family and graduated from high school at the age of 15. For persons like me, college wasn’t necessarily an option,” she explains. “I realized at quite a young age that if I was going to achieve greater things, I had to do it for myself.”
That process began some 30 years ago when Russell got a job as a secretary with SFE Bank and Trust, a small French bank that had a presence in the offshore jurisdiction at that time. Admittedly, says Russell, the choice of industry was entirely by chance. “I actually thought I would do something in the tourism industry, but once I became exposed to the exciting world of financial services, it just felt very right for me. I then had to decide what sector of the industry suited me best. I found the idea of assisting persons to plan for their future and organize their personal affairs very exciting. Therefore, trust services seemed a natural fit.”
The offshore financial environment in the early 1980s was fairly elitist, however, and it was a tough industry to excel in, particularly for a Bahamian woman without formal training. Russell quickly set about getting the requisite qualifications, starting her post-secondary education at The College of The Bahamas then at the College of St Benedict, which offered a programme in The Bahamas. Russell then pursued a master of business administration (MBA) and later obtained the trust and estate planning (TEP) and Bahamas Association of Compliance Officers (BACO) designations.
“Being qualified in the financial services industry is somewhat challenging, as one constantly has to stay on top of the changing environment,” says Russell. “But, as Muhammad Ali said: ‘I never did like the training, but I said suffer now, and live the rest of your life as a champion.’”
Russell’s hard work eventually paid off when her talents became noticed by key players in the sector. Her career took an upward spiral when she began working at several top international companies, including renowned institutions such as Chase Manhattan Trust, Mossack Fonseca and culminating with her engagement at Credit Suisse in 2000 as the head of trust services. In 2009, Russell was appointed as trust centre head for Credit Suisse, being the first woman and first Bahamian to hold the position in The Bahamas.
Such a career trajectory is what Russell has been working hard towards facilitating for others through participation in the Credit Suisse Group Mentoring Program and the work she does with the Bahamas Institute of Financial Services’ G12 Program, which helps prepare students in their final year of high school for a career in the industry.
“Watching persons develop and grow into their roles and rise to the top is the most gratifying part of my job,” she says. “One of the most important attributes to get to the top is having the right attitude.” Consequently, there are certain traits that she looks for in her employees when building and nurturing a team. “I value loyalty, commitment, passion and individuals who are continuously striving for excellence. All other gaps can be closed through training, personal development and coaching. The very nature of our business dictates that we stay on the cutting edge, so I look for passionate individuals who are professional, open minded, adaptable and flexible.”
These characteristics are essential to maintaining high levels of service in what can be an extremely challenging area of wealth management. Russell oversees the day-to-day operation of the Bahamas Trust Division, managing a dedicated client team that caters to the specific needs of a diverse client network. “The job can be very demanding and the team is constantly under a lot of pressure on a daily basis. Our clients expect a very high level of service.”
Due to the diversity of the client base and the very nature of trust services, it brings into play a varied set of cultural and linguistic factors, as well as straightforward logistics. “People think that the trust side of the industry is all about wealth and glamour, but the truth is that it is very hard work and we have to be consistent in our service delivery, as it is truly a competitive environment and our clients have choices.
“The key to offering the best service is to be both proactive and reactive. You have to put yourself in the client’s shoes and manage their expectations. Additionally, the needs of each client must be met efficiently and productively, responses must be timely and clients must be kept apprised constantly. The goal has to be to make every client feel special.”
The challenge, particularly in the present economic environment, is finding solutions to the client’s needs and deal with each challenge or obstacle as quickly as it arises. Russell finds that an inclusive approach to management yields good results from the team and so far is a strategy that has worked very well.
“My management style is democratic and participative and I truly believe in transparency. An effective team leader must be open and honest and recognize that even though an individual may hold a position of leadership, it can not be expected that they have all the solutions to every problem. Therefore, it is very important to obtain input and feedback from all team members. Only then can the varied knowledge and skill sets of each team member be combined to facilitate a process of collective decisions.”
This round-table discussion style of management leads to a much more complete view of the issues at hand, according to Russell, and is much more likely to produce the right solution, or put the process on the right path, than a despotic system. “Everyone has different strengths and we can inspire and motivate each other to find the best solutions.”
Russell believes that the value of synergic relations is that they bring out the best in people and offer fresh opportunities. This philosophy extends beyond her team at Credit Suisse to the wider professional and business community. “I believe in bringing people together. It’s all about synergies and that has always been my way to connect with other people.”
In the “close-knit” Bahamian financial services sector, this has proven to be an advantageous approach. Throughout her career, Russell has nurtured and maintained connections and relationships that have brought mutual benefit. “If someone has a difficulty, dilemma or predicament either professionally or personally and seeks my advice or assistance, I try to provide support and guidance. However, if I am not in a position to assist, I would utilize my professional or social network to make the connection or introduction. Likewise, I will always seek assistance as needed, as I recognize that I too do not have all the answers and sometimes need to connect with others.”
The financial services sector in The Bahamas is going through a period of significant change, as it is in most countries. From being a rather “defensive” jurisdiction at the turn of the century, The Bahamas has embraced the ever increasing calls from western developed economies for greater transparency and complete compliance with international standards. Russell believes this to be a positive change, although one that will have a long lasting impact on the industry. “The Bahamas is now a choice jurisdiction due to its active pursuit of Tax Information Exchange Agreements (TIEAs) over the last few years, which have made this jurisdiction far more attractive than some of our competitors in the region.
“We are maturing, and by taking the decision to be flexible, adapt our legislation and to sign on to international agreements, we are better poised to be a competitive jurisdiction in the industry. It is my belief that we were previously viewed as an immature market and unwilling to bend or conform, but that perception has changed significantly.”
Russell goes on to suggest that it is crucial that there is global awareness of the significant changes made in the financial services sector in this jurisdiction. “When people first think of The Bahamas, they think of an island nation. However, once they visit for business or personal reasons, it is immediately noticeable that we are far more sophisticated than first thought. We accept that we are still growing and developing, but we are constantly proving ourselves and have made noteworthy strides in recent years.”
The trust centre head goes on to say that another significant change to the financial services sector in The Bahamas is the high level of qualified professionals in the industry, as compared with 10 to 15 years ago. “Persons in the industry today have taken their careers more seriously and have qualified themselves to rival those of professionals in centres such as London, New York, Switzerland, Hong Kong and Singapore, so that the services provided in this jurisdiction are of a standard that can compete with that of any mature jurisdiction. After all, The Bahamas has been in the financial services business since the 1930s and we are accustomed to dealing with high-net-worth individuals (HNWIs) in a competent, yet non-intrusive, way.”
Russell is optimistic about what The Bahamas as a country has to offer going forward, but is aware that major changes have to be embraced across the board in the name of economic sustainability. “With developments such as the Baha Mar resort project on Cable Beach, as well as other large investment projects, we will be able to target a much larger international market in fields such as tourism, as well as generating employment opportunities locally. These are positive moves, but our economic base is still too narrow. It will be the job of the government to widen that base and identify ways to expand and diversify different sectors, perhaps the maritime industry for example, to generate more growth, which I think is currently being considered.”
A widow, with two sons aged 18 and nine, Russell says that finding that all elusive work-life balance is the hardest part of her job. Since the sudden passing of her husband almost five years ago, Russell must now be everything to her sons which she says, makes it challenging to find time simply to relax.
In her professional life, although retirement is still some time away, Russell is looking to the next generation of upcoming trust managers and nurturing future talent to take over her role. “I believe in succession planning and would like to leave a strong brand behind, as this will have a two-fold effect: strengthening the individual competencies of the team and the Credit Suisse brand. I want to continue mentoring and coaching and, as a Bahamian in this role, I would like to believe that the same opportunity will be afforded to another Bahamian at the end of my career.”
A career in the financial services industry is hard work, but can be very rewarding, says Russell, and she has a few choice pieces of advice for anyone hoping to emulate her success: “Never be afraid to pursue your dreams; never let anyone tell you what you can and cannot achieve; and, above all, you have to believe in yourself to succeed.”