Icelandic ‘Sister’ who believes in the power of women in finance

Halla Tómasdóttir is uncompromising about the root causes of the economic crisis

 

Halla Tómasdóttir is a rare creature on a number of fronts: she is a woman working in the very senior levels of finance, she is a financial professional who believes in pursuing sustainability as much as profit and, to top it off, she is Icelandic.

With a population of just 323,000, the volcanic Nordic island was historically seen as a low-key global player, until its overly ambitious banking sector staged a spectacular and headline-grabbing collapse in 2008, quickly taking the economy with it.

Tómasdóttir was heavily engaged in finance in Iceland at the time, having established investment firm Audur Capital with colleague Kristin Pétursdóttir just one year previously.

Unusually, the firm’s ethos was rooted in femininity: Tómasdóttir and Pétursdóttir had known each other from a women’s network at Reykjavík University and, meeting again in 2007, had found they were dissatisfied with working according to “other people’s values” in their respective jobs.

The meeting of minds led to Tómasdóttir saying goodbye to her chief executive job at the Iceland chamber of commerce and led to the creation of Audur, named after a Viking heroine. The company attracted a good deal of positive publicity at the time, helped along by establishing a fund in conjunction with famous Icelandic musical export, Björk. Tómasdóttir, who is in Dublin for a launch with the National Women’s Council of Ireland, has said in the past that she felt “a bit overwhelmed with testosterone” and “sameness” in financial services at the time of Audur’s establishment.

In a well-received Ted talk (as part of the Ideas Worth Spreading conferences for the Sapling Foundation) in 2010, a very polished and effective Tómasdóttir spoke of the decision to incorporate feminine values with a career in finance as being “almost like coming out of the closet”.

Audur advocated risk-awareness rather than pure risk-taking in investments and emphasised the importance of placing value on emotional capital, rather than pure financial capital, because “people make and lose money, not Excel spreadsheets”.

In the event, Audur stood out among its Icelandic peers by making it through the country’s financial meltdown without direct costs to itself or its portfolio, but the aftermath of the crisis did have its impact. The capital controls that Iceland introduced in 2008 to prevent outflows of domestic holdings in its banks also resulted in limiting the international ambitions of anybody still standing in the financial community.

Tómasdóttir says “it got to a point” where her agenda and her drive to be international could no longer be satisfied under Icelandic rules, so she parted company with Audur in 2013 as the firm was merged with another domestic entity. She left and went to Copenhagen, and the establishment of private equity firm Sisters Capital was the next step.

“Sisters” in this context refers to “women and men who embrace feminine values” and appreciate how they contribute to the bottom line – Tómasdóttir is careful to be very clear that she is not interested in “male-bashing”.

Quoting research from US accounting firm Rothstein Kass, she says that in 2012, an index of 67 hedge funds owned or managed by women had a return of almost 9 per cent, while an index that might be deemed more representative of the (male, white) industry generated 2.7 per cent.

Her simple conclusion is that more women are needed in finance, with this leading to less ego and more “collaboration” and more focus on emotional capital and less obsession with financial capital.

“In order to bring about change, it’s important to approach it with dialogue,” says Tómasdóttir.

Perhaps reflecting the necessary nature of this “dialogue”, she is a fan of what could be called jargon; she refers to being a “change catalyst”and working with “mission-aligned people” in Sisters Capital.

On a practical level though, the company is investing and choosing ventures that match its own philosophy such as a network that circulates news of particular interest to those advocating more feminine objectives.

“The whole area of impact investing is really growing now,” says Tómasdóttir, adding that it shouldn’t be necessary to choose between making money and working towards a principled goal.

She notes that Sisters Capital works in private equity rather than in the public markets because the prevailing system of meeting quarterly goals “just doesn’t work for humans”.

Consulting

To further her beliefs (and also, presumably, her own bottom line), Tómasdóttir is also active in consulting in the area of leadership and risk and has become a popular speaker in the area. Tomorrow, with the National Women’s Council, she will launch a handbook entitled Better Boards, Better Business, Better Society: Increasing the Number of Women on Boards in Ireland. In it, the NWCI will call on the Government, board members and chief executives to support targeted measures to raise women’s presence on boards, notably the introduction of quotas.

Tómasdóttir is also strongly in favour of quotas, having once believed that an effective female presence on boards (40 per cent is often cited) could be achievable without what some see as a stricture that could end up being unhelpful to women. Now though, she is more than convinced.

“In 2006, I changed my mind. I was chief executive of the Iceland chamber of commerce during what we call the ‘mini-crisis’ [when Icelandic banks plunged on the stock market and the currency depreciated] and the reaction to that was very defensive, driven by the majority of business leaders.”

The “mini-crisis” has since been taken as a warning shot for Iceland, a kind of financial klaxon that fell on deaf ears. Instead of taking note, in Tómasdóttir’s words, the country continued “on a journey that seemingly had no end”.

To her, on the other hand, the male-dominated values that had underpinned the country’s expansion were simply not sustainable.

In Iceland, quotas have resulted in women comprising 43 per cent of listed boards, but in the Republic, the equivalent figure is just 10 per cent, despite initiatives such as the European Commission’s Women on Boards Directive. Icelandic quotas came after a voluntary period raised female representation from 12 per cent to 25 per cent; Tómasdóttir reckons it could take up to 80 years for Ireland to get to 40 per cent without them.

She acknowledges that other measures could be in place too, however.

Iceland and other Nordic countries are known for the existence of very affordable State-sponsored childcare and for leave being shared between parents after a child is born.

As a parent of two children, aged 11 and 13, and with experience of life in the UK and the US, Tómasdóttir is also conscious of the benefit of Iceland’s size on this front: families tend to live close to their wider network and can thus access support more easily than their equivalents in London and New York.

Iceland’s small size and position on the edge of Europe made its rise to financial prominence in the early part of the last decade particularly striking.

Its banks expanded massively abroad, notably in the UK via retail investments and also through offerings to retail customers, with one making a foray into Ireland with the purchase of Merrion Stockbrokers in 2005.

At the peak, their combined foreign debt was more than five times Iceland’s gross domestic product. This eventually became impossible to refinance, leading to bank runs and ultimately collapse.

Iceland’s three main banks – Kaupthing, Landsbanki and Glitnir – left behind $85 billion in debt when they imploded in 2008 and creditors have since been trying to get back what they can of the $24 billion that remained in assets.

Bankruptcy

The battle rumbles on, with the country’s capital control policy tightly wrapped around it. Strikingly for Ireland, the Icelandic approach to national bankruptcy involved burning its bondholders and protecting its own citizens from absorbing banking losses.

“Most people would agree that things have picked up,” says Tómasdóttir, who lives in Iceland with her husband and children.

She sees capital controls as creating “a bit of a false reality” and has concerns about the emotional effects of emerging from crisis because much debate continues to focus on “who is to blame”. This will be particularly true when wage pressures start to hit home, she believes.

She is also worried about what she sees as many rushing to repeat the mistakes of the past, even though a number of former banking executives have been prosecuted and sent to prison.

“We have pretty much rebuilt much of the infrastructure. We should be working a lot harder to avoid it.”

Tómasdóttir is, by her own admission, outspoken, but she sees no other choice because of what she views as the prevalence of the elite making decisions on behalf of entire populations when the elite is infected with a damaging “sameness”.

“I’m not very good with compromising,” she says.

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