As financial institutions search for new ways to stay competitive in this uncertain economy, mergers and acquisitions serve as a powerful, yet risky, tool to increase market share, raise capital, and grow the business.
But there is also a human side to M&A activity.
“Mergers are full of change and turmoil for everyone involved,” said Beth Brown, a financial services veteran with twenty years experience in asset management. I sat down with her over the summer to discuss her career, her views on the landscape for women in financial services, and her experiences building products designed for women.
“After going through six mergers and acquisitions throughout the course of my career, what mergers have taught me is the people need to come first,” Brown continued. “It’s easy to forget, but we work in a people business. And if the people aren’t on board, the merger won’t be a success.”
“Change is hard for people to tackle sometimes, but it also provides for opportunity. Each key step forward in my career occurred during a significant period of change in the firm. The lesson to those going through something like a merger is to seize the opportunity, the change is going to happen and you might as well capitalize on it.”
Brown had been with Columbia for 19 years. Last March, two years after Ameriprise acquired the company from Bank of America – Columbia Management’s second such acquisition in 10 years – Beth decided to step down and leave her role as Head of Intermediary Distribution.
“After I worked on Columbia’s integration with Ameriprise, and I knew my team was in good shape, I wanted to figure out what was next for me,” she said. “I am really interested in finding new ways to contribute to the business of asset management.”
During a Merger, Communication is Key
With so many mergers under her belt, Brown has become well-versed in avoiding the disruptive elements that can stall integration.
According to Brown, “The single most important thing throughout a merger is communication. Always keep people in the loop.”
Brown counsels senior management against succumbing to the impulse to be tight-lipped during times of transition.
“People would rather know what’s going on, even if the news isn’t good,” she continued. “I make sure there are no surprises. By openly communicating through times of change, you build loyalty and trust.”
A communications major who worked in radio after college, Brown made the leap to financial services when someone at Liberty Financial hired her because of her strong communication skills.
“I didn’t know anything about finance, but my boss at Liberty said, ‘I can teach anyone this business, but what I can’t teach is how to communicate.’ I quickly fell in love with the work,” Brown said, smiling. “A year later I had my Series 7. And here I am, still captivated with the business two decades later.”
As Women’s Buying Power Increases, So Should Their Opportunities
According to a 2011 survey of the American consumer, women make 75% of household decisions, including how the money is managed.
Brown contends that this sociological shift in women’s roles within their families gives financial institutions a strong fiscal incentive to court female investors. And the most effective way to do this, according to her, is by having more women working in financial institutions.
“It’s smart business. If we want to capture the female investor, then let’s get more women into senior leadership positions,” said Brown. “Women will have a better understanding of how to tailor marketing to a female audience.”
Throughout her career, Brown’s been frustrated over the lack of female candidates applying for jobs within her sector, and even more troubled by the rate at which women leave the business.
“Starting a family is hard when the job is so demanding,” she said. “I’ve seen women return to their careers after taking time off to have children; they often get frustrated because their careers are no longer on the fast track.
“Companies need to come up with creative ways to keep women engaged while they are taking a break from work to start a family. Businesses have invested so much in these women before they have children. They should keep on investing in them, even when they are not actively producing for the company.”
Brown contends that the financial services industry needs to establish a more family-friendly culture for both women and men.
“More and more men are becoming active in their children’s lives,” she said. “Men are searching for balance, too.”
A Time to Give Back and to Look Forward
Since leaving Columbia Management at the end of March, Brown has enjoyed having the opportunity to look beyond her career.
“Because my job was 24-7, I never had the time to get involved with charities except for donating money. Now I really get to focus on giving back,” she said.
Brown is excited to share her time and experience with organizations like Invest in Girls, which focuses on teaching young women financial literacy.
In Brown’s view, “The days when women thought that some man was going to come along to take care of them are gone. Women must learn how to manage their own finances. That’s step one.”
Another of her passions is changing the face of the mutual fund boards.
“We need more diversity on these boards. We definitely need more women,” she said. “And we also must have people on the boards that have recent experience with this vastly different marketplace. Too often board members haven’t worked in the business for two decades and aren’t adequately familiar with the way the industry has changed.”
Leaving her high-powered job has another, more personal, benefit. Brown, who married recently, had never lived full-time with her husband while working at Columbia.
“For the last few months I’ve had lots of time with my husband. It has been really great,” she said.
No matter what her next move is, be it as a board seat, a bigger role with a charitable organization, or another new adventure, Beth Brown will carry with her the powerful ability to communicate the human side of the business wherever she lands. I, for one, am excited to see what’s next.