Steel magnolia

This article first appeared in Options, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on September 25, 2017 - October 01, 2017.
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Homemaker and the mother of twin boys, Nor Hanifah Hashim is now the CEO of Franklin Templeton GSC Asset Management. As she plays the consummate host in her delightful home, she talks to Anandhi Gopinath about her career in banking and finance that led to her new appointment, her plans to grow the shariah-compliant entity she heads and how she has seen the industry evolve over the years.
 

There is much to like about Franklin Templeton GSC Asset Management (FTGSC) CEO Nor Hanifah Hashim. For example, we immediately take to her taste in vehicles (the two German machines in her driveway are gorgeous and great drives to boot) and we are extremely glad for the coffee (strong and sweet) that pours out of what seems like a bottomless pot on her dining table. It’s rather charming, not to mention unexpected,  that the captain of an asset management company is such a willing host, cheerfully taking us on a tour of her lovely home before we begin our chat.

The minute I switch on my tape recorder though,  Hanifah shrugs off her homemaker persona and transforms into the driven and dynamic leader that she is. The duality of her personality is fascinating and is what allows her to juggle her multiple roles of wife, mother and CEO as well as she does.

Founded in 1947, Franklin Templeton Investments (FTI) is dedicated to delivering exceptional asset management to a wide spectrum of global clients. By bringing together multiple world-class investment teams in a single firm, it is able to offer specialised expertise across a full range of asset classes, supported by the strength and resources of one of the world’s largest asset managers. This has helped it become a trusted partner to financial advisers and investors across the globe.

In Malaysia, the company consists of two entities: the conventional investment arm and the shariah entity, of which Hanifah was recently appointed CEO. “The shariah entity constitutes about 25% of the local business, but there is a lot of room to grow and that’s my role. We already do equity and sukuk, and going forward we want to venture into alternative investments and see if we can do it in a shariah-compliant way,” she begins, speaking in an elegant yet firm tone. “The beauty of Islamic finance is that people embrace it regardless of their faith and because of the advantages it offers. So I do feel that I’m in the right industry.”

Being CEO of an asset management company is not necessarily an ambition many little girls work towards, and Hanifah laughingly admits that it was not hers either. No, as a child, her goal was much simpler — she just wanted to get ahead.

Born into a humble family in Kota Baru, Kelantan,  things were so difficult that Hanifah’s formal education only began when she was nine. This also meant that she was thrust into Primary Three a little behind her classmates, not having had the chance to learn what they had already mastered by that age.

“I didn’t even know how to read when I started school. It was hugely challenging, but when I went to school and realised everyone had a skill I didn’t, I developed a drive and determination to learn very early on,” she says. “I heard people comment on how, at the age of nine, I couldn’t read, and I remember feeling awful. I would wake up extra early to study before I got to school because I realised I had so much to catch up on. And I was definitely going to catch up. Qualities you maybe don’t see in children these days, what with a silver spoon in their mouth.”

When Hanifah sat for her Primary Five assessment examination, she scored four As — a testament to her tenacity. Early on, she grew to understand the importance of hard work and they were life lessons that she never forgot. “I was always a good student and I am a huge believer in this — if you want to change your life and your family’s life, education is the way. Granted, of course, that you work extremely hard,” she muses.

And so she did. After moving to the Klang Valley with her family in her late teens, Hanifah continued her upward trajectory, winning a scholarship that saw her attend the University of Wisconsin in the US to pursue higher qualifications in economics and international relations. Working and living in the US was an attractive prospect for the ambitious young woman, but she remained committed to coming back to Malaysia — it was home.

Sime Darby’s critically acclaimed trainee programme is where Hanifah would start her working life before joining what was then Commerce International Merchant Bankers, now renamed CIMB. “I was staff No 110 and now they are up to 40,000,” she laughs. “It was 1993 and the company was small so everyone knew each other. It was a very different time, for sure.”

Hanifah joined CIMB’s treasury department and a turning point in her career came during the 1997/98 Asian financial crisis. “At the time, only government bonds were offered, never corporate bonds. And one of the first ones I worked on was for Rothmans, and we grew the corporate bond market, ensuring that the needs of the issuers matched those of the consumers. We cornered the bond market in Asia, becoming the third largest,” she recalls proudly. As a treasury dealer, she built her career in the fixed-income market and was eventually senior vice-president and head of fixed-income services.

During her time at CIMB , Hanifah also met the man she would eventually marry — he was working for Bank Negara Malaysia then and during one of the many lunches that the bank organised, the two met, became friends and fell in love. Is it a good thing to be married to someone from the same industry? “Yes and no,” she laughs. “We talk shop a lot and it’s nice to be able to discuss the bond market and so on. But the drawback is also that we sometimes talk shop too much.”

In 2005, Hanifah started a family and made the difficult decision to change gears a little, taking on a slightly different role in CIMB’s asset management arm that would better suit her new situation. “At that point, CIMB was becoming a regional company and I would be required to travel. I was pregnant with my twin boys and travelling was going to be difficult. So when I was five months along, I made the tough decision to move. The job itself wasn’t all that different but I would be permanently based in KL,” she says. As if on cue, her twins — who are now polite, handsome 11-year-olds — come and say hello to us before disappearing behind the kitchen counter to have breakfast on their mother’s instruction.

In this new role, Hanifah was responsible for the investment of fixed-income assets in Malaysia and provided investment oversight of CIMB’s fixed-income business in Indonesia and Thailand. She was the portfolio manager for the largest local institutional fixed-income client of the firm as well as portfolio manager for retail foreign currency funds that invested in non-ringgit debt in Asia.

Hanifah spent a total of 18 years at CIMB, during which time she amassed a nuanced and detailed understanding of the fixed-income business. She also learnt a great deal from the many bosses she had, mentors whose lessons she still remembers. They include Datuk Charon Mokhzani, CIMB’s former CEO who is now managing director of Khazanah Research Institute; Datuk Lee Kok Kwan, who has a “remarkable ability to translate opportunities into actual business”; and Datuk Noripah Kamso, whose drive and dynamism as CEO of CIMB-Principal Asset Management Bhd continues to be an inspiration.

“I was working in the era of Datuk Seri Nazir Razak and I definitely look up to him — he is very hardworking, which a lot of people don’t know, and he’s so articulate. I believed in him, which is also perhaps why I stayed on at CIMB for so long. I will always remember how he delivered on his promises — he did say CIMB was going to be listed and it happened in the time frame he spoke about,” Hanifah recalls. “It was an incredibly exciting time for me and I learnt so much! People often wonder how come I was there for so long … It wasn’t like I was doing the same thing during the entire time — I learnt so much as the business changed and as the company grew as well.”

FTI’s local office was established in 2009, and its Islamic finance entity the following year. In 2011, Hanifah made the move to the New York-born, California-based investment house as head of Malaysia fixed income and sukuk. This year, she moved up to the position of CEO of FTI’s shariah-compliant entity.

Although she is glad for her years at CIMB, making the switch to something like this has been wonderful for her career. “I’m glad I made the change,” she says. “When I came, this aspect of business was worth US$1 billion. Now it’s worth north of US$6 billion. We are known in the global team for our successes as well, which is hugely encouraging — other colleagues from other centres often point out how well we are doing.

“Globally, for FTI, only the entity in Malaysia is fully shariah-compliant and we have so much room to grow. And the path to increased growth is through introducing more investment capabilities. The market is becoming increasingly sophisticated but the job for us is ensuring that these investments are shariah-compliant and I see so much growth in this area.”

Her twins were six when she made the move to FTI and benefited greatly from a corporate culture that is supportive of work-life balance. “Starting with our president Jennifer Johnson, [we have] a culture that acknowledges the need for work-life balance. The support that comes right from the top is great and lets us be more flexible. We have a work-from-home alternative one Friday a month, for example, because quite frankly the technology allows us to work remotely. And it’s great that the company provides this,” she says.

That FTI’s global president is a woman is indicative of a global trend that puts more women in high-ranking positions and that too in an industry previously dominated by men. Hanifah has had a front-row seat and seen this development over the years, and she acknowledges that the tide has turned. “There are a lot of women in this business, definitely more than 30%, if not closer to 50% — and I’m referring to senior management level. In asset management, there are quite a few companies managed by women. In our company, 60% of the staff are in fact women. To be honest, with women’s natural ability to multitask, I think we are extremely well suited to this job,” she smiles.

A stronger female presence has not been the only winds of change to blow through the global finance industry; the rapidly changing face of banking and the accompanying technologies have required some adapting. In order to cope, Hanifah asks the basic questions: What do we still need banks and financial institutions for?

“While we should think about all the things that are different or will change, we also need to look at what will stay the same — and in many ways, the needs of customers and clients are pretty much unchanged,” she says. “As a global organisation, I do think FTI has the capability to change with the times. We have to be a lot more open to changes — the new generation is online a lot more and everything should eventually be made convenient for them.”

“But I feel it’s going to be more challenging for banks due to the restrictions that come into play. Compliance has become more stringent because nobody wants to see the global financial crisis happening again — and this is a good thing. Coming up with new financial products also won’t be as easy as it once was, and this applies to asset management companies as well as banks and other financial institutions.”

The twins walk back to their rooms just then, waving discreetly at their mum. Despite the work-life balance that is part of the corporate culture at FTI, being a working parent is difficult no matter how you look at it, so we exchange notes briefly on what it is like. We soon discover more common ground — we both really enjoy the work that we do as well as our roles as mothers, and that makes all the hard work worth it.  

Being a parent to young children does not necessarily make you especially clued in to what the future will bring. Indeed, being able to predict the changes that affect global finance requires a strong grasp of the industry itself — something that Hanifah can certainly lay claim to. She also really enjoys her job and is genuinely passionate about the industry as a whole, and it shows in her understanding of it. 

Hanifah addresses these issues good-naturedly and with rehearsed ease. These are topics she tackles on a daily basis and she appreciates how things change every day and yet so much remains the same. As long as the fundamentals are there, she quips. And we get what she means. Work hard and stay inspired — that’s how you move ahead.