Meet a woman CEO with 9 children

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 March, 2014, 10:44am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 March, 2014, 10:46am

While some women might delay or give up having children to focus on business, Newton Investment Management chief executive Helena Morrissey showed she could have both the career and nine children at the same time.

Morrissey, a British fund manager who now lives in London with her husband and kids, started her career as a bond fund manager in 1987 at Schroders.

Marriage and her first son came in 1992. The company refused to give her a promotion – not because of the quality of her work but because it feared she might not concentrate full-time on her work after she had a baby.

Morrissey opted to leave for another company that was more supportive of working mothers. She joined the investment firm owned by Stewart Newton, which backed her desire for a career and did not mind her role as a mother.

Morrissey proved the concerns of her first boss were wrong. She gave birth to six girls and three boys and climbed up the corporate ladder to become Newton’s chief executive at the age of 35, when US banking giant BNY Mellon bought the firm in 2001.

At home, Morrissey and her husband, Richard, share domestic duties – he does the cooking, and she is in charge of the laundry.

In the office, she leads more than 350 staff investing a portfolio of US$85.6 billion (HK$664.27 billion) in Britain and the United States.

Morrissey squeezes time in to urge companies to increase the number of their female executives and directors.

In 2010, she founded the 30 Percent Club to lobby for big companies such as HSBC, PwC and Goldman Sachs to aim for female directors to make up 30 per cent of their boards by the end of 2017.

Schroders, the employer she left behind, is a supporter, and the company culture has become more supportive of working mothers since she was there.

The club set up its Hong Kong branch last year and plans to expand to the US later this year.

During a visit to Hong Kong this week, Morrissey talked to the South China Morning Post about fund management, child care and gender diversity.

Q. Did you ever think you would have nine children and at the same time be a female CEO?

A. I always wanted to have many children, and my husband and I had planned to have five. But then more came after five, and we were happy to have a total of nine. So this was not completely planned.

I also did not aim to become a CEO but was always open to opportunities. When Mellon took over Newton in 2001, I was offered the chief investment officer role. At the time I had five children. Other senior executives had left Newton, and my colleagues said they would prefer someone else to be the CIO and for me to be the CEO. My husband supported me in taking this opportunity – and that’s how I became the CEO.

For other young women, the experience I wanted to share is not to be shy to speak out on what you want to achieve in your career. When opportunities arise, just try your best to do it.

Q. How do you manage your business work schedule while raising nine children?

A. You just need to accept that you cannot be perfect. I can just try my best on both parts. I would not be able to spend time to join in all the activities of my children, but I would be selective in attending them. My children are aged from five to 22, so they have different needs. Sometimes I have to watch rugby with one of my sons and then attend a music event, because my eldest daughter is a singer-songwriter. Then I have the younger ones, who have ballet performance.

For my work, it is all about time management. I just need to plan my schedules carefully to spend my time smartly. Technology also helps – I can be at home in the evenings while also being able to check e-mails or communicate with colleagues or others through the computer or by phone.

Q. Have you ever thought of quitting your job to be a full-time mother?

A. I did think briefly about it after having my first child – but in all honesty, I needed to work then, Although it was a difficult transition to being a working mother, I realised it was possible to combine both family and career.

The support of my husband and my boss are also important. I remembered once when I was pregnant, I heard one colleague say to my boss, Stewart: “Look, she is pregnant again.” Stewart replied: “But she returns to be a better fund manager every time.” This was very encouraging – if perhaps a bit too generous!

I do think having children gives you a different perspective and makes you have to prioritise and manage your work more around achieving goals than simply spending many hours in the office. Fund management is a great career for anyone wanting to be measured on their results rather than just input.

Q. How do you share your workload with your husband?

A. My husband was a financial journalist. He went freelance through his own choice when we had our fourth child, after we had a discussion about how we could make everything work and he was keen to try that.

Over the years, as we had more children, he stopped writing but now is an artist and also, of course, does a great deal of the child care and work at home.

We have a nanny who has helped us for 20 years who is very helpful, too. With a big family, our children need to share rooms and everything. This is good for them, as they learn the importance of sharing.

Q. You are the founder of the 30 Percent Club, aimed at promoting more women on boards of directors. Why do you think it is important to have more females on these boards?

A. Having gender diversity can help to bring in people with different mindsets. There are an increasing number of females who are customers these days, so having women on the board can help the companies to set strategies that can be tailormade to the needs of women. Britain now has 20 per cent of directors who are female, up from only 12 per cent when the club was set up in 2010. Gender diversity is now seen as a mainstream business issue in the UK. It’s moved rapidly over the past three years to being part of talent management, not a special-interest issue. It would be great to help effect that change elsewhere.

In my own company, we take diversity as a very important aspect of building a strong investment team. Around 30 per cent of portfolio managers, analysts and other managers are women.

Q. Do you support a quota system like in Norway, where the law requires at least 40 per cent of directors of listed companies to be women?

A. I oppose a quota, as I believe we should encourage companies to voluntarily achieve a target of a percentage of women on their board. In Norway, although 40 per cent of directors are female due to the quota system, only 2 per cent of chief executives of listed companies are female. This is even lower than Britain at 4 per cent.

The quota also has a side effect, that some senior female executives quit their jobs to act as directors for other companies. This shows the quota did not really change the fact that females found it very hard to climb to the top of the executive world.

Q. What do you do to relax? Do you have any hobbies?

A. I enjoy doing pilates or yoga, ideally with my eldest daughter. It’s nice to do something like that together, as well as good exercise.