By Dennise Williams, Staff Reporter
A UNIVERSITY professor told Sandra Shirley that she would be better off in marketing as finance was not for her. History has definitely proven him wrong.
Since her return to Jamaica in the early 90s, Ms. Shirley has proven her financial abilities and is considered to be one of the major personalities in the banking sector.
The name Sandra Shirley has been associated with major Jamaican financial institutions and now she is entrusted with guiding Grace, Kennedy's First Global Investment into profitability.
Ms. Shirley granted the Financial Gleaner an exclusive interview as she embarks on yet another high profile position in corporate Jamaica.
Born in 1953, Ms. Shirley attended St. Hugh's Prep and High schools but it was her stepmother who enticed her into the world of high finance. "My stepmother was an accountant in the days when people used adding machines with big crankers. She would come home with her adding machines and these big ledgers that you had to use keys to open. I found that fascinating."
However, by the time she reached the University of the West Indies, at least one professor thought that her people skills would be wasted in finance. "At university, Marshall Hall, my lecturer, said to me that I should be in marketing instead of accounting because of my personality. But for me, finance allows the blending of the two. And so my first degree was Management Studies with a speciality in Finance and Accounting."
As with many university students, gaining overseas exposure was important and so Ms. Shirley headed to the Big Apple. "I left Jamaica to go to North America and since I was self-supported, I needed to find a job that offered tuition reimbursement and a school that I could afford. That is how I ended up at Paine Webber, which was 10 minutes from Pace University in New York. There I completed my MBA in Finance and Banking. Before you know it, I spent 11 and half years in New York."
And while Jamaica beckoned over the years, Ms. Shirley explains, "Each year you want to complete your targets, then wait on a promotion and then meet the target and then get a promotion." But all good things must come to an end. By the time 1990 rolled around, Ms. Shirley began to question her priorities. "One day I said to myself, I have neither chick nor child, so why am I fighting the cold weather? I really never wanted to stay in New York; in fact, I thought that I would either resettle in Florida or Jamaica to be near my family. Toward that end, I sent out my résumé. Finally, I got a call from the ICD Group. It was the first offer that fired me up. They wanted me to be the managing director of Sigma Investments."
And so began Ms. Shirley's trek back to Jamaica, courtesy of the Matalon family-controlled ICD group. What excited Ms. Shirley was the opportunity to head up a new unit trust company, Sigma Unit Trust. And it was not just the leadership position that attracted Ms. Shirley. It was the opportunity to make a difference. "My mother had invested in a unit trust and at the time, there weren't proper records being kept. If a person didn't keep their original receipts then they would have great difficulty in getting out their funds. Additionally, by the time Sigma was starting up, the stock market had crashed in 1992/93. People were only able to recover 25 per cent of their invested funds. Nobody wanted to hear about the equities market and thought that ICD was crazy to start this company."
Nonetheless, Ms. Shirley picked up the challenge and along with her team made Sigma a household name. "We started from managing the group's pension fund to become one of the most profitable subsidiaries of ICD."
Ms. Shirley stressed that the credit really belong to the team that she worked with and states that what made her most proud of her time at Sigma was the fact that many members of her team are sought after and respected financial analysts. However, times changed and Sigma merged with Manufacturers Merchant Bank in 2001. She was made senior vice-president of the new entity Manufacturers Sigma Merchant Bank. Ms. Shirley decided it was time to look for other opportunities. "The merger took place and I wanted the company to exist as it was because it was my baby. However, the merger made me see that after 8 years it was time to move on."
Her next job was at National Commercial Bank (NCB). She was recruited in December of 2001 to head up their subsidiaries, Omni Insurance and West Indies Trust Company.
"I was recruited by Dunbar McFarlane (then NCB vice-chairman) and Chris Lowe (then managing director). What attracted me to NCB was that I saw it as a national treasure. The biggest local bank was floundering and I thought that there must be some way that I can make a difference. Although I had other options at the time, including an offer from Grace, Kennedy, NCB needed help. I felt that I could add value. They had some serious problems, I mean it was Finsac-ed." In the late 1990s the Government intervened to save the Jamaican financial industry from collapsing. "When I joined, AIC (owned by Michael Lee Chin) was still doing the due diligence. I joined in January and by March, AIC had bought the bank." With the change in ownership, came sweeping changes in the way business was done at NCB.
"In the old guard of NCB, the union and staff association were strong. If you were there for 10 years, you just come. There was a set way of doing things and 'we won't change.' But that attitude did change with the new management. Aubyn Hill put it this way: Everybody who comes in to work each day, must feel proud that they have an opportunity to work for NCB. It is not a right. The new management focused on technology and fostering an entrepreneurial spirit. They wanted the bank to be First World." But sharing the NCB dream came with a price. Ms. Shirley stated that she worked from 8 a.m. to pass midnight each day and took work home. It was not a pace that she could keep up. Ms. Shirley left NCB in April of 2003.
"I had to step aside and catch my breath. I'd turned 50 and the job was extremely stressful. I had no balance in my life. My family was neglected, for me it was pure work. I needed to step back."
The answer? Academia. Ms. Shirley was named Alistair McIntyre research fellow at the Mona School of Business at UWI. "In the type of work that I do, it is really about teaching. You listen to clients and interpret what clients want. People have money but no understanding of finance. So you teach them and guide them in their investing. Even making a presentation is really a lecture. And I wanted the opportunity to translate my experience into academia. As a research fellow, I conducted research on finance and gave lectures. I found it to be a relaxing experience."
However, she could not stay away from finance. "I missed the adrenaline rush with having projects in front of you. And I had found balance. I realised that balance meant giving quality time to my family and smelling the roses."
And so, by February 2004, Ms. Shirley accepted the position of president of at First Global Financial Services. She states that it is the dynamism of this subsidiary of Grace, Kennedy that she found irresistible.
"The First Global brand has had phenomenal success in the short time that they have been in business. In fact, this company reminded me of Sigma when they first started out. I mean, here First Global is a small bank. They have a strong parent (Grace, Kennedy) so the question is, how can we serve the banking pubic better? This company has identified a niche market and has served them well. First Global caters to the young up and coming professional as well as the established businesspersons who still want the convenience of personal banking. Jamaicans want a one-on-one banking service with a firm that does things well and offer a wide range of products. The First Global vision is to be world class. We are building on the foundation of integrity and quality.
"Having come on board, what struck me is the culture of the financial services division of Grace, Kennedy. The staff here is bright eyed. They want to make a difference. Even during our merger with George & Branday Merchant Bank (another subsidiary of Grace, Kennedy) there is no grumbling. It is a very different experience I have had with mergers and acquisitions in the past."
As president, Ms. Shirley has a path clearly set for herself. "I would like to build on the entrepreneurial spirit that I have found here. With the team of well-trained individuals at FGFS we will foster a higher level of quality customer service. And our in-house research team will be second to none. As president, my main job is to facilitate the growth and development of the FGFS strategy through the creative process."