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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 22 August 2018

Publicity shy woman joins banking's most powerful club

Shemara Wikramanayake is the new head of Macquarie Group, joining a small group of women at the top of the industry

Macquarie Group's outgoing chief executive Nicholas Moore with the incoming head Shemara Wikramanayake. Photo: Reuters
Macquarie Group's outgoing chief executive Nicholas Moore with the incoming head Shemara Wikramanayake. Photo: Reuters

The little-known Shemara Wikramanayake has just been catapulted into the ranks of the most powerful women in the global financial industry.

The publicity-shy 56-year-old was last month named the next chief executive of Macquarie Group, the Australian investment bank that has grown into the world’s biggest manager of infrastructure assets, hoovering up everything from US toll roads and European airports to London’s Thames Water.

The three-decade company veteran will replace Nicholas Moore when he steps down on November 30 after leading the Sydney-based company through a 10-year unbroken run of profit, helping the shares surge more than 600 per cent since the depths of the global financial crisis.

Ms Wikramanayake, who turned the asset management unit into the group’s most profitable and fastest growing division, will be tasked with continuing that success in the face of increased competition from the likes of Blackstone Group and other cashed up private equity firms for infrastructure assets, rising interest rates and the threat of a global trade war.

“I have the utmost respect for her,” says David Sokulsky, who worked with Ms Wikramanayake on a US deal during a stint in Macquarie’s New York office. “She was very genuine, always happy to listen to everyone whether they were on the lowest rung or the highest rung,” says Mr Sokulsky, who is now chief executive of Concentrated Leaders Fund, a listed investment company which owns Macquarie shares.

“She expects a high degree of efficiency and deliverability. She’s not soft, but the way she goes about it is the way I believe people should go about leadership and should go about running businesses,” he says.

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While rising through Macquarie’s ranks to become Mr Moore’s heir-apparent, Ms Wikramanayake has kept a deliberately low profile, granting just two media interviews in recent years. On a media call last month, she gave little suggestion that is set to change, saying the future success of the company is “in the hands and heads of our team".

“I describe it as leading without leaders,” Ms Wikramanayake said, when asked to describe her management style.

“The hard work starts now,” she says in a later interview. “I’m going to put my head down and dive into it,” she adds, saying she plans to travel widely to offices around the world and spend more time with the businesses she has not worked in previously.

Mary Callahan Erdoes is the chief executive of asset management at JPMorgan Chase. Photo: Bloomberg
Mary Callahan Erdoes is the chief executive of asset management at JPMorgan Chase. Photo: Bloomberg

She joins the likes of Abigail Johnson, who became the chief executive of Fidelity Investments in 2014 and the chairman in November 2016. Fidelity is the world’s fourth-largest asset manager, with about $6 trillion (Dh22.04tn) in assets under administration. Another successful female banker is Mary Callahan Erdoes, the chief executive of JPMorgan Asset Management. She is one of the most senior women in global finance, having taken up the chief executive post in 2009, overseeing $1.7tn in assets under management, she first joined the bank as head of fixed income in 1996.

Macquarie has a market capitalisation of $30.7bn, ranking it between the embattled Deutsche Bank ($25.1bn) and Credit Suisse Group ($39.9 bn).

Ms Wikramanayake has worked for Macquarie around the world, including establishing its United States and Canada infrastructure funds. She was appointed head of the global asset management division in 2008 when Mr Moore took over as chief executive.

Under her leadership, Macquarie Asset Management has become the company’s fastest-growing and most successful division, managing A$495bn (Dh1.34bn) of assets, with more than 1,600 staff in 23 countries. It delivered net income of A$1.7bn in the fiscal year ended March 31, accounting for almost two-thirds of group profit.

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While her ascension has been well flagged - Morgan Stanley analysts described her as a “logical appointment”, there was a small pullback in the share price following confirmation of her promotion. Macquarie shares have gained 22 per cent this year, the best performance on the S&P/ASX Financials Index, and reached a record A$126.70 on June 28.

“Change brings uncertainty,” says Sean Fenton, director at Sydney-based Tribeca Investment Partners. In the absence of any upgrade to profit forecasts at an annual shareholder meeting last month, it was “not surprising” there had been a small pullback in the share price, he says.

Though media-averse, Ms Wikramanayake is better known among investors and analysts.

“We are very pleased to see Shemara’s appointment,” UBS Group analysts led by Jonathan Mott wrote in a note to clients. “We hold her in very high regard and believe she too has been fundamental in Macquarie’s success.”

Ms Wikramanayake’s Sri Lankan father was a doctor who worked in the UK before moving the family to Australia, according to an article in the Financial Times last year. She was educated at Ascham, an exclusive Sydney girls’ school, then studied commerce and law at the University of New South Wales. She worked as a corporate lawyer before joining Macquarie in 1987, the FT said.

According to a 2016 profile in the Australian Financial Review’s Boss magazine, she took a 12-month sabbatical from Macquarie in the early 2000s to consider whether to change course.

After setting up a charitable fund for children’s education, travelling and doing some art courses, she returned to Macquarie.

“Luckily for Macquarie, I discovered I had no other talents and so I’m back here,” she told the AFR. “What I found from that year off is I really love what I do.”

While Ms Wikramanayake said last month she had never experienced anything but a level playing field at Macquarie, she acknowledged the financial industry lacks female leaders and isn’t attracting enough women. “We need to provide more flexibility,” she said.

“We don’t have too many women as CEOs of our large institutional banks,” says Carol Schwartz, a member of the Reserve Bank of Australia policy-setting board and founder of the Women’s Leadership Institute of Australia.

“That is significant and I think it’s great for other women, not only at Macquarie Bank, to see that they can achieve the most senior roles, she says. “It’s good for women executives generally to see that there are role models such as Shemara who work hard and who achieve the roles that they should be achieving.”

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