Elizabeth Corley has plenty of ways to gauge the depths of the financial crisis. But one measure is perhaps unique for a head of an asset management company: the number of pages penned for her next novel. The chief executive of Allianz Global Investors is also a published author but during the crisis she stopped writing.
“If markets are difficult, if clients are losing a lot of money, emotionally you are not really in a good place to write,” she says. “You are using every single ounce of creativity you have in the business.”
So it may be good news for investors as well as readers that the creator of Detective Chief Inspector Andrew Fenwick says her fifth novel is now 80 per cent done. When complete, it will join the likes of Fatal Legacy and Innocent Blood.
Asked if it is a sign the crisis is over, Ms Corley laughs and suggests she has got a little more used to the “new normal” of perpetual market gyrations. “My writing has come back even though the economy is still going through ups and downs,” she says.
That Ms Corley has time for anything beyond the day job is testament to impressive energy. As chief executive of AGI, owned by German insurer Allianz, she presides over a business in 19 countries that has €300bn of assets under management. It is one of the world’s largest managers of the bonds and shares upon which millions of people’s savings and retirement income depend.
For many savers, of course, the past three years have been as taut as one of Ms Corley’s thrillers. She says asset managers have to restore and regain trust and at the same time confront long-term demographic challenges, creating ways for people to save securely at the right price.
“I think there was an assumption 20 years ago that you didn’t have to worry – that between the state and your employer, your future was sorted. That is the big shift in mindset,” she says, in a small meeting room in AGI’s Munich headquarters. “Individuals have to take responsibility too, in an environment that is much more uncertain. There are no sure-fire bets.”
Ms Corley started work 36 years ago straight out of school, aged 18, in the insurance industry in her native Britain. After spells at Mercury Asset Management and Merrill Lynch, she came to Allianz in 2005 to head AGI in Europe.
Having been handed the role of global chief executive this year, and already a fixture in a number of industry think-tanks, she is arguably one of the most powerful women in the global financial industry. With Viviane Reding, a European commissioner, having recently revealed a plan for quotas to get more women on to corporate boards, it is only natural that our conversation turns to boardroom diversity.
Ms Corley rejects quotas for female executives – “probably useful as a last resort threat but as a means to the end they are unhelpful” – but says companies do need to accelerate accommodation of women and other minorities.
In a matter-of-fact way she recalls the “massive discrimination” early in her career, recounting a lunch with her then regional manager. “They thought a good place to take me out would be the Playboy Club,” she recalls. “You just ignore it. Now was that right? Should I have stood up more for women’s rights at that time?
“I just thought it was rather silly, bordering on amusing. It was innocent stupidity, just a poor guy who didn’t realise that this might not be the appropriate thing to do – because that was where he took all his business contacts.” The man in question, she says, remains a friend.
Now she says she is more sensitive to the need for rebalancing. “I was very lucky, I had a unique set of circumstances that gave me opportunities. That didn’t fall out that way for many, many other women,” she says.
As one of the world’s largest investors, AGI potentially has an influential part to play in corporate governance at companies where it is a shareholder. Ms Corley decisively says the group is active but not activist.
“We believe companies that have sustainable policies produce more sustainable returns for our clients and that there is a link between the quality of the management, the culture of a company and sustainable returns,” she says. “We will have private conversations with companies where we feel policies are inconsistent with what we would expect.”
Part of her task at AGI is to strengthen the integration of businesses acquired by Allianz as separate, often boutique, asset management operations, stripping out complexity while preserving “business as usual” for clients.
When talking about her management style, Ms Corley insists she is a co-head of AGI along with Andreas Utermann, chief investment officer. The two first worked together in 1993 and Ms Corley says there is genuine collective decision making.
“If you can get that co-head structure working really well, with trust, it is incredibly powerful. You have a sparring partner, somebody to share ideas with; if you have to make difficult decisions you have someone you can really talk to,” she says.
“A strong team is more powerful than any one powerful individual. My job is to get the best out of the team and the team’s job is to get the best out of me.”
So how should her team do that? By being honest, she says. “There is a perfect zone, which is hard to get to, which is constructive challenge. If you don’t get the constructiveness it becomes destructive and if you don’t get the challenge it becomes apathetic.”
Ms Corley lives in London and keeps an apartment in Munich but the new job will take her more to the US and Asia – travel time she uses for catching up with documents and sleep. “I would hate planes with phones,” she says.
She possesses two iPads – one for work and one for entertainment. She remarks how impressed she was with the iPad art created by David Hockney, having queued late on a Saturday evening to visit the artist’s current exhibition at the Royal Academy in London.
One thing she does not do during a flight is write fiction. To the inevitable question of how she finds time for her creative sideline, she has a well-rehearsed answer – she doesn’t play golf – and an explanation that writing is more of a compulsion than a hobby. “If I don’t have a book on the go, or something in my mind, it is not good,” she says.
Her writing, she says, makes her “modest” money. “It is not funding my retirement,” she says – perhaps one of the people in the world who best knows exactly what is.
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