The Big Interview: Marcia Campbell, Scotland’s ‘First Lady of Finance’

Marcia Campbell holds non-executive roles at the likes of Canada Life, Aviva, Sainsburys Bank, FTSE 250 investment trust Murray International Trust and French insurer CNP Assurances. Picture: Jon Savage
Marcia Campbell holds non-executive roles at the likes of Canada Life, Aviva, Sainsburys Bank, FTSE 250 investment trust Murray International Trust and French insurer CNP Assurances. Picture: Jon Savage
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She has a valid claim to the title of Scotland’s First Lady of Finance, with a career covering a wealth of roles at high-profile organisations. But when it comes to one memory that stands out, Marcia Campbell cites an incident early on when she worked in consultancy and asked her team to carry out a task.

“It taught me a lesson,” she says, “which was if you get a group of people together it doesn’t matter if you don’t know how to do something, you can work out how, and that has been the story of my life really in terms of my career. So I’ve never felt daunted by any challenge.”

Campbell holds non-executive roles at the likes of Canada Life, Aviva, Sainsbury’s Bank, FTSE 250 investment trust Murray International Trust and French insurer CNP Assurances.

She spent two decades at Standard Life, during which time it changed course from mutual to listed company and her titles included company secretary, latterly serving as group operations director and chief executive of Asia Pacific. This was followed by a spell as operations director of Ignis Asset Management, which was taken over by Standard Life Investments in 2014.

Turning to her current activity, she says: “This is like another career for me and I’m still in the training phase. I’ve become a non-executive now – I look at the world in a different way and skills that you need are different but you draw upon a lot of things from your own executive career.”

She insists that rather than being simply a means of embellishing a CV, non-executive roles come with considerable responsibility and in financial services can be “quite onerous”. An appointment has to receive regulatory approval, she explains, and the Financial Conduct Authority’s Senior Managers Regime obliges responsibility for all of a firm’s business functions and activities, with annual reviews. Consequently, a non-exec role is “not really a cushy number – your reputation’s at risk if anything happens in any of your companies”.

Regarding her role at CNP, she says it is very much to be independent amid key parties’ differing priorities.

Consequently, straight-talking is essential. “That’s how they want you to behave,” says Campbell, who is half-French. And she is amused that board members tell her that she says “what everybody’s thinking – I get away with it because they think ‘well, that’s the Anglo Saxon way’.”

While she was the first female board member at CNP, France has been ahead of the UK when it comes to gender diversity in boardrooms. In 2011, France made it a legal requirement for companies in the CAC 40 index to have women occupying 40 per cent of their boardroom roles by 2017 – and the percentage there has risen from 21 to 38 in just four years.

In the UK, FTSE 100 firms in 2015 met a voluntary target of boards to be a quarter female, but the Women On Boards review recommended that this increase to at least a third of FTSE 350 firms by 2020.

While opinion is divided on the value of quotas, Campbell says that having previously not been in favour she has come around to the idea after seeing it in action. “It’s so important that you don’t want people to get bored of it – you want to get to a position where it’s natural and it’s not having to be forced through.”

She also insists that she has “never really experienced” sexism in her career because she “always worked with great people, and if it was there I didn’t notice it”, deciding to simply power ahead with what she wanted to achieve.

However, it has become apparent after she became a non-exec “that there are things that happen or things that are said”, citing David Bonderman, ejected from his board role at Uber after saying more women in such a position would likely mean “more talking”.

Last summer Campbell joined Woodford Investment Management, which in August made headlines when it scrapped bonuses. The privately owned asset manager led by fund manager Neil Woodford, which has assets under management of about £18 billion, cited little connection between bonus and performance.

Campbell is chairman of the oversight board at the company, and says the matter was discussed by its team, and everybody signed up, in a bold move to eliminate an ingrained aspect of financial services. However, given that the company was founded in 2014 she notes that it is unencumbered by legacy issues.

The subject of bonuses “just creates a lot of issues that really shouldn’t be there,” Campbell says, noting that when she started at Standard Life in 1990, there was a small Christmas bonus, but the issue then snowballed across the industry.

She was hired to the Edinburgh-based company by Sir Sandy Crombie, who stepped down as chief executive in 2009, and is now a non-exec director at RBS. Before joining, Campbell spent eight years with consultancy group Proudfoot. “It was a very, very tough life, actually, living out of a suitcase Monday to Friday on client premises, doing projects,” although it taught her a great deal about different businesses and with constant access to top management.

When she jumped ship to Standard Life she did “a bit of everything” as was the norm at the time. “In financial services nowadays people are much more specialised… which is a shame really because you could develop a good network across the company.”

She moved up the ranks, and was the first woman in the company’s top 100 ranking, the first in the top 40 and the first on the group executive.

And she explains that when the capital requirements for insurance companies were increased on the back of the collapse of Equitable Life, her employer had to adjust its asset allocation, and it reduced its investment in equities. This depleted the capital of what was Europe’s biggest mutual company in the 1990s. 
As a result, the business floated in 2006 and now has about 1.2 million shareholders, but how did she deal with negativity in advance of the demutualisation?

“We knew the company well and we knew the people – when you’ve got great people and you know that it’s going to be a success you just get on with it.

“We did the strategic review [in 2004] and set out what we needed to do in order to save the company, effectively, so we had to cut costs, make quite substantial changes to some of the product lines and this is where the strategy of being an asset-gatherer came into play.

“Because we had limited capital we had to find a way of being successful in a capital-light way. And that’s the strategy I suppose that’s led to this merger today with Aberdeen Asset Management,” she continues. The £11 billion deal was last month given the green light by financial regulators and will create one of the world’s biggest fund management groups with some £670bn of assets.

“We just need to make sure we’ve got some new companies coming through as well as part of this consolidation – we need new companies in Scotland to pick up the mantle,” Campbell adds. She believes Scotland should be marketing itself as a world-renowned resource for risk-management and analytics, and sits on the high-level strategy group at Scottish Financial Enterprise, whose members comprise more than three-quarters of those employed in financial services north of the border.

Campbell also asserts that by building better networks people are more likely to spark greater innovation.

And while it can be tempting to focus on internal rather than external networks at a company, “it’s not the right thing to do – with hindsight you can do things and you can help people,” and she is an active mentor, via Women in Banking and Finance, whose locations include Edinburgh and Glasgow.

She also addresses the current stage of her career. “The way I’ve built my portfolio is to get companies that I like and that I’m in tune with and to try and get something different each time.”

Previous roles include chairman of the Scottish Green Investment Advisory Board, and committee member of Barnardo’s Scotland, while she has been a business angel via Edinburgh-based venture capital firm Par Equity.

Her ambition now is to take on the likes of a chairman position at a “reasonably sized company” at some point. “It would have to be something where there’s something to get your teeth into, so either a turnaround or building a business, something like that… but only when I feel that I’m ready for it and that I’ve earned my stripes.”