European Women in Finance: Melíosa O’Caoimh: An open door of possibilities

Melíosa O’Caoimh, head of Ireland at Northern Trust talks to Lynn Strongin Dodds about innovation, clients and culture.

Often, the investment banking, trading and sales jobs garner the limelight while fund administration, asset servicing and custody are typically not seen as glamourous. However, as the career of Melíosa O’Caoimh, head of Ireland at Northern Trust, demonstrates the ride is just as innovative, exciting, challenging and interesting.

“It has been quite an amazing and fascinating journey,” says O’Caoimh, who joined the company in 2003 as chief operating officer. Back then, there were 80 employees and $20bn of assets under administration (AUA) in Ireland. Fast forward to today and Northern Trust, which in 2020 celebrated its 20th anniversary, has become the third largest provider in the country with 1600 people and around $650bn AUA.

The offering ranges from fund administration to global custody, depositary and middle office services to fund managers and institutional investors worldwide, including traditional and alternative asset managers, insurance companies and multinational pension funds. While a significant chunk of the growth has been organic, the acquisition ten years ago of Bank of Ireland Securities Services – the largest Irish-owned asset administration provider at the time – broadened its fund administration business and range of funds.

However, as O’Caoimh points out, one of the keys to Northern Trust’s success is not its size but continued emphasis on innovation and technology. Over the past three years, she notes the firm has been leveraging digitalisation to streamline operations, generate greater efficiencies, improve data management and revamp the client experience.
O’Caoimh believes that Covid -19 has accelerated the trend and sharpened the focus on the importance of data and digital technology as asset managers had to switch seemingly overnight to a work from home environment.

“It’s fair to say that historically the funds industry has lagged behind others in deploying IT on significant scale and is having to catch up,” she says. “The pandemic just emphasised the importance of digital tools as they allowed the industry to get up to speed and set up home offices quickly. We believe that digitalisation is transformational and will permanently change the way the fund administration industry operates. The future is about greater automation, better access to data, and improved reporting and communication with investors.”

To this end, last year, the company launched Northern Trust Matrix – a proprietary enhanced technology platform designed to further digitise its asset servicing business. It was first introduced in its transfer agency business allowing shareholders to buy and sell funds. APIs also enable automatic links to bank accounts as well as providing information to both the asset manager and custodian.

The end game is to roll out the platform across its business to further enrich the delivery and management of data. “A lot of our clients want greater flexibility in the way they receive their data – whether it be on their desktop or phone,” says O’Caoimh. “Matrix offers a more agile but secure approach in the way they and their investors can use their data.”

O’Caoimh has a heightened sense of what clients require having spent eight years as head of client services from 2010 to 2018. This finger on the industry pulse helped the team in Ireland to guide clients through the abrupt shift to remote working and provide the requisite services. In general, though, “what clients are looking for are good experiences,” she says. “Having the right technology is increasingly important as we are constantly looking at how to bring value to our clients as well as faster and smarter ways to operate.”

This more client-facing role though was a change of direction and a learning curve, which O’Caoimh was more than happy to climb. “I embraced my new role wholeheartedly,” she says. “I had been in an operational role where I needed to use my finance skills and interact with clients from an operational perspective. However, working with clients required a different mindset and new lens. The day was less predictable, so this meant being more flexible and using my people skills as well as EQ (emotional quotient).”

Her varied positions have held her in good stead as head of Ireland as well as during the pandemic. “Northern Trust is not a hierarchical organisation, and we have a very flat structure where all voices are heard and experience is valued,” she says. “Teamwork and collaboration are fundamental to our culture and it is very much my style. I have developed many relationships with people across every level in the organisation.”

She adds, “However, I had to leverage all my knowledge and skills – leadership, technical and operational – when we suddenly all had to leave the office. My biggest concern was, in the absence of walking the floors, how do I make sure everyone is ok, so we made sure that we had increased levels of communication among the team and the country heads.”

O’Caoimh’s background in accounting has also provided a solid foundation in understanding the nuts and bolts of business. Financial services may not have been her first port of call, but she thought qualifying as a chartered accountant would open the doors to different career options. She first trained as a chartered accountant at Arthur Anderson and then joined Pioneer Global Investments in Dublin where she gained a broad range of experience, prior to joining Northern Trust as head of operations.

“When I have a fireside chat with anyone, I always say that I wanted to be in management and what I like about financial services is that it offers more scope and variety than any other industry,” she says. “There is also a vast amount of diversity and the ability to move around in different roles. I could not be in a job unless I enjoyed it, was enthusiastic and challenged. I gained a lot of experience and decided it was time for a change, so I applied to Northern Trust.”

O’Caoimh did not encounter any major hurdles and notes that Northern Trust has several initiatives and programmes to promote diversity, equity and inclusion as well as mental health. O’Caoimh is a member of the 30% club, a global campaign which aims to create a better balance of men and women at all levels of organisations, with a particular focus on boards and governing bodies.

“To be fair I have not had any particular challenges in my career, but Northern Trust is extraordinarily supportive of people and invests in developing talent,” she adds. I think though when you talk about diversity and inclusion, the real difference is not just to have the HR department own it, but also the board and to people across the organisation. It is also important to look at this from every angle and focus on training, development, mentoring, sponsorship and promotion at every level. Also, when hiring individuals, the people on the panel doing the interviews also need to be diverse.”

She adds, “There needs to be an open culture where people feel comfortable talking about their challenges or if they run into a difficult period in their life or career. If you want to build up longevity in an organisation, then you need to put in the time and effort to help people develop their careers.”

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