"Stepping through the doorway that leads to the beating heart of financial services": Q&A with Contango's Lisa Barp October 2016

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Lisa Barp is thankful to have found the perfect role at the perfect time in her career, having recently joined Contango Asset Management as the new head of marketing and communications for the boutique fund manager. This week, we caught up with Lisa who talked us through her "off-piste career", compared the various work cultures from her many roles across the globe and shared memories as a child of immigrant parents in small town South Australia.

What initially attracted you to Contango?

That’s easy. George Boubouras and his vision for the business. This is a business with massive potential in a part of the industry I find stimulating and challenging as a marketer. Also, Contango is its people. This is a group of intelligent, articulate, vastly experienced and simply very good people. Family is a word that’s used a lot at Contango. I think out in the business world the word can be misused, but here when we say family, we mean it. And then, there is George. He is a person of integrity, and always on fire! His approach to the business is strategic and considered. At this point in my career, this is exactly where I want to be.

What have you enjoyed the most following your first official month in the role?

I come from a wealth management background, so Asset Management is kind of new for me. It’s almost like stepping through the doorway that leads to the beating heart of financial services. Without a robust, healthy asset management offering, investors have fewer options and less choices. At Contango we have several offerings, mostly listed investment companies, but also ETFs, and then there are funds specifically for institutional clients. Our success as a business is inextricably linked to the success of our funds and the strong relationships we build with our insto clients and partners. There is nowhere to hide. I thrive on continually learning and challenging myself, so this role is perfect.

Previously you worked as a consultant for small, start-up businesses. What have been the major differences that you’ve noticed since joining a larger firm?

Consulting can be fun because you get to work with all different types of organisations in different parts of their life cycles. But it can be lonely too, because you’re never really a part of a team; there’s always an invisible line between you and the business. I find it exciting to work in an organisation that becomes more familiar with time. I like to embed in a company, see it from the inside out – where it is in its life cycle, the big challenges, what keeps the MD awake at night, and from the outside in – what can I learn from clients and other stakeholders. I think this is critical to keeping a business competitive and relevant.

In saying that, I think consulting is something that everyone should do for a short period of time to really understand what it’s like to be out there and not have the support structure of team and organisation.

Previously you spent quite a few years working overseas in Singapore and the UK. What did you learn from this experience and what was it like immersing yourself in a new culture?

I moved from country to country with UBS in their wealth management business. It was during a time when they heavily promoted global mobility. In the UK, I was one of the senior marketing managers for the UK, North & Eastern Europe, focused on the domestic business. Working in London was fantastic, I loved it. I felt like I was at the epicentre of global finance, and we were very close geographically to UBS's global headquarters. Culturally, it was much like working here, the only difference being that at 5:05pm the offices were completely ‘clear’. At least that’s what it was like when I was there. I couldn’t get over that! You could fire a canon and not hit anyone!

In Asia, I was deputy to the head of marketing for South Asia in a more regional role. The business structure in Asia allowed for the marketing team to work with varied domestic and international business units. For example, I worked with the European, Indonesian and Australian international teams, as well as the products and services team. Never a dull day.

Culturally, Asia was a completely different story to the UK. It was eye-opening. In my first few days I remember telling my colleagues, “I’m never working past 7 o’clock in the evening”. That lasted for exactly one week! Adapting my communication style to suit my new surroundings was also critical. I got tripped up a few times, but eventually worked it out. I think I managed not to offend too many people. I hope. I was in Asia during the financial crisis, which afforded me a very different view and experience to the rest of the world. I was glad to be there during that time.

What has been your proudest career moment to date?

That’s a hard question! I’m proud of my whole career; it’s what I call ‘off-piste’ – not even close to a text book career, but that’s what makes it so brilliant! I’ve built up my skill base and met some amazing people along this crazy journey. In terms of one moment being the best above all others. No, not really. If I’ve been part of the beginning of something – a project, an event, anything - and I see or hear that it’s still going, I feel proud because I know that my contribution has been valid and tangible.

Did you have a mentor who taught you the lay of the land when you first joined the industry? If so, who?

No. I had to figure it out myself! Along the way, there have been strong influencers in my life, and a select few people that I would have walked through fire for.

What advice would you offer a newcomer wanting to work in the marketing space of the finance industry?

Say yes to everything that is asked of you. Listen, learn as much as you can, listen, absorb everything, and listen. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Own them, learn from them. When someone says, “can you do this?” say “yes I can!” and just work out how to do it later.

You have a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Psychology. Did you ever consider becoming a psychologist?

I entered uni with a career goal of becoming a forensic psychologist, but after the first year of study, I reassessed and formulated a new plan. I committed to completing the Bachelor degree majoring in psychology to see where it would take me, which as it turns out, was on a really interesting journey. I don’t regret the decision at all. Both psychology and marketing are all about human behaviour, so marketing is a very natural place for me to be.

What was your very first job?

I was 14 and working part time in the kitchen at the local pub.

Where did you grow up and what was it like?

I grew up in a small country town in South Australia. At times, it was really challenging. As the daughter of immigrants with olive coloured skin, life on the playground was not always happy. But I made lifelong friends, so the good has outweighed the sad. My parents made it their business to integrate into the community without losing their sense of self or Italian culture. Looking back, they made me very proud.

Both mum and dad had an absolute and unwavering belief in their children. Dad never, for one moment, had any doubt that we couldn’t do anything we turned our mind, and hand to. I was eight years old when he taught me to drive in a 1930-something Fiat that had been converted to a working farm truck. A brick under my foot kept it steady on the accelerator, and pillows under my bottom meant I could see over the dash. 

Dad’s absolute belief in me has given me the self-confidence to step outside what is considered normal as a career path, to experience diverse sectors and live abroad, to say ‘yes’ to and embrace whatever is thrown at me in the corporate world, and make it work. I owe that to dad.

You can read Lisa’s tribute to her father here.

If you weren’t working in marketing or finance, what would you be doing?

I’d get a law degree and then I’d become a movie producer.

What’s something that most people wouldn’t know about you?

It feels like a thousand years ago now, but when I worked in radio in Hobart, I had a couple of on air shifts a week, very late at night. One of the most stressful things I’ve ever done in my life is sit in front of a microphone and talk to no one. Whenever the phone rang in the studio, I’d be truly shocked, wondering who could possibly be listening.

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