Up close and personal: Women in financial services

From chief executives to chief underwriters, risk advisers to mental health and consumer advocates, here are the stories of six women in financial services you should know about.

Financial Standard has profiled six women from different parts of the industry, shedding light on what it takes to carve out a successful career in financial services.

  • Laura Wright, chief executive, NGS Super
NGS Super boasts an impressive alumni of female leaders who take the reins of some of the country's largest superannuation funds.

Debby Blakey (chief executive, HESTA), Dascia Bennett (chief executive, Super SA), and Jo Townsend (chief executive, Funds SA) have served in a senior capacity at Sydney-based NGS at some point in their careers. The latest to join the fold is Laura Wright.

Industry super, Wright says, is a sector whereby women appointed to leadership roles have made headway and great contributions.

Among them is Mavis Robertson, who helped pioneer not-for-profit funds, and is an icon of the superannuation industry; while Louise Davidson (ACSI chief executive) received an Australia Day honour this year.

Wright encourages women working across the industry to not "be frightened of putting yourself first".

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  • Debbie Kennedy, chief underwriter and head of new business, MLC Life
When Debbie Kennedy relocated to Melbourne from the UK last year, one of the first things she did was become a member of the National Gallery of Victoria, a place she frequently visits.

Passionate about art, her interest stemmed from an early age. Kennedy was inspired to study art history at university while working casually at an insurance company in her native Scotland.

What was originally intended as summer work suddenly prompted a life-changing career decision much to the "horror" of her parents: dropping out and working as a trainee underwriter full time.

"That exposure to the industry, Kennedy says, left her fascinated with underwriting right down to its origins. Under the guidance of a chief medical officer she learned about different health and medical topics and would sit a weekly exam.

"That put me in really good stead because I got some excellent on-the-job training. What we need to do as an industry is create more of these apprenticeships and bring young people to undertake great training programs," she says.

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  • Helen Coonan, chair, Australian Financial Complaints Authority
If for some reason Helen Coonan was to type out a resume and list the many roles she has held over the years and their responsibilities, it is likely the document could easily form a book.

Coonan founded her own law firm at 25-years-old; was the first woman in Australia to hold the office of Assistant Treasurer; and later, as Communications Minister, she was alongside Prime Minister John Howard as he announced the sale of then government-owned Telstra.

After she left Canberra, Coonan built a portfolio of board directorships at many large companies. And now she chairs the board of the Australian Financial Complaints Authority (AFCA).

The experienced politician and chairwoman, now 71, grew up on a farm in Wagga Wagga as the youngest of three sisters.

Her family were cattle graziers and farmers, raising sheep and growing wheat and oats. Her father, the youngest in a family of 17 children, ran the business with his brothers. Her mother once worked as a teacher but helped run the farm when Helen was born, cooking for the shearers, et cetera.

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  • Jodie Douglas, principal, Mad About LIFE Risk Advice
Having first dipped her toes into the world of financial services, assisting customers with car loans, Jodie Douglas took a job with Tower Australia - now TAL - as an underwriting administration assistant. It was in this role that her interest in financial advice, particularly risk advice, was piqued.

"I was constantly talking to advisers and started to get to know a few quite well. I didn't totally understand what they did but I knew they were helping people, and so that really interested me," Douglas says.

Two years later, one of those same advisers - an "old-school lifey" - offered her a job and Douglas relocated to Canberra to be a life insurance administration assistant.

She says it's here she realised the difference advisers can make in people's lives, especially when it comes to insurance claims. As a result, she became qualified as a risk adviser herself.

"I thought I want to be able to do this and I want to do it for everyday Australians. Being a country girl, it's ingrained in my bones to work with and help people that are just like me," Douglas says.

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  • Amanda Young, chief executive, First Nations Foundation
A retiree walks into the inaugural Big Super Day Out event wondering if he is entitled to superannuation after working as a postie most of his life. Exactly how much, he didn't know.

After volunteers identified him as a public servant under an old defined benefit scheme, they traced $750,000 to his name and an outpouring of emotions erupts.

Seeing lives change, Amanda Young says, is the most rewarding aspect of her role as chief executive of First Nations Foundation (FNF), the only Aboriginal charity in financial services.

Since 2014, Melbourne-based FNF has been running Big Super Day Out, a one-stop shop that reunites Indigenous people with their super.

About 32 super funds take part to connect with members. In 2018, Big Super Day Out found $14.5 million of Indigenous super in 13 days. "What takes one to two years is done in one day," Young says.

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  • Maria Falas, head of mental health and wellness, ANZ Wealth
Migrating to Australia from Cyprus in 1975 after losing their home and being forced to start over, Maria Falas' parents instilled the value of education and hard work from an early age.

With neither parent having experienced higher schooling, Falas was determined to get a good education and upon graduating from high school she dove into a commerce degree at the University of Sydney.

Taking heed from Robert Frost and his iconic poem 'The Road Not Taken', Falas chose to major in econometrics - the branch of economics specifically concerned with mathematical methods, particularly statistics.

"I really loved numbers but - oddly enough - when I graduated I just couldn't actually envision life as an econometrician," she laughs.

The following year she returned to university and, with her mother's influence, she chose to study law.

"My mum told me that when I was growing up I would defend myself and my siblings all the time if we ever got in trouble. If I saw something that just didn't seem right, I would always be the one to speak up," she says.

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Read more: TALHelen CoonanJodie DouglasDebbie KennedyLaura WrightMaria FalasAmanda YoungAustralian Financial Complaints AuthorityFirst Nations FoundationNGS SuperDascia BennettDebby BlakeyFinancial StandardFunds SAJo TownsendLIFE Risk AdviceLouise Davidson ACSIMavis RobertsonMLC LifeSuper SA
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