'Trading Places' and the trading floor: Bev Shah's journey to FinServ CEO

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Bev-Shah-headshotAn Interview with Bev Shah, Founder & CEO of City Hive – Women in Asset and Investment Management

What drew you into the financial services industry?

It was the film Trading Places. I watched it in my early teens and spent hours trying to figure out the mechanics of shorting orange juice futures. I couldn’t quite understand the principle of why you would sell low and buy high, the reverse of what you do with equities or anything really.
Later, I was very lucky when I was a grad at Bear Sterns and I did my grad training in New York City – I got to visit the floor as a guest of Bear Sterns, so not just a visitor, actually on the floor of the exchange with those guys in jackets eating White Castle burgers – it was incredible. I was this little Indian girl on the floor, and I just loved it. That’s what drew me in.

What did you like about being a Trader?

I think the holy grail for a lot of young finance graduates would probably be being a trader. Investment Banking is the part that most students studied and are familiar with – not asset management, or investment management – that tends to be something you fall into. I was very fortunate to gain experience through a couple internships – first with Lehman Brothers and then an internship at Bear Sterns, which they kindly offered me a position after graduation.
For me, being a trader was a bit like getting to the top of the mountain, and then realizing there’s no view. I didn’t enjoy it at all; it didn’t run to my skills set. Sitting at my desk all day and looking at screens didn’t play to my strengths. One of the best things to ever happen to me was being made redundant from Bear Sterns. They could probably see that it wasn’t my bag, and I then fell into investment management at HSBC, and I absolutely loved it. It was my first time looking at portfolios for private clients, and while I was there, I fell into looking at funds.

So you liked being an Analyst much better?

I thought it was the best thing ever. Being able to go and meet fund managers, some of the brightest minds in investment, talk to them about their views on the market, and make decisions on who you think are the best investors; that, for me, was amazing. I spent the bulk of my career as a fund manager researcher – it played right into my strengths. I’m dyslexic, my brain does genuinely work in a different way. I’ve always felt that I see things that other people don’t, so I’ve always been able to spot things that other people on my team didn’t. I might not be the best at writing a research note, but I think that’s the whole point of having a diverse team; you will have someone who can do one thing, but then you’ll have another person with a different perspective – I feel that’s the person that I was.

What was your biggest challenge?

What I disliked was the focus everyone put on the quant side of things. A lot of the numbers, particularly for fund manager research, are backward facing in terms of performance. I felt that, really, on the whole, when you look at things, everything is run by a person. Companies are managed by people. Funds are managed by fund managers. You need to understand the people behind it and how their brains work. I didn’t like how industry has been moving away from qualitative analysis, you need to trust that the analyst has enough experience to know how to read the people, their behavior, etc.
The other thing I really disliked was the hard end of corporate hosting and entertainment. The FCA and MiFID II has made a big move to stop it, which, I have mixed feelings on as on one hand corporate entertainment for the sake of it is no good. But what it’s done is it has stopped a big opportunity for people to network and mingle, get information, and build relationships with sales people so you can actually have a relationship of trust, and information flow. Even conferences are now seen as an incentive to buy. So how do you get information? And do we not trust the people we are investing in not to be swayed by a free sandwich at a presentation?
I think my biggest challenge was also having people accept the fact that I wasn’t going to do my type of analysis in the same way as everyone else. As much as a lot of rhetoric is about difference, actually, when you say “I don’t want to do it the same as you.” Often, in organizations, you’ll come across people who want you to do it the same way. I believe analysis should be a group of people thinking for themselves, and then coming to a conclusion together after challenging each other – otherwise you have dangerous group think. That was my biggest challenge of all.

Why did you leave your last company?

Well, I returned to work after my second child, and six weeks later I was made redundant.

What inspired you to come up with this company for Women in Asset Management?

When I worked as a fund analyst, I was very fortunate to work for a big fund buyer, and had a huge network. I used to host a lady’s tea for that network once a year. It’s not as prim and proper as it sounds, it was just a relaxed environment where women who were fund analysts and people who work on the fund management side (sales women included), could get together for champagne and afternoon tea – ‘no lanyards or shoulder-pads’. After I lost my job, the ladies I had invited before to my ladies’ teas were asking if I could organize more of those events. They wanted more networking, mentoring. And so, City Hive was born.

Can men participate?

Yes. All of our mission and vision is about people being recognized and rewarded on who they are, their merit. Our Vision states: A more balance industry with a positive, inclusive culture that enables everyone to be rewarded on merit. Our Mission states: To challenge conscious and unconscious biases in asset and investment management.

What has it been like as a woman working in a notoriously male dominated industry?

When I was eight years old I went to a predominately boys boarding school, so I’ve always been very comfortable amongst men. I like the fact that men (not wanting to generalize) tend to be very straightforward. A lot of the women I know in the industry also like working alongside men. There are challenges of course – I had to very quickly toughen up – but I must admit that I’ve never minded any of the banter. I suppose with all the Harvey Weinstein stuff coming out, there’s a lot more focus on sexual harassment everywhere; I’m very fortunate that I’ve never had to experience anything that’s really horrible, or made me feel awkward and I couldn’t handle.
I think as a woman in the city there’s lots of things that are difficult. Up until now, for instance, it’s been very difficult to juggle family and your career in the city. All of a sudden you go from being a bright young graduate, to “Oh, she’s of marrying age. Oh, she might go off and have kids.” Even if you never do it, there’s still that target that starts to grow on your back, because you’re in that demographic.
Anecdotally, when you talk to people, everyone will admit, “the working mom, she’s the most efficient person in the office. I love working with her.” I know from personal experience; when I went back to work after having my first child, I was super-efficient; all the crap got cut out of my day. Everything I did was work related, and everything had to add value. All the chatting, lunching, coffee, hanging around the water cooler chat, went away. I had a second job to go to, where I wasn’t getting paid, but the boss was really demanding – my baby.
I think for women in the city, it’s the perception people have of you, and it’s all wrapped up in your womanliness. It’s all wrapped up in how people are going to perceive you around the 1950s Stepford wife, marriage model, and mommy model. Either you go down the track of being hard, and just emulating a man, and never talking about your kids and just being in the office just as much as your colleagues, and that’s it, you’re just driven and that’s it, but then that means, is your home life suffering?

Compared to 12 – 15 years ago, do you think the industry has changed at all?

Yes, I do, because I think to people of my generation, 12-15 years ago, I would have been a pioneer – I would have been coming through the early days. I wasn’t married yet, I thought the world was my oyster still. We’ve grown up, and now we’re the ones who are fighting back and campaigning to change things, so things have changed, because I suppose the women who are in my position right now, 12-15 years ago, weren’t. They were still suffering in silence, still just being pushed out the door. Still, either replicating male behavior, or leaving.
Yes, things are changing. Things obviously have to change more. Corporates have woken up to this, there’s a lot of talk about the gender dividend, diversity dividend, whatever you want to call it; you have things like the State Street index comparing corporates, which have got more than 30% of women on the board, and if you compare that to the regular SNP, obviously, apparently, I don’t know what it’s doing today, but apparently it outperforms. Yes, things are changing. People are more aware.
But also, we don’t need to have this evidence.  We are all meant to be equal so why should we have to show evidence that women or ethnic minorities or other diversity groups add specific value to the bottom line? We have an equal right to have a seat at the table.

What can the industry do, as a whole, to help?

I think by getting involved with things like City Hive, the Diversity Project, the Women in Finance Charter, not being cynical about it all. Remember, women make up 50% of the world, your client base is 50% and brushing off 50% of the world is a ridiculous thing to do. I think looking at how you can change the mindset of middle management, I think that’s what the industry can do. It just can’t be acceptable, in this day and age, for that whole cliché: “Oh, she went on maternity leave and got made redundant.” Those anecdotal stories that you’ve heard for years and years shouldn’t be happening anymore. 

Did you / do you have a mentor? Or do you mentor anyone?

Not formally, I do it naturally. I’m not scared to ask people for help, their advice, so in terms of having a mentor, I’m happy to go to people I think might help and advise me. On the flip side, as a mentor, I’ve always been happy to help whenever people have asked me, or even if I see it, I volunteer to help people if I think they need it. Perhaps if you’re kind of shy, you might need something more official.

So, as the founder of this network, do you often find you have multiple people come to you, and you tap your network?

Yes, I’m often contacted by young people who are trying to get ahead in their career, and don’t know what they’re doing, or where they’re going. People who just lost their jobs, and I will happily advise them, share information, and follow up with them as well, make sure they’re okay. I think sometimes that’s what people need, they just need to know someone’s out there who they can just, I don’t know, talk to. If I can help someone, I’m always happy.

If you could meet any female leader in the world, who would it be and why?

Nancy Wake, she died in 2011 at the age of 99. She was known as the white mouse during the Second World War because she was basically a bad ass – a kick ass woman – a leader in the French Resistance who was on the Gestapo most wanted list. She fought tirelessly. She didn’t let anyone stop her just because she was a woman.

Any advice for other women interested in making financial services a career?

My advice for anyone wanting to come into financial services is build a network. It isn’t an industry that is fixed. The problems are still there. If you’ve got a support network of people you can kind of tell, laugh, joke, cry with, then it will make it a lot easier, and it will make your journey easier.
Try and be realistic and pragmatic about things. Learn from all the women like me who, at the moment, have profiles, and are doing interviews – like I said, my advice to my younger self is be yourself. Ask. Get some professional development. If you lack confidence, or you feel like you can’t work alongside men, then go and find that help.

What are your thoughts on Active vs. Passive?

This is a very topical debate that’s been raging, particularly because the current market cycle is not conducive for active managers to outperform, but it is a cycle, so as an ex-multi manager, I am agnostic about whether passive is better than active or visa versa. I am a believer that there is a place in a portfolio for both active and passive depending on where you are in the cycle and the opportunities.
I do think the tail is somewhat wagging the dog at the moment. Fees all of a sudden have become a bigger part of analysis.  They should certainly be a factor but we should remember that all investments, passive or active, come with risks to the average person. Most private clients really benchmark against cash or the rate they pay their mortgage. If the tracker falls it could still be a monetary loss for them even if it is not relative to the index.
My other worry with the growth in the cult of passive funds is, and this is my dyslexic brain trying to figure things out, but I might be missing something, I have always worked under the assumption that passives are meant to track active managers in markets. I mean, that’s what they’re doing, right? At what level are you getting to the point where passive managers are tracking passive managers? I don’t know of any body of work being done to see what percentage of the market can be passive before it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and you then are looking at a split cap type of crisis.
If I was still a professional investor I would be interested in scenario analysis of what’s going to happen when markets start going south, and passive funds start to become force sellers.  It’s a debate that’s always been there, and it seems a bit silly to be an ‘us against them’ sort of debate.

What are your views on traditional mutual fund fact sheets? Crying out for disruption or still an essential tool for investors?

I think a traditional fact sheet is a little bit like the window to the soul of the fund for the man on the street. From that point of view, I don’t think it needs a massive disruption. But I think there is a window where people are crying out for more transparency, certainly from a digital point of view, there certainly is scope for more information such as fees to be available to investors.

Where do you see the asset management industry in the next five years?

I’m hoping you’ll basically see a more diverse, transparent, secure industry, which has a glow of trust from the wider public. That would be my ideal for the industry. I think the biggest problem the industry has is, from a trust perspective, is getting diverse talent in, or getting any talent in, really. No one knows who we are, so we are sandwiched between hedge funds and investment banks. But we’re a different industry all together. Hopefully in five years there will be more education about the industry to make people feel a trust that we will be here after Brexit. This would also help with getting more diversity into the field.
A lot of people you talk to in asset management talk about falling into it. I fell into it. 90% of people I knew fell into it. No one went there on the first go. Because no one’s heard about it.

What do you like for fun? Hobbies? Passions?

Sounds cheesy, but I love watching Netflix with my husband. It’s really important because we’re both very busy. We like to watch foreign shows because to read the subtitles forced us to put down our phones. We really have to tune in and be together and it’s nice.
And then of course we’ve got these two little rugrats that keep us busy. In between losing my job and then starting City Hive, I bought enough baking equipment, card making, and a sewing machine to sink a battleship, thinking I was going to become a super mum who crafts, sews and bakes.  I still have all that equipment untouched – no time for a hobby. 

Throughout all you’ve accomplished in your career, what’s been your biggest lesson?

I think it’s realizing that when you look back on your life you have no regrets. What’s important and what’s not – that’s been my biggest lesson. Whatever you agree to do or not, whomever you let affect you or not, make sure that you can go to bed and say: “Yes, I’m happy with that.”

Thank you, Bev.

Bev Shah, Founder & CEO of City Hive – Women in Asset and Investment Management

Bhavini ‘Bev’ Shah, is the Founder and CEO of City Hive, the only professional network dedicated to uniting, supporting and championing women at all levels of asset and investment management. Prior to setting up City Hive she clocked up over fifteen years’ in the City at some of the world’s largest financial institutions – Aviva, Aviva Investors, Merchant Securities (now part of San Lam UK), HSBC, Bear Stearns & Lehman Brothers. She has extensive multi-asset multi-manager investment and governance experience as a portfolio manager and research analyst with a 360-degree understanding off the industry having held positions on both sides of the fence (platform, asset manager and private client investment manager). She holds a BSc (Hons) in Economics and Accountancy from City University (CASS) and is an Advisory Board Member of the Association of Professional Fund Investors (APFI).  As a British-Indian dyslexic woman, Bev’s strength is diversity. 

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