"Time and scale are of the essence": Q&A with Mercer Investments' Helga Birgden August 2018

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This week, Industry Moves catches up with Helga Birgden, Mercer Investments' global business leader for responsible investment, and finds out about her hopes for the future of sustainable investing. She also shares anecdotes of the experiences and people that have shaped her career, including meetings with Desmond Tutu and the "architects of the anti-apartheid movement".

Can you tell us a little about what your role as Global Business Leader, Responsible Investment at Mercer Investments entails?

My role is to lead the global RI business and facilitate the global team in providing high quality evidence based investment advice to Trustees, Directors and Investment Committees on fiduciary developments, environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) issues and climate change.

You've recently been appointed to take up a wider role for Mercer's global responsible investing practice, what would you like to achieve?

I want to achieve a greater take up by investors of action on ESG and climate change. We have a global RI RoadMap which shows how step by step you can achieve sustainable growth in investment portfolios. Our team was recognized as the #1 Sustainability Consultant earlier this year based on a 2017 survey run by Extel in conjunction with the industry website SRI Connect, surveying 1136 professionals across 43 countries, so we are in a strong position to achieve this aim.

I wish to see a majority of clients and our partners integrating ESG and climate change into their Investment Beliefs, Policy, Process and Portfolio starting with dedicated fiduciary time and thought leadership at Board level. I also wish to bring to light that other systemic risks including social risks are a part of our investment work. We need to think together to solve problems more quickly, time and scale are of the essence.

Is there a milestone in your career so far that stands out for you?

Starting in South Africa I met with the architects of the anti-apartheid movement, who promoted to investors that they buy shares to vote against companies breaching human rights. They set the path for what we now call active ownership or stewardship. I was involved in writing a global shareholder policy with them in the late nineties meeting with people like Desmond Tutu - it was a kind of industry milestone to my mind for Responsible Investment. Becoming a partner at Mercer in 2012 was a career milestone and then global business leader in 2015 was a career privilege.

How do Australian institutional investors rate in the way they address climate change risk in their strategic asset allocation compared to other countries?

When we developed our climate change scenarios implications for strategic asset allocation research and tools in 2009/10 we had a number of cornerstone Funds participate such as Australian Super, NZ Super etc and we stood tall in the global community partly, thanks also to the take up at the same time of the PRI by many Australian funds. In 2015 we also had a strong representation from leading funds here again. However other regions have become more actively engaged especially in the US, Nordics, France and the Netherlands in committing sizeable allocations to sustainability and portfolio analysis with an appetite for application and standard setting, in part as a result of the European led adoption of frameworks such as the Global Financial Stability Board’s Climate Related Financial Disclosure.

How different is it working with organisations like the United Nations and the World Bank, compared to Australian super funds.

Contracts are more complicated than working with Australian super funds for starters! The contracts can outrun the project! Usually the scope of the work is more high level and it is hard to translate to how investors think and act. Many stakeholders are involved in these institutions from many different jurisdictions and countries with lots of agendas so agreeing document write ups and wordsmithing can be a marathon.

What or who was the impetus for your current career path?

I would give credit to my mother. Of course she didn’t tell me to work in Responsible Investment but she imbued me with a sense of what is right and was an intellectual who believed in applying your mind to issues that were important. She knew what happens when there is complexity and turbulence coming as she was a political refugee to Australia escaping war torn Europe. I think looking back it was her humane and thoughtful approach to life that made me come up with the idea that big capital might help change the world, so I studied a Masters in Innovation and Finance and then set off to apply it.

Do you have an industry mentor, or someone who has influenced your career?

I have a number but not as formal mentors. They are like guiding friends – some initially from the faith based investment industry like Dr David Schilling in New York, Sue Norman from the Uniting Church Funds Management, Jane Ambachtsheer at Mercer of course and, though not a practical mentor but someone I had the privilege to meet a few times through work, Christiana Figueres former Head of the UN Framework on the Convention on Climate Change who brokered the Paris Agreement. Outstanding colleagues like Tessa Tennant from Scotland who passed away recently also served and serves to inspire me. https://www.theguardian.com/business/2018/aug/02/tessa-tennant-obituary.

I have learnt a great deal from the outstanding members of the RI team including past members whom I am still friends with and talented RI colleagues in the industry.

What advice would you give to your 21-year old self?

I would tell her to make the most of all the time she had at her disposal, less time hanging around waiting for bands to come on stage, drinking and partying – though she was very studious I admit – and to be more confident about driving for change.

If not in finance, what would you be doing?

I would be in some sort of creative field.

View Helga Birgden's profile