Petronella West: ‘Give me a back-to-work mum any day’

Investment Quorum CEO on empowering her staff

In 1985, aged 17, Petronella West left the world of education behind and took her first steps into working life.

Having been enrolled at a top private London day school called Lady Eleanor Holles, she leapt into a role working as an administrator in an “old school” financial services firm, after completing a secretarial bookkeeping course.

“The school is 80% Oxbridge but I left because I couldn’t handle the pressure,” she says. “I thought I was stupid because I could only do two A-levels. But I learned that while education will catapult you forward, it isn’t everything.”

In her first year as a bookkeeper West was offered the opportunity to set up an IFA firm with another adviser but the plan fell through when her partner became ill.

It wasn’t long before she began working at Halifax, first as a mortgage adviser and then as a financial planner. “I quickly realised financial planning was my skillset,” she says. “You’ve got to be a good communicator, and I was always good at listening, communicating and building rapport.”

After 10 years at Halifax, West connected with Lee Robertson, co-founder and former chief executive officer of Investment Quorum (IQ), and soon after, in October 2000, IQ was born.

“The focus was very much on client service in those early days. Our big change came in 2006-07 when we went discretionary, from when we were able to offer financial planning solutions and discretionary portfolio management. We grew quite quickly from then.

“We always lead with the financial planning solutions and back up with the investment. Obviously, we don’t want to shoehorn clients into a specific portfolio but they are not mutually exclusive and we’ve done pretty successfully out of that.

“We went from nothing in 2000, focusing on recurring revenue in a fee-based business, to £70m in 2007 and then to £260m.”

Robertson stepped down this year from IQ to pursue other interests and West moved from director of private clients to chief executive. She is quick to point out that the pair co-founded IQ together and it is growing on the back of that legacy.

West says: “I think I was a natural successor for Lee. Yes, we miss him and he’s still a critical friend to the business, but what’s great about the business now is that it’s entirely owned by its staff.

“Rather than just the founders and a couple of external shareholders, it is now fully owned by the staff, which means the company’s got real longevity now and has completely aligned staff and clients.”

Quoting Richard Branson, West says: “Look after your staff and then they’ll look after your clients.”

Since Robertson’s departure, the company culture has been cemented more deeply, she explains. “My strategy as CEO is to bring my team up because I’m very good at business development and client-facing financial planning work.

“Our objective is that every member of the team thrives in this new organisation. They’ll all have access to coaching, mentorship, support, exam qualification, anything they need to do their own roles better.”

West stepped into the role of CEO in August this year but argues the change has not had a huge impact on the company.

“We’ve got a small business but I think I have natural leadership skills and am quite motivating, with a lot of energy and a massive passion for financial planning.”

Positive on the UK

How does she approach financial planning at a time of so much uncertainty politically and economically? Considering the domestic economy, West says the UK is likely to land on a ‘soft Brexit’ at the last minute.

“I could be wrong the way things are looking at the minute, but although there is slow economic growth, that doesn’t mean there are no opportunities.”

She says currency will drive market performance and that you need to look out for your winners and position carefully.

“Technology, healthcare, robotics and cybersecurity are all areas where there’s a huge amount of opportunity. While we’re not investing directly into artificial intelligence and machine learning, we can see how it is going to change the world for the good.

“Still, we remain relatively bullish on equities, there’s lots of talk about the US and I think there are opportunities in Japan.”

Outside of IQ, West is a governor in charge of bursaries and finance at a primary school where she teaches about money. “The earlier you can teach individuals good skills about money, the better.”

She has also been working with a charity called Street Child of Sierra Leone since 2012. The charity aims to keep children off the streets and get them back into family networks. West also supports the charity’s Girls Speak Out initiative, which identifies why girls of secondary school age are dropping out in such large numbers.

The girl-to-boy ratio in schools is often one-third to two-thirds and most children are illiterate when they leave primary school, she says. Girls are particularly vulnerable because they enter domestic work and marriage at an early age.

“Keeping them in school means you can teach them to run small businesses and women make the best leaders in those countries, as the boys tend to [live off] the handout culture while the girls put the grit in.

“Girls have kids young and there is an infant mortality rate of 10%. These are the things I’ve been doing in the background before taking the CEO role.”

She adds: “My board is positive about me pursuing those external influences because this stuff is fundamentally important in trying to change the world.”

It’s a man’s world

In an industry that is heavily dominated by males, West accepts there is a total imbalance, but she understands why.

“From my own experience I can see why. I’m nearly six-feet tall, I wear heels and am pretty tough. I was inappropriately approached at a Halifax do when I was 20 by a head of compliance and I went straight to the managing director.

“The point for me is that I can speak up for myself but not everybody can, and there is a fine line between healthy banter being positive and negatively discriminatory.”

Additionally, she says it’s essential as an industry to accept that women will have babies and rather than running from it, firms need need to plan for it and offer support.

“The government is doing what it can to support women that are out of work but it’s also about attracting them back into work. Give me a back-to-work mum three days a week over a 25-year-old any day of the week.

“I will get more out of that back-to-work mum in three days than I do out of that 25-year-old in five because she will be completely focused in that time thinking ‘I’m in at 10am, I’ve got to leave at 3pm’.”

However, West says that women must want to come back to work and focus for it to function. “It’s not just, ‘Let’s make it so easy you can just come back’. A woman can’t expect to come back after five years and be at the same level of somebody who’s been working. But equally, you’ve got to keep your hand in.”

West says it would be easier to attract more women into the industry if firms supported working mothers better. “The truth is that the City and financial services is just overweight men, partially because girls choose to step out at 30.”

All about sacrifice

Discussing her own experience, West says that if the industry is seeking more women advisers like her when she was 30, before having children, sacrifices need to be made.

“I can see why it’s unattractive to women and girls to come in. Having put children through private nursery myself, which is 8am until 6pm, and then picking them up either at the end of the day or you get a nanny, some people may struggle to do that emotionally and financially.

“That’s £30,000 to £40,000 a year, meaning you need an £80,000 a year salary. Can you get that on part-time work? There’s a disconnect between childcare and the working woman.”

Parental leave is equally important and helps this, she says.

“I had a husband who took paternity leave when my children were really small which helped but, equally, I was brave and put them into nursery. I wanted to breastfeed them for six months but I couldn’t because I wanted to come back to work. It’s a sacrifice I made.”

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