Taking time for children a career high for Principal executive

Working mothers are increasingly being accommodated in the finance sector in Asia, with Principal’s Andrea Muller leading by example

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 February, 2014, 11:39am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 February, 2014, 1:30am

While many women choose to stop working when their children are young, investment professional Andrea Muller felt her two children needed to see more of her in their teenage years.

Muller, now Asia chief executive of US investment firm Principal Global Investors, took a break from the corporate world in mid-2008 – before the onset of the global financial crisis – to establish stronger bonds with her high school age daughter and son and help guide them through an important period.

When the elder of the two, daughter Natalie, gained acceptance into Georgetown University in Washington, Muller decided to return to work. In 2010 the American  took up the top Asia post at Principal.

Companies with good diversity policies reflect good corporate governance practices

Muller, 54, says she has no regrets about the decision to take time out for her children and is a keen advocate of workplace policies to support working mothers.

While Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said he encourages more women to return to the workforce after childbirth, not all Hong Kong companies have supportive policies.

Muller says Principal’s progressive policies for mothers were an important factor for her in  deciding to take the control  of its Asia operation in Singapore. 

She says the company also has a strong diversity policy that helps minorities.

Muller took an indirect route into the fund industry, having studied law at Georgetown.  After graduating  in the 1980s, she joined a law firm and was sent to its Paris office, where she stayed for 10 years and became a European partner. She met her husband, Rudolph, at law school.

In 1996, she moved to UBS Investment Banking in Paris as a managing director, matching her interest in securities offerings and capital markets. She was relocated to Singapore in 1999 and eventually became head of corporate finance/investment banking for UBS in the city state.

Wanting to try her hand at a regional management role, she joined Fitch Ratings in 2004 as head of its Asia-Pacific region. She set up several new Asian offices and joint ventures for the credit rating agency before deciding on the pause in her corporate career for family duties in 2008.

In an interview with the South China Morning Post at Principal’s Hong Kong office, Muller shared  her experience of how a female executive can climb the corporate ladder and how women can gain from working  at companies  that have policies to help working mothers develop their careers.

Many working  mothers  stop working when their children are small, so why did you decide to do so when they were teenagers instead?

I never thought about stopping work permanently. However, I thought I should take a short break to be more focused on my children. My daughter was 16, preparing for college entry exams and looking at a variety of universities in the US. All of this was stressful and difficult to achieve from Asia.

My son Nicholas, who was 13 then, was just entering high school. My career required a lot of travel, and I felt it was more important to be present in their lives as and when they needed me, as many challenges arise in the teenage years.

Now my children both live in the US. My daughter Natalie studies at Georgetown in Washington  and my son Nicholas attends the University of San Francisco, while my husband and I live in Singapore. The decision to take time out came at an important time for my entire family.

What would be the major problem for working mothers?

Travel would be the major problem for me, as my husband also travels extensively for his career. Luckily, my career did not involve too frequent travel when my children were small and I worked for UBS.

I am lucky that my company and my managers, many of whom have also acted as mentors, helped me to develop my career by being accommodating. I would often try to get home early enough to have dinner with my family and check homework and then finish my work at home.

I also found Asia is a better place for a working mother, as domestic helpers are prevalent.  We have had the same helper since 2000. She has contributed a lot to my ability to spend quality time with my family.

Most importantly, I have a great husband who has significantly supported me throughout my career. We often needed to co-ordinate our travel schedules to make sure at least one of us could be at home with the children while the other needed to travel.

He was also a member of the school board at the children’s school and was a volunteer coach for many of my children’s sports. He was a very involved parent.

Do you have a diversity policy at your company?

Yes, we do. When I considered whether to join Principal, I also considered whether it had a good policy for women at work. In our Hong Kong office, 60 per cent of our staff are female and 40 per cent are male. Across Asia, our female staff represent 49 per cent of the total.

In terms of senior roles, four out of 11 directors on Principal Financial Group’s board are female.

We make sure our human resources department considers a wide pool of candidates to hire the best investment professionals but also keeps diversity in mind.
We also have flexible policies to help working mothers get back to work, such as allowing them to work on a part-time basis or sometimes work from home, so as to allow them to take care of their young children or families.

Do your fund managers take into account board diversity as an element when deciding to invest in a company? 

Our fund managers would not necessarily invest in a company based on the number of women board members. However, companies with good diversity policies reflect good corporate governance practices. Among other factors, our fund managers would like to invest in those companies with good corporate governance practices.

What are the keys to success in managing a fund company?

Finding the right talent to produce consistent, good performance across our fund range and ensuring that your clients view you as a trusted adviser.
We need to ensure sales and client services personnel know their clients’ risk appetite well and provide appropriate products and strategies suitable for their investment needs.

You also need a strong culture in the office, with a good team spirit. I would encourage staff to arrange activities to do together. We also have regular lunches. We encourage our staff to do charity and community services together.

As a global firm, do you recruit people locally or do you like to second staff from the US?

We do it both ways. For some senior roles, we would send in some senior professionals from the US for key investment positions in our joint ventures or offices in Asia. The senior professionals understand the corporate culture of Principal and are concerned about global best practices. We also hire senior talent locally and learn from the expertise of local talent. This is a good combination.

What do you do to relax?

I run 4-5km  every morning in the botanical garden in Singapore, which I think is really relaxing. Running helps me to keep fit but also enables me to organise and prioritise my tasks for the day. I also enjoy playing golf with my husband.

I am also a book lover, but the heavy travel schedule recently has prevented me from making it to my book club meetings.

Overall, I have been blessed with a fabulous husband, great children and very supportive employers.