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Interview: Allianz boss Elizabeth Corley who also pens crime novels

The chief of German fund house Allianz Global Investors explains how she made it to the top and says that both men and women can be CEOs

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 August, 2013, 5:08am

Elizabeth Corley is not your typical chief executive, at least in her choice of hobby. Forget golf, the global chief executive of German fund house Allianz Global Investors has a passion for crime novels - she's written four of them.

The 56-year-old has managed to cram in time to pen the thrillers amid the constant international travel and demands of running one of the world's largest asset management companies.

Her published works - Requiem Mass (1998), Fatal Legacy(2000), Grave Doubts(2006) and Innocent Blood (2008) - will be joined by a fifth, now in the works.

Writers seem to have strong links to German insurance giant Allianz, the parent of the fund company. Michael Diekmann, group chief executive of Allianz, wrote and published travel books - covering the likes of hiking in Malaysia, canoeing in Canada and safaris in Africa - before joining the company.

We need a team with a balance of composition in terms of gender, age [and] minorities

Corley, born into a farming family in West Sussex, started her working career early, when she was 18. She took a junior position at insurer Sun Alliance, forgoing a university offer. That decision upset her parents because she was the first in the family to secure a university place.

Her family's regrets were short-lived. Before long, instead of making coffee for her bosses, she began a swift rise into the senior ranks.

Along the way, she undertook night classes to boost her qualifications. Corley worked at a number of financial firms in London over 20 years before joining Allianz Global Investors as its Europe chief executive in 2005. Her elevation to global CEO came last year.

In an interview with the South China Morning Post during a recent visit to Hong Kong, Corley talked about how she balances the demands of running an investment company while still indulging her passion for writing.

Why did you start writing detective novels? Would you like to become a full-time writer?

I was a full-time writer in 2005, between job changes. But I missed the industry, the office environment and, most of all, the people. That was why I joined Allianz Global Investors later that year. I write novels because I like writing. I picked up the genre of crime and thrillers because it takes good psychological analysis to develop the plot and story. Britain has many good detective writers like Agatha Christie and Lee Child. I like many of their works. I would like to see my novels become a movie in the future.


What is the key to climbing up the corporate ladder to become CEO?

I always work hard and never stop learning. I took classes at night time when I worked in the day time. I am also willing to take risks but at the same time have a mindset of making sure there are risk management measures in place to prevent the company from taking too high a risk. For one to be a CEO, one must establish team spirit. We do need a hero and star in the team but the hero must be willing to work with others in a team.


Do you think it is more difficult for a woman to be a chief executive than it is for men?

No. I believe both males and females can become CEOs. Females may have more pressure to take care of their family but Allianz has a good policy to support staff to achieve a balance between work and family lives. We need a team with a balance of composition in terms of gender, age, minorities, as well as the cultural background. This is because our customers are also from different language and cultural backgrounds. We need people who can speak the language of our customers. We also need people with the same background as our clients, to ensure good communications.


What sort of people are suited to work in the fund industry?

Those who are interested in financial matters and who care about what is happening in the markets. They should like people, as they need to communicate with customers all the time and to work with colleagues as part of a team. We need people who respect each other and who have passion for their jobs. In terms of skill sets, they can a variety of backgrounds - from investment to IT and marketing. This is somewhat like a football team in that different people with different skill sets can work in different positions.


How do you reward the best performers and how do you deal with poor performers?

We have a formal review of staff performance every year. For the good performers, we pay them a bonus. For the senior management, including myself, the company defers paying 50 per cent of their bonus by three years. It is invested in the company's fund products during the deferral period. This is to make sure management take a long-term view and do not chase short-term profits.

For poor performers, we would let them set a goal to improve. If there is no improvement after a certain period of time, we have to let them go.


Allianz is a Germany company. Do you hire people from Germany and send them around the world?

We run ourselves as an international fund house, so we hire people locally. In Hong Kong, we now have more than 240 staff. We have over 620 in the Asia-Pacific region, with operations in Hong kong, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Australia, as well as a joint venture fund house in mainland China. We will hire more as we believe in the future growth of the region.


With work and writing, do you still have time for your family?

I spend time with my husband and family, and on gardening, cooking and travelling, as well as going to the opera. I believe we can both work and take care of family at the same time, as long as you are good at time management. I like go to the theatre with my husband. My husband has retired as a banker, so he has more time now. We have a daughter and she is grown up. She will be a mother soon. I am excited about being a grandmother.


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