How Macquarie Bank’s new chief Shemara Wikramanayake breaks the mould

Macquarie Shemara Wikramanayake

Macquarie Group's incoming chief executive Shemara Wikramanayake. Source: AAP Image/Dean Lewins

Only the second woman to run a major Australian financial institution, Shemara Wikramanayake, says she’s never encountered barriers on her path to the top, despite the fact she’s “in a lot of minority groups”.

Wikramanayake will take the reins of Macquarie Bank in November after the 10-year rule of Nicholas Moore, who led the company through the global financial crisis and saw its market capitalisation more than double, from $17 billion to $41 billion.

Following in the footsteps of Westpac and St George Bank boss Gail Kelly — Australia’s first female bank chief executive — Wikramanayake’s first note on the agenda suggests she wants to expand the legacy of women bankers.

“For me the first thing is to persuade girls what a great career this is,” Wikramanayake told the Australian Financial Review when discussing her appointment this week.

Wikramanayake also defended Macquarie, often maligned as the ‘Millionaires Factory’ and regarded by some as a male-dominated, old-school bastion of the patriarchy. But the new chief rejects the characterisation, insisting she has never faced barriers due to “my gender, my ethnicity or my size — I am in a lot of minority groups”.

The 56-year-old, who will be Macquarie’s sixth chief executive, has been with the institution for 30 years in various corporate advisory roles. Since 2008 she has headed the bank’s biggest business unit — the asset management arm — with a portfolio of about $530 billion under management.

In all, she has worked for Macquarie in nine cities in six countries, earning a total remuneration package of $16.7 million in 2017-18, up from $15.3 million the previous year, according to the bank’s 2018 annual report.

Wikramanayake told The Australian Financial Review in 2016 that she took a year out from Macquarie in the early 2000’s to see if “she could find a different use for her talents”. She turned those talents to establishing a children’s charity, travelling and doing some art courses, according to the AFR article, but ultimately returned to the bank.

Born to a Sri Lankan father, who worked as a doctor, Wikramanayake attended school in London, before her family moved to Sydney, where she attended Sydney’s prestigious Ascham girl’s school before studying commerce and law at the University of New South Wales.

Financial commentator James Thomson described Wikramanayake as a “brilliant mind, a brilliant deal maker” and acknowledged her appointment as an endorsement of diversity in corporate Australia. But he  also noted Wikramanayake’s commitment to encore her predecessor with “business as usual”.

“Wikramanyake remains something of an enigma — publicly shy and happy to remain very much in the background,” Thomson wrote in the AFR.

“Of course, this is very much the way of Macquarie, particularly under Moore, a leader who also deflects publicity, keeps his cards close to his chest and lets the numbers do the talking for him.”

Still, it seems shareholders are wary of the change. Macquarie Group shares fell 2.6% to $121.70 on Thursday on news of Wikramanayake’s appointment. However, it rallied on Friday to close at $124.02.

The changing of the guard has some investors wondering if a dip in the market is on the horizon. The last time the role changed hands in 2008, the bank was similarly at the top of the market and on the verge of the global financial crisis.

Staff stability the key

Journalist and anti-gambling campaigner Stephen Mayne told ABC radio that Moore was one of the most successful corporate figures in Australia and “one of the great bankers globally”.

But Mayne ultimately put down the success of Macquarie to its team-focussed management and long tenures, not its chief executive talent.

“In corporate Australia we always tend to focus on the one person as if they’ve got everything and they’re responsible for everything and Shemara [Wikramanayake], the replacement for Nicholas, has been there for 30 years.

“She’s been a key part of the team and if you look at the Macquarie executive committee, the average tenure is 20 years.

“The secret to Macquarie’s success is they hire the best and brightest, they give them latitude to be creative and entrepreneurial and, most importantly, they give them the majority of the profits, but they lock it up for seven years so its too expensive to leave.

“So they all stay forever and they’re all very successful, they’re all highly motivated with skin in the game”.

This article was first published by The New Daily. You can read it here

NOW READ: Women still missing from executive leadership line roles in 126 major Australian companies

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