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How to survive a career in the city without sacrificing anything

Interviews, Topics March 6, 2012
How to survive a career in the city without sacrificing anything

She was the poster girl for the finance industry, but it’s odd that when she started out Nicola had no intention of going to work in the City.

“I was at Balliol College, Oxford and studied Law,” she explains. “I had no intention of going into the City. I wanted to be an actress and had an audition at RADA when I was 17. They suggested that I should take up my place at Oxford and then come back afterwards. For some reason, I decided to apply for jobs in the City when I had finished at Oxford, knowing very little about it. There was no internet then and no work experience placements.”

Nicola quickly found something that she liked about the industry she had joined and, far more than the money, that’s what kept her there all this time. “It’s almost three decades now, I am so old,” she says smiling,“I’m motivated by intellectual challenge and I find the City very challenging. It is great to work with such intelligent and interesting people and very stimulating. That is what makes me come to work every day.”

She started work in the City in 1983, as a graduate trainee for the investment management business SG Warburg and Co. Within six years she had been made a director. At the time she joined, the City was renowned for its macho culture of heavy drinking, squash matches and making piles of cash.

As a young woman achieving success, Nicola quickly caught the attention of the media. When it was further revealed that the rising star had a family of six children, she was given the nickname ‘Superwoman’ – living proof that you didn’t have to choose between having a career and having a family. Although it wasn’t easy.

“You need to be determined and have plenty of energy. I am lucky that I do have lots of energy and am not the sort of person who needs ‘me time’. I don’t think that they are mutually exclusive. Women are programmed to multi-task.”

That said, she’s keen to stress that ‘having it all’ means knowing what’s important, even when you’ve got a job you love. “I don’t know many people who say that they wish that they had spent more time at work when they’re dying. There are plenty who say they wish they had spent more time with their families. I was lucky in that I had a job that was not too demanding in terms of hours and I did not have to travel, so I was able to spend quality time with the children. I always went home at the same time, 6.30pm, every day when they were little, helped with the homework, read to them and put them to bed.”

Despite this, Nicola’s never been that comfortable with the epithet ‘Superwoman’ and has often rejected it. When asked why she explains, “I don’t believe I am a ‘Superwoman’. I have always had a nanny and a housekeeper plus my mother has always helped me. I have also had a PA at work. I feel that a real superwoman is someone who holds down a job and successfully brings up children with no help at all.”

She goes on to add that whilst having a job and a family might have been something impressive once, more and more young women are doing it.

“Nearly 60% of women with small children now work. It is fast becoming the norm. Housing and living costs are now so high that giving up work is not necessarily an option. The major problem that we have in this country is the lack of affordable childcare and so many lower paid women are reliant on relatives to provide this if they continue working.”

Is it harder for women than for men in the City? “I haven’t ever been a man, so I don’t really know,” is Nicola’s laughing response. “However, I haven’t found there to be a ‘glass ceiling’. I was made a director of Warburgs, which was the best bank in the City in those days at the age of 28. It didn’t seem to make any difference that I was a woman. If anything, I think it has been an advantage being a woman over the years as people remember me.”

While standing out had its uses, it wasn’t always a blessing. “It was very difficult being highlighted all the time as I am a team player and I think it did irritate some of my colleagues that we had collectively done well and the success was being attributed to me.”

In recent years, Nicola has moved away from the finance industry and back to her first love of drama, although this time behind the scenes.

“In 2007, we started to look at the film industry and got involved in financing music in films in return for the music rights. This has been very successful and our clients ended up owning all of the music rights for The King’s Speech for example. There are now 125 scores in that fund. We then decided that we would set up a company to develop film projects as there is a lack of money for this in the industry. Derby Street Films started operating in April 2011 and we are currently working on six film projects.”

The two industries seem about as far removed from each other as possible. With the artistic, creative world of film making on one hand and the profit-driven, numbercrunching of city on the other, were there are transferable skills learned in finance that made Nicola think she could succeed in the film industry?

“The two are very different as we’re dealing with creative people and that’s harder than dealing with fund managers and analysts. However, we’re using some of the things that we learnt as fund managers and are very thorough in doing our due diligence on projects. We are also taking a portfolio approach in order to spread the risk for our investors. We are hoping to do 20-25 films over the next three years.”

Her move from finance to film moved Nicola out of the firing line of the financial crisis at just the right moment. Was that good judgement or had the industry changed too much from that in which she became successful?

“Since I came into the City, things have changed very dramatically,” Nicola explains. “When I started in 1983, most broking firms and banks were family run or were partnerships. Now we have huge financial companies, which don’t have the same heart and soul as the old firms. Regulation has also become a huge burden on the financial services industry. It’s an enormous cost and makes doing business much harder.”

That said, Nicola believes that we’re entering a period of more responsible banking, although she’s not entirely an optimist. “Sadly, memories are short and it is inevitable that there will be another credit binge at some stage. It may take another 30 years before we get to that point, but human nature is such that people get carried away in boom conditions and there is no reason to think that things will be different next time.”

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