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Gemma Woodward on life at Quilter Cheviot

Gemma Woodward, Executive Director and Director of Responsible Investment, talks about her career in finance and charity investing

Gemma turns right out of Quilter Cheviot’s London office, heading to the Delaunay, a fashionable London café-restaurant. It claims to be inspired by the grand cafés of Mitteleuropa, so maybe Gemma is instinctively looking forward to her holiday the week after next, an Austrian retreat nestled in the Alps. More likely, her turn is borne from habit, outing her as part of the Quilter Cheviot Delaunay mafia. All offices have their favourite haunts, and the Delaunay is the default option for coffee.

After some small talk about her holiday – ‘God I can’t wait, actually don’t put that in, has the interview started yet?’ – we get down to the interview itself. Gemma got started in finance through a marketing graduate scheme at Lloyds Bank. ‘I didn’t like it’, she says, ‘but the good thing about it was that you were moved around the business and got exposed to different areas.
I did a secondment in private banking and ended up going down that route.’

Were there many other women at the time? ‘Well, not many in investment management roles.’

Seventeen years on from Lloyds, Gemma is now an investment manager in the Charities Team at Quilter Cheviot, as well as the Director of Responsible Investment. She can probably lay claim to working with the greatest number of people across the business, including marketing, research, corporate actions, compliance, legal and sales. Gemma manages money, works with our research teams in engagement with companies and determining our votes at AGMs, and is responsible for our ethical investment approach. It’s a full time job, but one she loves and finds fulfilling. 

Gemma first began to get involved in the ethical side of investing whilst working at Henderson, which now makes up half of the fund manager Janus Henderson. ‘I arrived there at the bursting of the dotcom bubble, so I was a bit of a death knell for them. But they made a big point about their ethical investment approach, and it kind of rubbed off on everyone. When the part of the business I was working in was sold to Newton, we all took that approach with us, and I became involved in developing Newton’s ethical investment approach.’

‘Newton needed to develop their ethical offering, because it was clear that ethical and sustainable investing was getting bigger – even in the early 2000s. I made sure we knew what our clients meant by ethical investing – if you said no to investing in tobacco companies, for example, was that just tobacco companies or was it the supermarkets which sold cigarettes too?’

The cigarette example is one most people at Quilter Cheviot will have heard before. Gemma does not appear to have gotten tired of repeating it, though confusing ethical and responsible investment has been known to bring out mild conniptions in her.

Quickly, we turn to talking about what she remembers most about her career. People who work in finance are perhaps underrated in terms of how interesting they can be. Often forgotten is that they’re on the frontline of what’s happening in the news. Finance people inevitably accumulate their fair share of financial crises or manias over their careers, and yet there is almost always a unique anecdote, a gem of oral history glittering just beneath the surface. 

The most common stories nowadays concern the financial crisis. ‘It was a terrible time to be an investment manager, but it was also fascinating. We had charity clients phoning us up to ask where their cash was. The portfolio would be down 25-30%, and people just didn’t care because they wanted to make sure the charity’s cash was safe and not with a bank that was about to fail (happily none of my clients had fallen for the Icelandic banks’ high interest rates). We would go to the pub afterwards and just talk about work; it was too seismic to think about anything else.’

‘The thing is that investors tend to get stuck in a rut, or have an obsession about things. We saw that in 2008. Everyone was so shell-shocked and the mistake was that some switched their investment strategy precisely when markets started to pick up again.’

2008 might have taken over Gemma’s life temporarily, but it was also around this time that she started to get involved in charitable work. ‘I do think it’s important to have extra-curricular activities’, she muses. ‘The things I’ve done outside of work have given me very different experiences. Work won’t do everything for you, so it’s important to have something else.’

Gemma’s first trustee role was with Women and Health Camden. After ten years, she had to step down after serving for the maximum term length. ‘I was sad, because it’s a really important charity offering counselling therapies to refugees and women who have been through really traumatic experiences. It was very rewarding, but given my work with charities and the boards of companies, you do see how important it is to have term limits.’

‘You have to have this mix of longevity vs. legacy vs. freshness. It’s a very difficult balance to get right and then to maintain. I often see boards when half the people have been there 15+ years and the other half just two to three years. Well then you don’t get change, because the longstanding members continue doing what they’ve done for the past decade or more.’

Are there more women on charity boards than there are in finance?

‘No, I don’t think so. There’s always more to do in finance, but I think you have to be cognisant that many of the issues about female representation are present across society. I was approached through my old school’s alumni network to see whether I was interested in becoming a governor – apparently that had done a search for women, aged 40-50 with a background in finance. I always wonder whether it was a shortlist of one! I was talking to the chairman of the governors about how we get new governors on board and that open application would seem to be the most modern and democratic way to do so. She, quite rightly, asked whether I would have applied through that process – of course I wouldn’t have done!   

‘People always say that it’s open application, but this isn’t enough because stereotypically women tend to see two out of five things they haven’t done before and be put off. A man will see those two things and think that he can probably get away with it. So you also need to use referrals and headhunters in your selection process. That often fits very well with what companies and boards actually want – they tend to find they get the best people through referral. ’

Quick-fire questions: getting to know Gemma 

Hunter or gatherer?
Gatherer. Sounds nicer.

History – ancient, mediaeval or modern?
Oh, I can’t choose, they’re all fascinating! None of the right periods come up when you’re playing Trivial Pursuits though.

City or countryside?
City. I grew up in the countryside but I can’t imagine leaving London.

Quiet night in or big night out?
I like both, but big nights out are becoming rarer as I can’t handle the consequences.

Last book you read?
Calypso – it’s a series of short stories by David Sedaris

Desert island luxury?
Lip balm. I’m addicted.

Cheddar cheese or mozzarella?
Cheddar cheese. But if you’d asked me cheddar cheese or burrata, it’d be burrata.

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