It wasn’t the update Harvey Carter was expecting.
In-between meetings in Spring 2015, Westpac’s head of mergers and acquisitions was confronted by two of his staff, Lucy Wen and Rebecca Chen. They wanted a quick chat, nothing out of the ordinary.
But rather than an emerging crisis or issue about one of Westpac’s transactions on the go, they had other news: both were pregnant and planned to take leave around the same time, halving Westpac’s mergers and acquisitions team.
“The room started spinning,” Carter light-heartedly recalls of his first experience with team members and parental leave. “It was an interesting day at work and fortunately my initial response that I couldn’t be more delighted was the right approach even if perhaps there were some other questions forming in my mind.”
Ahead of his departure from Westpac next month after more than a decade leading the in-house M&A team at a time of major deals including the merger with St.George, Carter says that in the cut throat world of investment banking where there’s “higher highs and lower lows”, working with Wen and Chen through the ups and downs on deals has been a clear highlight.
Not just because of Westpac’s policies but how the pair successfully put them into practice in their roles of M&A, which bankers from various banks say has historically been difficult.
Wen, who spent three years at global investment banking major Goldman Sachs, says while many banks have flexibility policies and make efforts, it’s the relentless nature of deals that makes it hard to come back part-time.
“In the M&A world it’s really hard to find success stories for flexibility because once you are executing a live transaction, it’s around the clock, there’s no downtime,” she says.
Like many budding parents, it was a social situation – the farewell drinks for Westpac’s former group executive of institutional banking, Rob Whitfield – that led Wen to pre-emptively reveal her pregnancy to an often observant female colleague.
Soon after, Wen and Chen informed Carter of their respective news. But they came armed with a plan: Wen would begin parental leave in February 2016, before Chen following her due date in March six weeks later. Both would return at the start of 2017 three days a week and job share, Wen working Monday to Wednesday and Chen from Wednesday to Friday.
“They pulled me aside, proceeded to tell me, and straight away said ‘you don’t need to do anything here, it will be flexible and this is how it will work’,” Carter, a father of three, recalls. “All I could say was ‘this is brilliant guys’.”
Wen and Chen’s path to child rearing continued the pair’s remarkably similar, yet coincidental, life journey. Both moved to Australia from China as children, studied the same course a year apart at UNSW and married in 2013. They say their backgrounds and six years working together were crucial to making job sharing work given the trust and collaboration required.
“There’ll be instances where I’ll put together the pack or Bec will put together the memo, but in terms of presenting to executives it will be the other person talking to the pages,” says 32-year old Wen, who is soon going on parental leave again.
Chen, who previously worked in Citi’s investment bank, says getting advice from a mentor who had job shared also helped. “A key piece of advice was the importance of constant communication and handovers,” she says. “We found that two heads were often better than one, and the ability to continually bounce ideas off one another and divide and conquer on tasks led to much greater effectiveness as a job-share team.”
Amid ongoing competition for talent in the M&A industry, several global banks have been taking various steps in recent years.
According to a 2017 list compiled by US magazine Working Mother of the best companies for working mums, UBS, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley all made the cut. But Bank of America was the only one in the top 10.
Carter, who previously worked at Morgan Stanley and in private equity, says travel, lengthy deal times, relationships with clients and the project management nature of the job all hinder flexible working in investment banking. For bankers who do manage to work flexibly, he says the reality is they can end up working more than they are paid for due to the demands, and it’s not always a gender issue.
But Carter says unconscious bias towards women remains an issue and he supports the use of targets more generally to increase the pipeline in senior ranks.
“There is an unconscious bias that undoubtedly makes it more difficult for women looking for a career in M&A and I’ve always found that an opportunity particularly when in an in-house team where we essentially have one client,” he says.
“And I also feel that as a company, the second five years of service in a specialist team is more productive than the first five and that’s around the network you have, the skills you’ve grown into and the company knowledge/DNA that is invaluable in considering which opportunities are truly actionable.”
Chen, 33, says she previously found it difficult to career plan beyond having her first child, daughter Grace, who just turned 2.
“From the woman’s perspective, personally I’ve always found it difficult to plan my career beyond having kids because it’s such an unknown. Will I be able to come back and have a meaningful role, will my boss trust me to do things the way I did before, how will I manage the life-work juggle?”
“So for me, this job sharing has been the most incredible way to come back and it’s genuinely allowed the best of both worlds for us, our customers and ultimately Westpac.”
It hasn’t been without challenges.
The pair, who have upped their work days to four a week, were deep inside the bank’s complex sale of funds management business Hastings, which took several twists and involved multiple parties over many years. Calls and emails on their days off were required, as was time to “handover” work.
“It was on us to make the job sharing work,” says Wen, whose daughter Amelie is now a bit over two years old.
Carter says the experience gained from the difficult Hastings deal has left “Lubec” – as they became known because of their seamlessness – in good stead, adding to their prior “important” training at Goldman and Citi.
They also got exposure to Westpac’s sale of its operations in a handful of Pacific Island nations, the $1.45bn acquisition of certain assets from Lloyds Banking Group’s and recent acquisitions by venture capital arm Reinventure.
“You can hire the smartest person in the world, but if they just arrive because we’re rotating people every 18 months, the outcome won’t be the same,” says Carter, who is departing the bank to co-found a private equity firm that will focus on growth equity and buyout opportunities in the consumer and financial services sectors..
“And even when you don’t have the high five moment, trust can be built and lost with respect to maturity shown, the advice you gave, the risk you called out.
“M&A execution requires unvarnished communications and is certainly not a ‘good news’ culture. You’ve got to be much more comfortable to say ‘I’m not here to give you good news or cheerlead, we are nervous about this, this could be an issue and here’s the response’.
"And that’s how Lucy and Rebecca are coming through now. There is the confidence in them that they are empowered to represent the bank in negotiations and I look forward to seeing further success for Westpac.”