Q&A for International Women’s Day 2018 with Jill Whittaker at Mercury Holdco

Author Rachael Crocker
March 6, 2018

Brewer Morris is proud to be supporting International Women’s Day 2018. We have interviewed a selection of our female clients asking them how they are pressing forward for women’s gender parity #pressforprogress

Brewer Morris interviewed Jill Whittaker Director of Treasury, Executive Director and Chairman of the Board of Mercury Holdco

Past Progress

If you could tell your younger self one thing what would it be and why?
I would tell my younger self to back yourself and not be afraid to go way out from your comfort zone. Women tend to doubt their own abilities and it is not until later in their careers do they find out they are just as good and equal to many of their male colleagues.

As a woman in Treasury, especially working for the very male dominated businesses l have worked in, mining, oil and gas, property, construction, private equity, you have to be more confident, have a hard skin, stand up for yourself, don’t be afraid to let your voice be heard. That was much more problematic in the past than it is now and attitudes have really changed. Believe me it was much more difficult years ago but woman are certainly gaining their more rightful place today.

Currently just as many women go to University as men and they should do just as well in their chosen professions so why should they not climb the ladder in the same way. That is why you have to back yourself and believe in your abilities. Climbing to the top may sound a daunting prospect but when you get there it is often not as scary as you think. I would say don’t hesitate and go for every opportunity.

What action or decision are you most proud of making in your lifetime?
I made the decision to take a career break to have my family. It was a very difficult choice to leave a job a really enjoyed and where I was doing well. I had no family around to help out, they were back in Scotland, and I thought I wanted to be with my children and look after them in their early years. I don’t regret it, today this would be a very difficult choice as it is so expensive to bring up a family in London. However, more companies are taking on board flexible working and working from home, also men are now more willing to share the care. This is certainly progress and gives people many more options to make it work and helps with the difficulties in the whole work/family debate. I successfully resumed my career, and actually in Treasury you could slot right back in quickly as the skill set does not change too much.

Describe one of your failures. What lessons did you learn, and how did it contribute to a greater success?
Working in Treasury during the financial crisis in 2007/8 was not easy. This was when Treasurers really gained importance in corporates. There was such a focus on cash, cash flow and risk when this was all happening. Boards were focused on their cash, where it was held and how safe it was and how long it would last. Up till that point there had been few instances of catastrophic fall outs for external market reasons and risk was fairly contained.

In addition, the markets were closed, you could not borrow at all. As is normal in risk management there was a big reliance on credit rating agencies as part of your treasury policy defining where you could invest surplus cash. Your policy would define, among other things, counterparty investment cash limits, and stipulate approved instruments.

At the time my company invested in some Asset Backed CP which had the stipulated ratings approved by our policy. These were being marketed and sold by our panel of banks, but what became very evident as the financial crisis worsened was that these ratings were not correct as the underlying assets were being destroyed as the value of these assets were falling rapidly. The can of worms had been opened, and the story was unraveling of how these programs had been structured, a lot of them defaulted and investors lost money. Fortunately, we managed to sell and we lost no money but in hindsight we should have pulled out a lot earlier. This made me question everything going forward. You really have to delve, investigate, query, explore anything you do as a Treasurer as the last position you ever want to be in is going to your board and tell them you have lost money.

If you had to start your career from scratch, knowing what you know now, what would you do differently?
One of the things I would do the same is work in different industries and not remain fixed to one sector. From a purely personal viewpoint you learn so much and it is so interesting gaining knowledge about the underlying business. Treasury work is quite similar in most corporates, although there are peculiarities in each sector, but having that link to the commercial side is very satisfying.

I can discuss the commercial property market, Oil production in the north sea, UK Infrastructure, mining in West Africa and Brazil, negotiating M & A in China, the payments business in Italy with good background knowledge of each of these.

What I would do differently is realise much earlier that Treasury is a fantastic profession that can take you anywhere and the skills you learn can take you very far, also that these skills are highly in demand. Looking back, I maybe should have delegated more than I have. I should have asked more questions, and asked them again if I didn’t quite understand it all.

In reality, I would not have done much differently. I believe myself to have been very lucky to have enjoyed my career and working life as much as I have. I have enjoyed the variety of work, the amazing people I have met, many of whom remain firm friends. I have enjoyed the hard work and determination involved with putting a deal together and the pride and satisfaction of successful outcomes. I have travelled extensively throughout and to places I would never have been if it had not been for my work for example China, South Africa, the amazon rainforest, Sierra Leone.