Super-big role for expat bank dynamo

BUCKETS OF CONFIDENCE: Fiona Mackenzie came to understand the necessity of stepping forward during her time in the US.
BUCKETS OF CONFIDENCE: Fiona Mackenzie came to understand the necessity of stepping forward during her time in the US.

She arrived in New Zealand early in 2009 with six-month-old twins, no job and a gold-plated CV.

In September she will walk into new offices in Auckland's QEII Square to take charge of a multibillion-dollar investment portfolio as head of investments for the Super Fund.

In between she has risen to head of markets at the stock exchange and was tipped as its next chief executive.

Clearly, Fiona Mackenzie has talent.

"She is exceptional," says a former colleague. "We're very lucky she's returned to New Zealand."

Others who know her echo the sentiment. "Vibrant, vivacious. She's basically a really lovely person," says an associate. "She's an absolute dynamo," says another.

You get the drift. The Otago University graduate would be welcomed with open arms into any corporate in the country, so why did she want to join the Super Fund?

"Every industry has its Everest-type opportunity," she says. "In the world of capital markets when you've spent some time on the sell side of an investment bank, getting an opportunity to join the buy side and actually be making those investment decisions is the Everest-type opportunity."

Extra altitude comes from making investment decisions for a sovereign wealth fund - the biggest, most long-term investment funds you can get.

"And to get those opportunities in New Zealand, where we're not the largest economy in the world, it's one of those things where you just think 'that's pretty cool'," Mackenzie says.

Back in 2008, "cool" was probably not the first word she would use to describe her situation.That year Mackenzie was working for investment bank Morgan Stanley in San Francisco after almost a decade in New York, where she'd cut her teeth with Credit Suisse and earned an MBA from Columbia University.

Her role was on the "sell side" at Morgan Stanley's institutional equities division, where she helped clients access investment opportunities in Asia.

In 2007 it was a great place to be. China was "just printing IPOs" - initial public share offers from Chinese companies - and much of the American money targeting Asia was based in San Francisco to take advantage of the closer time zone.

"Then we had 2008, which was just an extraordinary time to be working on Wall Street," says Mackenzie. "It was just mind- boggling to sit there watching organisations like Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns just disappear, and Morgan Stanley come very close to being on its knees."

Investment banking took a huge hit in reputation and the impact on staff was direct. Bonuses, which could contribute two-thirds of income for executives such as Mackenzie, were slashed by 60 per cent to 70 per cent.

"It was less about the short- term impact. Bonuses are bonuses, right? They are discretionary by nature. It was more just looking out, going, 'My God, how long is this going to take to recover?'."

Also, that August, Mackenzie gave birth to twins, a girl and a boy. "To be honest it just felt like the universe was saying, 'Okay, it's time to come home'."

Thus, Mackenzie arrived back in New Zealand, after 12 years in Britain and America, with two young children and no clear idea of the next step on her career path.

"So I did the old-fashioned networking thing," she says. "I had a lot of coffee with a lot of different people and to every person I met I said, 'can you introduce me to five more people?', and through that I met people like Andrew Harmos."

Harmos is partner of corporate law firm Harmos Horton Lusk, chairman of the stock exchange, and a well-known enthusiast for New Zealand Inc.

The lawyer's interest in encouraging expat talent led him to arrange a meeting between Mackenzie and NZX chief executive Mark Weldon, which brought the former Wall St broker to the New Zealand stock exchange as head of traded products and liquidity.

The move has worked out well, but it wasn't always obvious Mackenzie would be such an effective networker. "I think if you asked my parents they would laugh, because I was a fairly shy child, but one of the things New Zealanders learn very quickly when working offshore, but particularly in the United States, is Americans seem to be born networkers and they are very good at presenting themselves well in interview situations or social settings in your professional circumstances.

"So I had to learn very quickly the importance of networking."

COLUMBIA reinforced the lesson - in business every meeting is an interview and those contacts are the fuel to grow your business.

On Wall Street, networking is also highly competitive and directly affects how much money you make. Working on the sell side of institutional equities, Mackenzie had 12 to 15 clients managing at least US$2 billion each, and they were all being courted by numerous salespeople.

"The way those fund managers decide how to allocate their commissions to the sell side, they basically every quarter voted on the service they got from the firms," Mackenzie says. At one fund, for example, 12 people managed US$6b.

"They paid 200 brokers every single quarter. So that meant for me to get through to cover that client I was competing with 199 other salespeople just like me, picking up the phone, sending them emails, introducing them to companies, giving them investment ideas. If you thought about it too much it would freak you out a bit."

That she didn't freak out is partially down to her father, Graham Mackenzie, former managing director of Formica in New Zealand. Mackenzie senior contributed to his daughter's globetrotting by moving to Britain to run the local unit of Formica's parent, Cyanamid.

"The next job posting for Cyanamid would have been to the United States," says Mackenzie, "and my mother vetoed it because she didn't want my sister and I to grow up as Americans."

Of course, she ended up in America anyway, and learned from her hard-working father, who "taught my sister and I that girls could do anything".

Other mentors were cousin Hugh Paton, a managing director at JP Morgan in Britain, and Rory Keane, who had the same role at Credit Suisse in New York.

She credits both with pushing her to make big decisions. "My family is incredibly supportive, but they're always in your corner, they'll never give you the tough love you sometimes need in order to take the tough decisions.

"Whereas an independent mentor will give you the shake you sometimes need to take things to the next level . . . I don't know how people succeed without them, to be honest."