"My timing could not have been better": Q&A with Fidelity's MD Alva Devoy October 2017

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It’s been a year since Alva Devoy, with the wind at her back, commenced in the top job at Fidelity. As she tells Industry Moves, she’s very much enjoyed having her hand at the wheel and has big plans for the year ahead. In an enlightening Q&A, Alva also shares the diligent ways in which she maintains her work/life balance, speaks of her studies in molecular engineering and how they play a part in her work today, and reminisces about growing up in Dublin "during the worst of times and in the best of times".

What have you enjoyed most about your first 12 months as MD of Fidelity?

My timing could not have been better. As I stepped into the leadership position at Fidelity Australia, the wind was at my back via a cultural shift towards growth and flexibility. The latest announcements from Fidelity on Fulcrum Fees are an example of that, where we are willing to disrupt ourselves and our industry if it is in the client interest. I was also very fortunate to have had two years under the hood with all of our investment teams internationally in my previous role as Investment Director. This means I have a very different lens through which to run the Australian business; client and investment led, rather than sales led. So I’ve very much enjoyed having my hands on the wheel at a time when the pace of operation is picking for Fidelity globally and at a time when Fidelity is taking risks to remain relevant in our industry. It’s been energising, as well as challenging.

…and what are your main goals for the firm over the next 12 months?

I plan to build on our excellent foundation in Australian Equities by leveraging our wide range of international investment capabilities and solutions design, to grow the business in other asset classes. We will work in collaboration with our clients, our market participant partners and those peers who are aligned in wanting to drive the best outcomes for clients in order to execute this plan. We will increase our routes to market by launching new products and strategies in 2018. Importantly, from a leadership stand-point, I hope to attract and retain good staff as we embark on a significant growth phase. To that end I am particularly interested in lifting our cognitive diversity, by attracting individuals from all age groups and backgrounds to our organisation.

You have a Doctorate of Philosophy in Molecular Engineering. What drew you towards this area of study?

I had the romantic notion that I was going to be the next Marie Curie. What I discovered was that when you work in research, for every question you answer, ten more appear so there is never a sense of closure or a job well done. I am very goal oriented so this was not a good fit for me. I was also doing my Ph.D. during the Gulf War, Desert Storm and the Iraqi War in the early 90s and I was hooked on the influence of the war on stock markets and finance. This is where I became particularly interested in the sociology of economics and finance. Half way through my Ph.D. I began researching a switch to finance. Research is the common thread; if you can undertake research in one discipline, you can do it in another. I was an unusual employee for a period of time, having had a hybrid career. Nowadays this is the norm and a very positive development for business in particular. By bringing that cognitive diversity into the workforce; it brings different lenses through which to approach problems and business development, an area I am particularly interested in for Fidelity.

What was the greatest lesson that you took away from your time working as a tech analyst at the beginning of the tech boom and as a fund manager at the end of the boom?

Humility, humility, humility. Don’t believe your own hype. Tech analysts were rock stars back then, but it’s easy to look good in rising markets by putting buys on stocks, in a sector that is ramping and where there was a baked in, lack of understanding.

Much more interesting is what happened on the other side of that trade, when I was managing money on behalf of institutional clients and markets were in a complete funk. During that period, I had to stand up and present to a room full of pension fund members and explain that as their pension fund manager, we did ok because we outperformed the benchmark. A question was asked from the floor; ‘what do the brackets around the number stand for?’ to which I had to explain, that I had lost the pension fund money through my decisions on US equities, but I had beaten the market because it had gone down further. That was a career defining moment for me. My duty of care to clients, to protect their assets and their futures, could never again be defined by the benchmark. This experience in particular persists with me to this day, and influences how I approach and behave, as a guardian of clients (individuals) financial future and wellbeing.

In 2009 you moved to Australia without a job, or social network, because you said that you “fell in love with the place.” What was it about Australia that hooked you?

A sense of space and an opportunity to work in finance, but live by the ocean. And I guess I was ready for a move out of Europe, I wanted something completely different and I have a stubborn (or stupid) streak in me that seems to ensure I never make things easy on myself. So why not move into a market where no-one knows me and start over with a completely blank sheet of paper? Good test of character. It could have gone horribly wrong, as I knew only one person here and couch surfed with him for my first month. However, phone calls were made on my behalf from Dublin and Paddy Hayden, a rates trader at RBS, gave my resume to the Head of Equities, Graham Pratt, and he took a chance on me. I joined as an ESG analyst and ended up head of Equity Research & Strategy at RBS and now here I am running Fidelity Australia eight years later.

Who has had the biggest influence on your life/career so far?

My parents and my two Aunts, Maureen and Eithne. I am from a working class background, my Dad Gerry, was a baker and my Mam, Helen, was responsible for payroll for a bakery in Dublin, Ireland. Their focus on education was relentless, it was the ticket out for their kids. They crippled themselves, providing an outstanding education for myself and my sister Laura and this was the greatest gift I have ever received. They were ahead of their time in many respects and forward thinking. Along with a savage work ethic, my Dad was such a feminist, he saw absolutely no difference between boys and girls, men and women, and my Mam worked all her life. The neighbourhood I grew up in was disadvantaged and we had a particularly thick “Dublin” accents. Mam and Dad found the money to send us to elocution lessons so we could fit into any environment. An unforeseen consequence of this action was skill at public speaking. We took all our Public Speaking exams to the highest level, which means our confidence in presenting in any forum has been a fundamental part of our success in finance. My Aunts, Maureen and Eithne were our guardian angels growing up too, role models as career women and generous to a fault; they treated us like princesses.

What’s the best piece of advice that you have received?

My first boss David Lowe, Head of Equity Research at Goodbody Stockbrokers, preached Seneca to me; ‘the definition of luck is the point at which preparation meets opportunity’. I live by that. I take ownership of both my destiny and also how I perceive the world and I work hard to keep a healthy perspective on all things. Keep moving, keep reassessing, keep progressing, even if it’s at a glacial pace sometimes, it’s all incremental and it keeps life interesting. And remember - the second best piece of advice I have ever been given - there is no going back; so don’t waste time looking back or on regrets.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

That’s a work in progress and sometimes I win and sometimes I lose. I do have a few tools that I use, but will admit sometimes I hit ‘washing machine spin cycle’ workload phases and I just give myself up to them, knowing they will pass relatively quickly. I focus on my health and fitness. I regularly take ‘mental health’ days off work, where I have a day at home with no people interaction and no agenda - to decompress and re-charge. My email Inbox is everyone else’s agenda for me, and my calendar is my agenda for me, so I work very hard on my scheduling and emails are a secondary concern. I timetable thinking time, where I will often be found drawing pictures in my office, trying to work out pathways for new projects or solutions to problems. I find this reduces stress significantly, as it increases my sense of control over my working life. I am protective of exercise time (most of the time), especially when I am traveling for work. And I am ruthless about handing over meetings and projects to my staff who are well able to execute without my involvement, as they stand assured of my support and trust in their abilities. I have a wide variety of friends with diverse backgrounds and careers, who keep me grounded and I have partner Jorden, with a strong personality who manages me very well (I am not the CEO at home) and my therapists are my dog, Devon, and my cat, Lola.

Where did you grow up and what was it like?

I grew up in Dublin during the worst of times and in the best of times. As a child during the 1970s oil crisis, I waited in long lines with my father for fuel for his motorbike, so he could get to work each week. In 1979, I witnessed what inflation can do to a family, when I stood beside my mother as she paid our mortgage to the Irish Permanent, at a 17% interest rate (it was a moving feast at that time and my parents worried each month that they would make their payments). During the 1980s recession in Ireland when unemployment hit 14% and my father was out of work and friends left for the UK and US, I was fortunate to be on my way to university thanks to a government grant scheme. We lost my Dad during this period and came out the other side into the Celtic Tiger phase of economic growth, a very different family. I enjoyed the boom times in Ireland, all the way up and then some. I’m very proud of my Irish heritage, the Irish are consummate negotiators; we can always see both sides of the argument, which is a great skill to have as a leader today in business.

If you weren’t working in finance, where do you think you’d be?

Renovating period properties, it was a passion of mine at one stage and one I could easily pick up again in the future.

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