Rebecca Thomas is a relatively new New Zealander, emigrating
here from the UK a few years ago. Professionally, she is the
CEO of Mint Asset Management; she is also on the Board of the
Financial Markets Authority as well as the Board of Kiwi Rail. In
person, she is vivacious, warm, outspoken, and great fun. Someone
you'd like to have a coffee with. So I did - several
coffees! We had some wide ranging conversations and Sarah and
I felt that we should share her thoughts with our wider network as
well as draw on her passion for advancing women and stir her to
work with us…
We are delighted to let you know that Rebecca will be one of our
three Panellists at our new initiative 'Power
Coaching Women onto Boards' in June. Alongside Rebecca
will be Adrienne Young-Cooper who has featured on
Professionelle before, and Maury Leyland, who we hope to
Rebecca's first loves are saving and investing. Don't laugh!
I have been passionate about investing and saving since I can
remember. It's a little sad but I have practised what I preach
about saving since I was 21. I was making additional tax advantaged
voluntary contributions to my pension at 21 …planning for my
It isn't surprising that Rebecca is passionate about women
making sure they look after their financial independence. "I
believe that women need to be financially self sufficient and that
that in turn gives you choices and flexibility," says
Rebecca. To her, choices and flexibility lead to happiness.
Rebecca really enjoys taking a topic like finance, which is swathed
in mystical language and terminology that defies easy
comprehension, and de-mystifying it for the woman on the
She is nothing but emphatic when she declares, "Let's face it, no
one really wants to think about saving. But in my lifetime
governments have handed the baton over to individuals when it comes
to saving for retirement. This is because state provision has
become unaffordable, either because of demography, or because
the end of communism has forced financial realism on certain
countries." Rebecca tells me that when she started working in
1986, it was only a year after the practice ended whereby English
women had to elect to be separately taxed when they were
Rebecca became a Non-Executive Director in the UK just after she
turned 40. She started out in roles that were directly related to
her specific industry experience and then broadened out into other
governance roles. From her mid 30s, she had been a CEO of a listed
entity in the UK and, as you can probably tell, she is extremely
In New Zealand, Rebecca's directorships are all on Crown-owned
companies. So she isn't doing it for the money....For Rebecca
it's about contributing back to her adopted country, something I
deeply relate to and perhaps that's part of why we get on so
Rebecca brings her deep knowledge of running businesses as well
as her knowledge of the markets and she has, in a short space of
time, reached positions of influence here. She is certain that two
things in particular make her able to contribute effectively around
the Board table:
- being financially literate
- having experienced situations where she had to make tough
decisions like making people redundant.
Boards in New Zealand
I have been to a number of events in New Zealand where women
discuss wanting to get onto Boards. My view is that - given the low
numbers of women who have been at the top echelons in executive
roles - that this aspiration is a bit of chicken and egg. This
doesn't mean that Board-ready women don't exist but it does mean
that the pool of women with requisite experience may not be massive
at this stage. I should say that I don't believe in quotas
because I am a meritocrat. What I want to see is selection being
made from a more diverse range of appropriately qualified
On a somber note, Rebecca is critical of our Boards.
Originally, she looked at our listed companies through her Mint
lens and thought that the pool of directors in New Zealand was too
small. She saw the same people on many companies'
boards. Rebecca thinks that having the same directors on so
many boards means that they can't possible be doing a great job on
all of them.
Not only that, but this also means that these companies aren't
benefiting from the diversity of perspective that a wider range of
people would bring. She shared these views with me when I
first met her, and on the strength of them I asked her to help us
with our Power Coaching Women onto Boards event, which we all hope
will, indeed, further help in widening the talent pool.
What do women bring to the Board table?
her view, there isn't a difference between the contributions women
make to management as opposed to Boards. An executive team and a
Board both have collective responsibility for decision making
whether it is in respect of day-to-day management or governance
matters, and women bring their own perspective to each table.
Even though she would hate to generalise, she does think that when
it comes to managing people women can make an excellent
contribution. She told me about the team she assembled around
her when she was the CEO. It had a majority of women: seven out of
ten to be precise. This was the first and only time in her
career where this was the case. She says it was a wonderfully
supportive experience which delivered results in a tough
environment. People asked her if she favoured women over men
but she says it was absolutely merit based. Goes to show,
there is no shortage of good women if you only look for them!
Finally, Rebecca says that managing people is just one area where
women excel. Research identifies innovation and risk management as
being two other areas.
About the number of women in senior positions in New
Rebecca thinks that NZ is behind the 8 ball when it comes to
women making it to the top echelons in corporates.
Rebecca pointed out to me that the exceptions are in industries
where women's performance can be objectively judged such as
Fund Management, which is my area, is a classic because
individuals are assessed and measured by third parties outside the
firm. There are independent league tables of fund manager's
performance, and firms want whoever is best regardless of gender.
The politics of the corporate is irrelevant to the capability and
ultimately the career success of a fund manager.
Similarly, she thinks that lawyers and accountants are judged by
their billings and independent testimonials around their
To her, the depressing statistics around listed companies in NZ
reveal that the number of women at the top is getter fewer and this
is in stark contrast to the results achieved from overseas
initiatives to increase the number of woman in senior positions in
Rebecca is aware of the number of initiatives running now to try
and reverse this trend. In part, she believes the very poor track
record in this area reflects the fact that NZ is a small country
and there are skill shortages in a number of key areas.
But nevertheless, she feels that there are too few listed
company Directors, and that these few 'hog' the space.
Looking on the bright side, she points out that New Zealand is a
country of SME's and not large corporates. "I meet plenty of
women who have chosen to start their own businesses and are really
just getting on with it, which is what being a woman in business is
Her advice for women who want to be directors
Not surprisingly, Rebecca's first advice for women is to "learn
how to read financial statements". She also advises women to
get involved in governance matters in the non-profit sector, which
so many of us do already, but the key is to learn how to leverage
those into other, paid positions. Indeed Rebecca says we need
to learn how to network. Her very practical advice is get our
C.V. out to all the search and selection firms we can think of and
talk to people who are on Boards already to see if there might be a
suitable opportunity for you.
"I have a very important comment," says Rebecca:
Women have to remember that with the glory comes responsibility
and they are equal parts of the same thing. Director's duties are
not to be taken on lightly. Recent court cases have highlighted
failures in listed entity Director's behavior and standards are
rightly high and sanctions commensurate with this.
Rebecca is hugely protective of her own reputation.
The way I see it, I sell my reputation every time I go on a
Board. That's all I have.
It isn't a magic bullet being a Director. It is hard work
and can be rewarding, but we, as women, have to be prepared to put
in the hard yards, do our homework, make sure we are financially
literate and have a tough skin.
How does she manage it all?
She doesn't, is the very honest answer. It is this
openness and genuineness about Rebecca that really draws you in.
Rebecca embraces outsourcing (and we wholeheartedly agree!).
The appearance of everything being under control is achieved with
help from husband, her Nanny, ironing service and a whole lot of
compromise about doing the most important stuff and not sweating
the stuff which is not critical. She adds with a smile; "Of course
I still beat myself up when I can't do everything and still lack
the wisdom not to let this go!"
She is very honest in adding that what usually falls behind is
looking after herself, spending time at the gym, seeing her
friends, doing things that are just for her. She craves some
alone time which she still sees as a bit of an indulgence, but
something she'd like to work on.
In fact, her personal life is what she is most proud of.
The fact that she met and married her considerably younger husband
and managed to have a family in her 40's is what she sees as her
biggest achievement. Her previous relationships never
lasted as her partners were always on the same career trajectory as
her and they ended up competing. At one point she even had to
make a boy friend redundant. He was very mature about it she
says, but - unsurprisingly - the relationship didn't last.
She met her younger husband when he was a graduate and so they
never competed. He has since carved out an impressive career
for himself and is doing very well professionally. But their
relationship never had that added stress of competing in the same
And her best advice?
You need to develop a thick skin, it isn't a level playing field
between men and women and you have to work harder and be better to
achieve the same position. The harsh reality of the uneven
playing field means you have to have real conviction about wanting
to succeed despite the compromises - or you may decide it is just
not worth the compromises you will have to make. And this is
So says the plain speaking, no-nonsense businesswoman with a