"No ignoring the strong call for change": Q&A with SSGA veteran Susan Darroch August 2019

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After a career spanning two decades at SSGA, Susan Darroch, former head of global equity beta solutions Asia Pacific ex Japan, is planning to make the most of her well-earned break. But first, she looks back on her tenure to reflect on the highlights, changes, challenges and achievements. And, as a woman in a male-dominated industry, recalls her enormous sense of pride at SSGA's placement of Fearless Girl in front of the Bull on Wall Street in 2017.

Why was the time right for you to step down from your role at SSGA?

Reaching the 20-year milestone at SSGA was undoubtedly the main driver. I felt it was time to have a break, enjoy life for a moment without work commitments. It has been well over two decades since I have had this luxury so intend to enjoy it.

Helping with this decision was the strength of the teams I had in place, both in Sydney and Hong Kong. They are experienced and capable, and this gives them the opportunity to expand their roles. From a personal perspective the stars had also aligned - my partner having semi-retired and becoming involved working with a fledgling charity and we had recently bought a small property up near the Hunter Valley. There was no ignoring the strong call for change.

Can you name some of the highlights of your your 20-year tenure?

A highlight for me is the growth of the business over my tenure. When I joined SSGA and subsequently became head of the indexing team in Australia, we had AUM in the region of A$15billion, that grew to in excess of A$100 billion.

Another highlight is how the passive world has changed over that time frame. In the old days we typically had a couple of domestic indices and a couple of global indices to follow. Today passive management can provide many solutions for investors, particularly in the realms of smart beta or factor investing. What resonates with me is the work being done in the passive space for investors on ESG solutions.

When I think of highlights, I cannot go past how privileged I have been to work with such high calibre people, not just within SSGA but also our clients, some of whom are inspirational in the way they use innovative ideas in their portfolio construction.

One final highlight for me was on International Women’s Day in 2017 when SSGA placed the Fearless Girl in front of the Bull in NY. It was amazing the sense of pride that we as employees had in that bold statement, and that was not limited to the females in the company.

How have you found being a woman in the financial services industry – and how has that changed over the years?

I spent a lot of the early part of my career in dealing rooms and it will be no surprise when I say that the environment was male oriented, and females were not in abundance. I certainly have had some memorable experiences such as a meeting I was taken to as the subject expert. In this meeting the person we were talking to would not address me directly but would ask my (male) colleague all his questions, my colleague would then ask me to respond. In hindsight, you can only laugh. I am happy to say that was a one off and was a long time ago.

It was not uncommon to turn up to meetings, presentations or industry events and be the only female in the room, and if not the only one, our numbers were always insignificant. More recently I have seen the instances where the shoe is on the other foot and a male turns up to an event or meeting, is the only male in the room and has commented on how uncomfortable he felt initially, and could appreciate how intimidated a female in the same situation would feel.

"The change that is the most inspiring to me is that talented women are making it more frequently to senior high-profile positions in the industry.

What I love about the changes I have seen in the industry is that the lack of females is acknowledged and to not have that pool of resources available ultimately has a negative impact in the future. The positive is that this problem has attracted focus from many and varied directions. I have been a participant in some of the industry working groups such as the Mercer project focusing on Investment Management specifically and the Financial Services Council Diversity workgroup. Most industry participants are looking internally at the issues and trying to create a level playing field in the areas of hiring and promotions, it is not going to happen overnight but to see the universal change in mindset is encouraging.

The change that is the most inspiring to me is that talented women are making it more frequently to senior high-profile positions in the industry, this is so beneficial in many ways, most importantly it is providing more role models for younger women to aspire to.

What was the impetus for your career in finance?

I initially was introduced to the banking industry through an undergraduate program that one of the banks was running during the summer break before going into my last year of university. At the end of the program, I continued to work for the bank while completing my degree and then went into their graduate program. This gave me exposure to the different career options within financial services and I soon had my eye set on getting into Merchant Banking. What I remember most is being told by so many people through this next period of my career is that I am not likely to be successful because it is very competitive to get that type of job.

I did end up getting into a Merchant Bank, I loved the vibe and the varied specialities that were conducted within the business. I decided I really wanted to go into the dealing room, and it took me a while to get there, but I was determined and kept my sights on the job I wanted. It was not the last time that I ignored advice that I would not get that job; through stubbornness and determination, I made it into Funds Management where I think I could say I found my niche and have enjoyed the career the industry offered.

"For the immediate future the plans are to take some time out, enjoy doing the things I want to do and spend time at the property we have up at the Hunter.

What are your plans for life after SSGA?

For the immediate future the plans are to take some time out, enjoy doing the things I want to do and spend time at the property we have up at the Hunter. In preparation for this change of pace, I started taking horse riding lessons a couple of years ago, a passion I have had since childhood. Late last year I bought my horse, a beautiful ex racehorse, who is currently stabled at Terrey Hills. I am so excited to get him up to the property so that he becomes a part of our everyday life, he has acres to run on and where we are spoilt for choice on trail rides.

…and will you be open to board or executive appointments going forward?

Those paths are options I will consider while having some time out. I have been a director on boards in my professional career and in the NFP space, moving in that direction is something that I could see myself doing in the future.

Where did you grow up and what was it like?

Early on in my childhood, my family moved a couple of times to different country towns because of my father’s job. The town where we settled and where I did most of my growing up was Yass, about 3 hours’ drive from Sydney on the Hume Highway. I am an outdoors sort of person, so the lifestyle suited me down to the ground; horse riding, going everywhere on bikes and just having big open spaces to be in.

I remember during school holidays my friends and I would leave home in the mornings to head off on our adventures, which could be in the town or in the countryside or the river, and we would be home before dinner. I loved that we had such independence and freedom as children, we were able to just get on with being kids and were blissfully unaware of dangers that parents and children must be aware of now.

With the benefit of hindsight what advice would you give to your 21 year-old self?

Be confident in your abilities, speak up when you have something to say and be aware of how not to use language that undermines you.

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