Cecilia Ronan: ‘I could easily have stepped out because of my personal circumstances’

Citi’s new chief country officer says there is a need to create an environment for women to thrive in business

Cecilia Ronan: “I told them that I may not necessarily be here until 8 o’clock at night, because I wanted to go home, do the feed and the bath, but I said that what I would do would be of really high quality.” Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Cecilia Ronan: “I told them that I may not necessarily be here until 8 o’clock at night, because I wanted to go home, do the feed and the bath, but I said that what I would do would be of really high quality.” Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

Heading towards the lift to her office in the Scott Tallon Walker-designed Citigroup building that fronts on to the Liffey in Dublin, a painting that’s slightly off level catches the corner of Cecilia Ronan’ s eye.

Adjustment made, the new chief country officer at one of the biggest employers in the International Financial Services Centre (IFSC) is now happy to get into the elevator. It’s clear, even before Ronan sits down for her first profile interview, that she likes things just so.

“I’m the eldest of eight children. Now that I look back, I probably was a bit of a boss back then,” Ronan (44) jokes. “I remember once telling [a senior colleague] that I had six brothers below me, and he just said, ‘Well, that explains it all, Cecilia’.”

The Limerick native, who spent almost all of her school days in Africa, was appointed to her new role in March, putting her in charge of the US banking giant’s 2,500 employees in the Republic. It’s a role she has to juggle with her position as the second-highest-ranking executive at Citibank Europe, which is headquartered in Dublin and responsible for the group’s banking activities across 22 countries.

Protectionist policies

Citi – as the group has become more commonly known – was among the first major overseas banks to enter the Republic, setting up a base on Dawson Street in 1965 as it followed major US clients expanding into the country under then taoiseach Seán Lemass’s push to reverse decades of protectionist Irish policies.

It’s become one of the IFSC’s biggest success stories, evolving under Aidan Brady (who led the operation for two decades to early 2016) from a push in the 1990s into low-cost services for the group to becoming home to Citi’s first financial technology research and innovation centre in 2009. That was a time when many other overseas banks were retrenching from Ireland.

“If we had just stayed as a cost centre, the operation in Ireland would be much smaller than it is now, given the wage inflation that happened here in the 2000s,” says Ronan, who sees more senior roles moving to Dublin as the group navigates Brexit, though the overall headcount is unlikely to move significantly higher.

Ronan, who has been with the group for the past 18 years, didn’t follow a typical route to the top. Starting off in human resources (HR) in Dublin, the law graduate then made a pitch to head up that burgeoning department at a traumatic time in her life when many others would step back from the workforce entirely (more of that later), before branching out into roles in operations and technology and, ultimately, becoming chief administrative officer for the banks new European headquarters in Dublin.

‘Hire attitude’

“I think I got a lot of opportunities along the way, but I also built my career here identifying areas where I could contribute in the organisation, even if it was outside my specific remit,” says Ronan. “We do say that in Citigroup, you can hire attitude and teach skills. If you have the right desire, passion, drive, the ability to interact with people – that’s a lot of this job.”

Ronan moved to Africa when she was a schoolgirl after her father got a job with the United Nations, developing accountancy qualifications in countries such as Malawi, Botswana and Zambia in the southern part of the continent.

“We went to international schools and it was fairly transient in that you would have friends for two years and then their father and mother would have moved on,” Ronan says. “It was compound-type living, because there were quite high levels of poverty, particularly in Malawi, and quite high levels of crime – though I’m not talking about vicious crimes.”

At 17, Ronan moved to Dublin to study law at University College Dublin. “My parents sent me on my own. I’d never been to Dublin, as we would only have travelled to the west when we were in Ireland. So it was a bit of an adventure.”

Persuasion

While Ronan liked aspects of the law degree, she required some persuasion from her father to finish the course as she struggled to work out what she really wanted to do. She decided that HR was her passion.

Back in Africa, Ronan undertook a long-distance masters in HR and training with the University of Leicester. With the internet still in its infancy, the college would send her books to the local post office in Gaborone in Botswana.

In 1997, Ronan joined Microsoft Ireland’s HR department before getting a call three years later on an opening at Citi in Dublin, which had about 1,500 staff at the time.

However, the turning point in Ronan’s career came when she was on maternity leave in 2006 after her marriage broke down.

“Let’s just say I was married and then I wasn’t married. When I was giving birth to my daughter, Lauren, I was a single mom, actually. My parents were still in Africa and I remember them suggesting I just go to them and they’d look after me. It was quite traumatic.

“Actually, the decision I took was in the opposite direction, because I thought, I’m the only one who’s going to be able to provide for this little thing. That really kick-started my ambition. I think it was an inflection point in my career.”

“I’m the eldest of eight children. Now that I look back, I probably was a bit of a boss back then.” Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
“I’m the eldest of eight children. Now that I look back, I probably was a bit of a boss back then.” Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

It was while she was on leave that Ronan decided to go for the head of the HR department, as the position came up, which also covered a number of central European branches of the Dublin subsidiary. It was important to set expectations from the outset, according to Ronan.

“I told them that I may not necessarily be here until 8 o’clock at night, because I wanted to go home, do the feed and the bath, but I said that what I would do would be of really high quality.”

Opportunities

HR gave Ronan an opportunity to understand the business and work with executives across various areas, taking opportunities as they presented themselves, from moving into the operations and technology division to, ultimately, becoming chief administrative officer and second-highest-ranking executive at the group’s new European headquarters in Dublin.

Citibank Europe’s assets effectively doubled in size to about $50 billion (€43.3 billion) and its employees ballooned to 9,000 at the start of 2016 when the group’s United Kingdom-based Citibank International unit was folded into the Dublin operation.

Czech-born Zdenek Turek was brought in as chief executive to succeed Brady as he retired.

The merger was part of a drive by Citigroup’s global chief executive Michael Corbat, in position since late 2012, to simplify the group’s unwieldy structure and the cost of its number of legal entities, in order to reduce risk after its $45 billion US taxpayer bailout during the financial crisis.

Completed almost six months before UK voters decided to quit the European Union, it left the group well placed as rivals scrambled to find ways to maintain access to the single market. Still, Citi has chosen Frankfurt as the base for its future EU broker-dealer operation, which is responsible for the trading of securities such as equities and bonds.

I do see maybe different skillsets in here – more senior roles, or beachhead hires

While James Cowles, chief executive of its Europe, Middle East and African (Emea) operations, outlined last year that some activities will move to Dublin as a result of Brexit, Ronan said she doesn’t expect the 2,500-strong workforce to “move significantly higher”.

Rejig roles

About 70 per cent of the workforce in Ireland is involved in the unglamorous world of transaction services. Still, the new country head sees Brexit as an opportunity to rejig roles further.

“I do see maybe different skillsets in here – more senior roles, or beachhead hires,” says Ronan, adding that she expects more positions in “the product development space, more client-facing positions, and also in functions such as legal, compliance, finance and risk”.

“I think we’ve become one of those centres of expertise across those types of functions and I think we’ll see different types of operational roles here in our service centre as well,” she says. “I think we’ll go up [in numbers], but it will be a slight increase.”

Ronan said that the group may move some work currently carried out in Dublin to Poland, where the bank has another large service centre.

Meanwhile, Ronan let it be known internally about two years ago that she wanted to be one of Citi’s 102 chief country officers – going so far as to apply for a position in Zambia and going through the process of 17 interviews when her heart was really set on staying in Ireland.

Exposure

“It was the best thing to do. I got exposure to every single one of the senior executives in Citi and the decision-makers. So, my ambition was known.”

While Turek took on the dual role of chief country officer for Ireland when he became CEO of Citibank Europe, it was decided that Ronan should take on the Irish position as her boss’s time was increasingly taken up elsewhere.

The country head is refreshingly confident enough to acknowledge her limitations and knowledge gaps.

“I wouldn’t necessarily have done any bond deals and things like that, but we have an excellent corporate and investment banking team, who I will work with now and learn from,” she says.

Citi is the only international investment bank with a corporate banking presence in Ireland. The unit – chaired by Tony Golden and where Louise O’Mara heads the corporate banking team – has been involved in a number of high-profile deals in the past 15 months, including the flotation of glass and metals container group Ardagh in New York and the initial public offering of AIB, where the State sold a 28.8 per cent stake in the bank for €3.4 billion.

Women chosen

While Francesca McDonagh cuts a lonely figure as the only female head of an Irish retail bank, a number of overseas financial groups have chosen women to head up sizeable and increasingly complex operations in Dublin.

Deutsche Bank’s Ireland country officer, Fiona Gallagher, is in charge of a workforce of 750 in Ireland, and has recently taken on further responsibilities as head of the group’s securities services division, where it has almost €3 trillion of assets under custody.

Elsewhere, Fiona Flannery was appointed in 2014 as chief executive of Depfa Bank, the German-owned lender that nearly collapsed during the financial crisis and which is being wound down.

Meanwhile, the European operation of State Street Global Services, which employs more than 2,500 people in Ireland, is led by Susan Dargan, though she is planning to step down later this year.

“But that’s still not good enough. I’m an example of someone who could easily have stepped out because of my personal circumstances, so I think we need to create an environment for women to thrive in business,” Ronan says.

Citigroup’s goal is that women will hold 30 per cent of senior positions by 2025, up from about 11 per cent currently. “We really need to do it faster than that, in my view. You need to have goals and targets that are measurable... and diversity not just in the candidates but also in the hiring managers.”

You will always need critical reasoning, critical thinking, judgment and decision-making

Bridging the gender pay gap is another story. Citi filings under the UK government’s first compulsory survey into gender pay disparities show that if you are a woman working for the group in London, chances are your salary is 30 per cent below that of a male colleague – and that your bonus is 67 per cent lower.

People and cyborgs

But if Vikram Pandit, who ran Citigroup through the crisis, is to be believed, the real war will be between people and cyborgs – predicting in 2017 that artificial intelligence (AI) will wipe out 30 per cent of banking jobs over five years.

Ronan does not subscribe to this view. “We’ve done some proof of concepts in Citi, and while robotics may take out 10 per cent or even 30 per cent of a role, it won’t take out the whole role. What we need to do is apply the technology, whether that’s AI, machine learning or robotics to the nature of the work so that we can actually make the work more interesting, rather than eliminating jobs.

“You will always need critical reasoning, critical thinking, judgment and decision-making. Even if the bots do come, they’ll still need people to look after them.”

FACT FILE:

Name: Cecilia Ronan

Job: Chief country officer for Citigroup in Ireland

Age: 44

Lives: North Co Dublin

Family: Has a 12-year-old daughter, Lauren, and is engaged to Finn

Hobbies: Walking in the Burren in Co Clare, reading and going to concerts

Something we might expect: “Ireland really needs to maintain its competitiveness. I was here during the days of the booming wage increases, the inflation. We can’t do that again or we will price ourselves out.”

Something that might surprise: “I was a keen runner who used to race 100 meters in 12 seconds – but not anymore.”

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