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MAVERICK: Undeterred by her lack of a college degree, Allianz Global Investors CEO Corley took the path of hard work, shaped by a bit of luck and a lot of risk.

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Published on Mar 03, 2014

Bucking convention is routine for her

TALES of brutal murder, sex crimes and missing children seem incongruous alongside the rational realm of fund management.

But the two worlds collide in Allianz Global Investors (AllianzGI) chief executive Elizabeth Corley, whose working day is immersed in the often frenetic world of money management. Her free time, however, is consumed by a passion - writing crime novels.

Yet, that incongruity may well be par for the course for Corley, whose own career has bucked convention.

At 18, she eschewed the traditional path of a university degree and plunged into work in the pensions and insurance industry. After about 10 years, she managed to switch into management consulting and made partner in 51/2 years.

"I set myself a target of five years and missed it by six months, which is why I know it's 51/2 years," she says.

In 2004, she took a sabbatical of nearly a year after working for Mercury Asset Management, running the risk of eventually not being able to find work at all. She joined AllianzGI in 2005.

Corley says she has been lucky, but adds that young people should probably pursue a university degree - if only to enable prospective employers to pigeonhole them for jobs.

"I'm one of those people who never look back and never say: 'If only.' You live life only once, so what's the point of saying: 'If only.'

"I'm a big believer in having an open mind to learn from your mistakes and think how to do better tomorrow. I've been incredibly fortunate...

"Would I advise someone to do what I did? I'd say I was very lucky.

"I worked very hard; I did study at night. I did my professional exams and post-graduate diploma through night school or correspondence courses.

"Unless you are prepared to do that, I'd say get qualifications - it's easier.

"The issue for me was when I discovered that I wanted to change jobs - I worked in insurance and wanted to get into management consulting - the biggest problem was no one could put a label on me.

"I didn't have a degree with a label. I wasn't an accountant or solicitor or actuary. They couldn't put me into a little hole, so it was very, very difficult to change career."

She was rejected by management-consulting firms "many times", despite apparently being a rising star in her then firm, Sun Alliance Life & Pensions, having become one of the most senior people in her mid-20s.

"I had started work at 18 and progressed really fast through luck and real hard work. I got much further ahead than I would have done if I had got a degree, because I had joined just at the time when the company was taking off.

"I was given enormous responsibilities. By the time I was in my early 20s, I was running teams of people, all of who were older than me. That very rarely happens.

"But, at age 28, I had worked for 10 years and I was the most senior woman in the company. There were only two women in my grade, and I was the youngest by about 10 years in that grade. So there was an age issue.

"I realised that, as you have climbed up the ladder, there are few positions above you. If people in the same level are all at least 10 years older than you, the waiting list gets long. That's when I decided to leave."

Her path into management consulting - and what convinced Coopers & Lybrand Management Consultants to hire her - was unconventional, she says.

"I wrote a short letter, saying: 'This was what you advertised for. I have these capabilities and it's entirely my career risk. I'm giving up everything to apply for this. Take me as a junior consultant; let me prove myself. You can always fire me.'

"If I had a degree or further qualifications, I wouldn't have had to take the unconventional approach to break in."

Following the stint at Coopers & Lybrand, she joined the fund-management industry. The rest, as they say, is history.

AllianzGI today manages some 345 billion euros (S$599 billion) in assets globally. Singapore is its fixed-income hub, where eight investment professionals are based.

Corley does not believe there is a proverbial glass ceiling reining in women in the workplace, even though statistics have shown consistently that women lag behind men in salary and are in the minority in top jobs.

Catalyst.org cites data from Fortune 500 Women Executive Officers and Top Earners, showing that women comprise 17.6 per cent of executive officers in the finance and insurance industries. Last year, women made up 11.4 per cent of chief financial officers of Fortune 500 companies.

"I don't think it's a glass ceiling. I think there are practical problems," she says. In AllianzGI's Asia operations, 55 per cent of the staff are women. In Singapore, the proportion is 50 per cent. In management level, at vice-president position and above, 47 per cent are women.

"The issue is that when the career is asking the most of you, that is when you are wanting to start a family. The second stage when the career asks the most of you is when you may be looking after elderly parents or relatives.

"Both those things fall heavily on women. It's a practical problem of how do you engage in a career conversation with very talented women that says that the choice between your corporate and personal family is not an either/or situation."

myp@sph.com.sg