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Women on the move

Women on the move

Bridging the gap in the financial industry

The Bahamas Investor Magazine
January 4, 2008
January 4, 2008
Shonalee King Johnson

For working women in The Bahamas, the glass ceiling is finally showing cracks. In 2000, women represented more than 40 per cent of the 600 lawyers in The Bahamas. And in 2005, a United Nations survey identified 33 per cent of the managers and administrators in The Bahamas as women.

While gender disparities higher up the corporate ladder are more prevalent, senior women in business and finance are steadily chipping away at perceived limitations. Wendy Craigg’s 2005 appointment as governor of The Central Bank of The Bahamas, for instance, signalled a new era for women in the country’s financial services industry.

Similar tales of accomplishment by women in the workforce are no longer uncommon. What follows are the stories of four prominent Bahamian women—Patricia Hermanns, Margaret A Butler, Maria Ferere and Suzanne Black—how they faced and met the challenges of the business world head on. They rose to the top of their fields, and are now inspiring others to do the same.

Patricia Hermanns
President & CEO
Family Guardian

The top-floor corner office is the ultimate sign of success for most working professionals. And while the views from Patricia Hermanns’ office at Family Guardian insurance company are enviable, high sales figures are a more tangible mark of achievement. Under the direction of the company’s first female president and CEO, FamGuard reported its strongest mid-year showing ever in the first half of 2007, recording an increase in net income to $4.95 million.

“One of the most rewarding things is being able to see the growth of our company and the increased profitability at Family Guardian,” says Hermanns, who started her career in banking. “It reflects that the strategies and the decisions that were made were properly done.”

Starting out, Hermanns worked as a credit officer at the Royal Bank of Canada International Ltd in the 1980s. “At the time in The Bahamas, banking was really the industry with the widest scope in the financial services arena,” she says. Women were represented fairly well, she notes. “It wasn’t something where I was the only woman in the room. In the higher echelons it was more male, but in the entry- to mid-level it was a cross section. I think that’s changing.”

From banking to insurance
Moving from banking to insurance “was challenging because even though [insurance] is in the financial services industry, it is a very different product,” Hermanns observes. “Insurance is not really a straightforward product like a loan at a bank would be. It involves risk assessment, and so for me, that was very interesting and very exciting.”

The transition into insurance paid off. After leaving banking, Hermanns became executive director of investments at Imperial Life Assurance and later president of Global Life Assurance Bahamas Ltd. In 2003, she moved to head Family Guardian, one of the oldest Bahamian-owned insurance companies.

Under Hermanns’ direction, FamGuard is now expanding to include pensions and investment fund management, offering a wide range of products to its clients. “One of the challenges, one of the things that we are attempting to do now within Family Guardian,” says Hermanns, “is to broaden the base outside of the specific life insurance product to take it into a broader financial service product.” At press time, the board of Family Guardian was still awaiting final regulatory approvals for the new line of products.

Lessons learned
In her transition into the insurance industry, Hermanns observed that there was an even smaller pool of women at the top, although that now appears to be changing. “Looking around at the various banks, there are lots of women in banking. In the insurance business, at the management level, there are probably slightly less but [they are] growing in numbers.”

For those in management and those looking to break into management, the insurance executive advises against trying to have it all. “Pressures come in different waves. If you are always attempting to achieve balance, the result of it is going to be that something is left undone.” Working women should instead focus on attracting talent and building team loyalty, she says. “When you are responsible for a company, you have to be able to work with people and through people. Being able to connect with people [is important] for the purpose of implementing the vision and the strategies for the company.”

Hermanns’ collaborative leadership style begins with “attracting talented people and including these people in the completion of what needs to be done.” Effective interpersonal skills are also key. “Being able to communicate clearly so that people understand what is expected to be done—this is very critical.”

With another generation of women entering the workplace and even more moving up the ranks to middle and upper management, networking outside of an organization is becoming a key ingredient for successful leadership. She encourages women to build business relationships outside of the company itself in order to facilitate progress. Keeping staff morale high in an aggressive sales market is also a primary goal, she says, “It’s important to understand some of the pressures that [employees] are facing. This allows us to find solutions.”

The big picture
Long term, Hermanns contends that diversifying and growing Bahamian insurance product offerings could help broaden the domestic financial services industry, as evident in Bermuda, the Cayman Islands and other competing jurisdictions. “There is a tremendous amount of opportunity in insurance, particularly in external insurance. That would be an exciting avenue for the country to grow in. Ultimately, I think all companies will be operating on the basis of the potential to expand outside of The Bahamas.”

And while Hermanns feels the country’s competitive edge is not as sharp as it used to be, she is optimistic about its financial outlook. “There is a need for increased creativity, both in terms of product and in terms of how we position ourselves in the financial services arena generally,” she says. “The previous model that we had going way back that dealt with taxation issues has shifted so much. There is a need for us to look more aggressively at how we can reposition ourselves.”

Hermanns encourages women entering the field to follow the lead of other nations and get involved in developments in the insurance industry. “We [in The Bahamas] are going through the same metamorphosis as other countries, where more women are entering the work field, they are becoming more qualified, more competent, developing experience and they are moving through the ranks.”

Margaret A Butler
Country officer

Margaret Butler would be the first to admit how oblivious she was to the gender stigmas prevalent in the business world 30 years ago. “I started out with a team of recent college graduates. Some of us were men and some of us were women and it didn’t make a difference,” says Butler. “In my world, there was no reason why I should think that I couldn’t do something because I was a woman.” That naivety worked in her favour. Today, the head of Citigroup’s Bahamas and Cayman Island operations realizes that “not everybody had that good fortune.”

Raised in a multicultural home—her father was a Bahamian businessman and her mother hailed from Spain—Butler’s early interest in international studies and culture led her to a degree in Economics and International Studies. Her father’s sudden death left Butler’s mother to raise six children on her own. “I grew up in a home where basically the person who did everything and took care of everything was a woman,” she recalls.

Straight out of college, she worked as a credit analyst with SFE Banking Corporation in Nassau. Her international business experience expanded as assistant director at Banque de la Societe Financiere Européenne’s Paris office. Spanish and English came naturally as a result of her bilingual upbringing, and her stint in Paris served to strengthen her French. “People underestimate the utility of speaking more than one language in business,” says Butler. “I was fortunate.”

Career woman
In 1994, she joined Citigroup, working first as legal vehicle manager heading the Latin American portfolios and later as legal vehicle controller for offshore processing. In just 11 years, Butler assumed the top leadership position at Citigroup, and she now heads a team of more than 200 employees.

Although gender bias was never an issue in her own career, Butler is aware of the challenges women in business face, as well as the missed opportunities. She observes that even though Bahamian women are raised in a culture where it’s acceptable for them to take leadership roles, they tend to be more cautious and less assertive in professional situations. “Culturally, that’s not unique to The Bahamas. Comparing The Bahamas to many countries, we’re probably far ahead. That doesn’t mean that we are where we need to be,” she says.

Comfortable in her role as leader, Butler’s management style continues to evolve. “[While] my leadership style is inclusive, I tend to be assertive and I know sometimes that can appear to be intimidating,” she admits. “What I do expect is that people are able to support what their opinions are. So I encourage people to speak out, but I want them to speak with the ability to support what it is that they are proposing.”

Professional development
To motivate staff, Butler relies on Citigroup’s global core value mandates. “If we talk about goals, Citi as a whole has shared responsibilities, first of all to our customers, and then to the franchise, and finally to each other. I think if you deal with those, that handles motivation… . Obviously financial motivation is part of it, but ultimately it’s creating challenges and opportunities for people to develop. If [Citigroup] is going to be successful, staff as a whole has to be valued, developed and nurtured.” So far, her ability to balance challenging employees with helping them develop their skills has helped push Citigroup forward. She promotes Citigroup’s extensive online training system, through which staff members can fast-track their career development on their own time. “The training is there. You’re not restricted.”

The Bahamas’ trained workforce has allowed the country to hold on to its competitive edge relative to other international financial centres, she says. “We’ve got a pool of competent people who match any centre anywhere in the world. To the credit of the government, we’ve come a long way in enhancing our regulations. We cannot maintain a competitive edge if there is no confidence in the regulatory structure of the jurisdiction.”

Looking ahead
In 2007, Butler helped launch the bank’s local Latin American Women’s Council. High on her agenda for 2008 is the creation of mentoring programmes for women in business, with the aim of levelling the playing field for a new generation of business leaders. “It’s important for the senior women of the group who have succeeded to mentor the new generation of women so they can take advantage of opportunities and learn from the difficulties that we’ve had in the past,” she says. “If we look at the population of women in Citibank and in The Bahamas, [they] are on par with men in terms of senior positions, so there is parity. However, in terms of developing leadership skills that help you in your career beyond where you are now, there’s always an opportunity to enhance and continue.”

Maria Ferere
President & director
FT Consultants

When auditing scandals hit American energy giant Enron Corp, Tyco and telecommunications company WorldCom in the early 2000s, the global accounting profession was hit hard. “It put a lot of pressure on the accounting professionals to consider the types of services they provide and whether they [accountants] were remaining independent in their role as auditors,” says Maria Ferere, president and director at FT Consultants and former partner at Ernst & Young Bahamas.

Prior to the shake-up, Ernst & Young provided clients with a full gamut of business advisory services in addition to traditional auditing. Ferere joined the firm in 1979 and spent the first 10 to 15 years working as an auditor. In 1992, she made partner, becoming the first Bahamian female to hold the title at a local accounting firm.

Until their recent corporate restructuring, Ernst & Young, like many firms, incorporated additional business services into their product line. Ferere headed this new corporate finance and insolvency division.

After restructuring, the non-auditing services “posed some problems to the profession as a whole due to conflicts.” The firm determined that, in order to remain impartial, Ernst & Young would focus exclusively on auditing services.

A new beginning
“I enjoy the non-auditing side of [accounting] and that’s a lot of the business that we now do at FT Consultants,” says Ferere. With the full support of her colleagues, Ferere branched out on her own to continue providing these services to Ernst & Young clients. “I had a tremendous career with Ernst & Young. I thought I would end my career [there] but things change and you have to sort of react to things as they occur.”

Ferere teamed up with Alison Treco, a recently retired partner from KPMG’s Nassau office, who “also had an interest in the non-audit services and so we decided to give it a go.” In December 2005, after 26 years, Ferere left her first “real” job out of college. A month later, FT Consultants began operations just one floor down from Ernst & Young at One Montague Place.

Outside of the big firm environment, Ferere and Treco set their own rules. “Being on our own gives us the flexibility to be creative,” Ferere explains. “We’ve entered a niche market by providing the non-audit services only, different from most accounting firms that tend to try to provide all services.”

FT Consultants services 40 to 50 regular clients, including international banks and mutual fund companies, as well as local real estate and manufacturing businesses. They focus primarily on insolvency, corporate finance and restructuring, business evaluations and due diligence services. The company also provides expert witness testimony.

“Having come out on my own, I can choose the kinds of clients that I want to service,” says Ferere. “It’s not always rewarding being an auditor and there are a hell of a lot of risks attached to it. Being involved in the non-audit services, I think the risks are lower and the rewards are higher.”

Steady growth
Developing innovative ways to meet client needs and maintaining current relationships has helped FT grow at a steady pace in its first two years. “This type of business is one that is based on relationships and so we are continuing to develop and look for new [ones].”

A past president of the Zonta Club of Nassau, Ferere is also focused on building mentoring networks with young women entering the corporate world. “Back when I entered the profession, there were very few women—certainly fewer than you see now.” Today, women are entering the accounting field in The Bahamas in record numbers. Even with this, Ferere notes, “the number of women rising to the top … hasn’t quite levelled out.”

Dual roles
Ferere, a wife and mother of two, knows that family choices sometimes impact professional growth. “In The Bahamas, traditionally, women have always worked, so it’s not unusual. My mother was an accountant of sorts. She worked at Deltec Bank. My parents were by no means wealthy, but I don’t remember ever needing anything.”

Raised Catholic in Nassau’s Oakes Field area, Ferere saw her parents, Joyce and Winston “Tappy” Davis, working together to balance their family life. “Work-family balance is a constant challenge. I had my children later on in life so I guess that’s one way. I did spend a lot of time in the earlier years doing what I thought was what I needed to do to advance my career. The order in which I did it worked well for me.”

She encourages women entering the accounting profession to focus on gaining skills and experience. “There are always opportunities to make money, but the most important thing is to get as much experience as you possibly can.”

Ferere and Treco head a team of eight. The firm also works with independent consultant Paul Clarke, an insolvency specialist and Ferere’s former mentor at Ernst & Young. “I think we put together the best team. I brought a few people with me from Ernst & Young. They have been the backbone of this organization. I’m very indebted to them.”

Entrepreneurial spirit
Being adaptable and tapped into trends led to FT Consultants. The former high-powered accountant turned successful entrepreneur encourages others in the financial services industry to look at the opportunities that emerge in times of readjustment and change. “It’s a constant process of learning. Like any minority, you’ve got to be the best in what you do. You have to grab every single opportunity to better yourself.”

Suzanne Black
Managing director
Black & Associates Lt
Suzanne Black grew up surrounded by her two favourites—candy bars and pretty clothes. Luckily for her, there was an endless supply of both. Her parents, John Stuart and Lois Black, operated Black’s Candy Kitchen as well as Distinctive Shops clothing and fabric store, both located on Bay Street in downtown Nassau.

“When I was a little girl I used to have to climb on the box to serve over the counter,” says Black, managing director of the umbrella financial services and real estate development firm Black & Associates Limited. At Black’s Candy Kitchen, deals were sealed with a handshake and “your word was your bond. I’m old-fashioned and I still believe that.” Working in the family business “gave me a spirit of tenacity and I thank God for that.”

At the height of her corporate career, Black headed the Nassau branch of Allied Bank International, working with the New York and London offices to improve shareholder relationships. She was the first Bahamian, male or female, to head an offshore bank.

In 1986, she formed Black & Associates, providing international business and financial consulting services. The company’s human resources division designs workshops for major banks and manufacturing plants in The Bahamas. “With bank downsizing and rehiring, they brought me in to work with their staff to position [employees] for the transition,” she recalls.

Real estate maven
A licensed broker, Black launched First Bahamas Realty, a boutique-style real estate company specializing in commercial properties. “I work with one or two major corporations at a time.” Her approach to the real estate game is “a strategy thing. You are either in a big organization and you have everything or you are going to be a boutique or a niche operator. Now, of course, that involves prayer and faith.”

Her leaps into the uncertainties of the business world are guided by a faith twice tested by cancer. “I think faith helps. The greatest challenge to us all is how to deal with fear. We are always told what is going to go wrong. There’s always going to be something. The question is how do we overcome these challenges to create a better world.”

Twenty years ago, she left her leading post in offshore banking to launch a wealth management firm. Back then, leaving the security and status of a top position was a radical move, especially for a woman. Today, more than half of business start-ups worldwide are headed by corporate women looking to reinvent their careers.

At the time, moving from a key position in financial services was a gamble this third-generation entrepreneur was willing to take. “I tend to back into things. I don’t consider myself naturally brave, I just say you do what you have to do and you keep going. The whole key is to keep going, not to get frozen.”

Motivating others
A popular motivational speaker, Black addressed the 2001 Global Summit of Women in Berlin, Germany, attended by more than 1,000 delegates from 90 countries. Her presentation entitled “Managing a long-term business career” drew hundreds of interested business owners. “For some reason this was a topic of great interest. I think many women have been in business for a while and they have concerns: How do I stay productive? How do I keep up with the competition?”

According to Black, staying competitive while maintaining obligations outside the workplace is a universal concern. Globally, women are forced to make choices when balancing work and family life. “I happen to live with two dogs; many women have a husband and children,” she notes, smiling at the comparison. “I think for them, perhaps the challenges are even greater in so far as how they manage their time and how they set priorities… . I think it’s a question of: how do I use my time to provide the fairest and best results to the various important people and entities in my life?”

On the whole, she sees tremendous opportunities for women in business in The Bahamas. “In The Bahamas we are blessed in our economy, our infrastructure and in our government format,” she says. However, to grow the national economy, Bahamians must welcome new ideas and expertise. “We are going to have to be open to foreign expertise if we are going to grow in particular areas. That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t ensure that Bahamians get the best training. We have to provide avenues for people to educate themselves,” she advocates.

“There may be more men, but in the final analysis, it’s one-to-one. I think the glass ceiling, to a great extent, is usually in our head.” As testament to this, in 1998, the CEO received a British Empire Medal recognizing her contributions to national development through financial services.

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