BNY Mellon’s Hanneke Smits: ‘I didn’t want to go back to what I was doing before’

Hanneke Smits sounds relieved that her appointment as chief executive of BNY Mellon Investment Management occurred several months after the start of the Covid pandemic, as it allowed her vital time to adjust to the new way of working.

“I’m glad it wasn’t this time a year ago, when we were all trying to adapt to working from home,” says Smits, who was given the top job at the $2.2trn asset manager in October. “By the time I took over, everything was quite well established.”

Along with countless other professionals who have changed jobs in the past 13 months, the
54-year-old had to settle into her role at a time when the ability to meet her new colleagues face-to-face was curtailed.

But her rise to take the helm at BNY Mellon IM was made easier by her four-year tenure as CEO of Newton Investment Management — one of eight investment affiliates that sit under the BNY Mellon IM umbrella.

With BNY Mellon’s headquarters in the US, London-based Smits admits she probably would have spent the bulk of her first few months in charge travelling to meet new colleagues.

She acknowledges that there have been advantages to using technology.

“I’ve probably met more colleagues and clients virtually than I would have met charging around the world,” Smits says during an hour-long Zoom meeting.

“Virtual, social networking isn’t the same as having lunch with someone or popping out for a coffee. But we have worked hard to go through all the formal meetings getting to know everyone, and have also worked hard to connect informally.”

READ Credit Suisse, BNY Mellon, Deloitte, Monzo among 44 firms that failed diversity pledge as Covid hit

The Netherlands native admits to sometimes working for longer and says she has had to be disciplined over when to log off for the day, but she often takes work calls while strolling the streets near her home.

She has also found time to learn TikTok dances with the help of her teenage daughter. “She has to keep it quite basic for me and my husband,” chuckles Smits, who has also taken up playing online bridge with her mother in Holland every Sunday afternoon.

As the former boss of Newton IM, Smits was keen to play an active role in the recruitment of her successor. In January it was announced that Euan Munro, the former Aviva Investors chief, had been hired to take over the top job, starting in June. Despite enlisting headhunters Sapphire Partners to broaden the search, Munro was an obvious choice, with his background in multi-asset investment and ESG issues — two of the stand-out characteristics for Newton — making him an ideal fit.

Smits and Munro also worked closely together during their time on the board of the Investment Association, the UK trade body for asset managers.

“You need to get the right person in-seat, and we have found that with Euan,” she says.

Smits got to work almost immediately after taking on the top job at BNY Mellon IM, implementing sweeping changes in February that saw the company shuffle capabilities among some of the affiliates.

The changes focused on Mellon Investments, which had its fixed income capabilities shifted to Insight Investment, while equities and multi-asset were transferred to Newton IM. Mellon’s cash capabilities were also transferred to Dreyfus, which is best known for its cash management strategies.

Smits says that becoming CEO gave her an opportunity to look at the complete portfolio of businesses under her control and to “consider their strategic priorities”. “This concept of specialties at scale seemed to make sense,” she adds.

Smits played down her ability to oversee a vast range of distinct businesses, each with their own leadership models and cultures.

“You need to let the CIO and investment leaders flourish. My role is someone who can understand and recognise the talent required to be effective,” she says. “Investment firms are all about culture and DNA. I know and understand the Insight culture is different from the Alcentra culture, and that Newton and Mellon are different from Walter Scott, but it is really important to preserve. Investing is about the uniqueness of thought and the creativity of ideas. It doesn’t come from hiring people who are all the same.”

Diversity has been a focus. While at private equity outfit Adams Street Partners, she helped to co-found Level 20, an organisation that aims to increase the number of women in private markets.

That role led to her being introduced to some of the diversity initiatives in public markets as well as Baroness Morrissey, founder of the 30% Club, who Smits later replaced as CEO at Newton IM.

The initial encounter with Morrissey led to other conversations and the start of Smits’ move to the buyside. “Helena had been in-seat for 15 years, there was a desire from her to move on. I wanted to stay in an investment organisation. What I didn’t want to do was to go back to what I was doing before,” says Smits.

“You just need to have lots of coffees and networking and things come to you through elimination. It wasn’t about becoming CEO of another private markets firm but spotting what I was good at and taking it to other areas.”

Smits says the asset management industry has shifted focus with regard to diversity.

“When we talk about investment management, you need to foster creativity and you need people in firms from diverse backgrounds with different perspectives,” says Smits.

“But you have to work at it. You have to be deliberate in how you recruit and make sure that those you recruit from a different background feel included, and we are ensuring they have equal access to opportunities.”

To contact the author of this story with feedback or news, email David Ricketts

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