Iceland asset manager banks on feminine approach

By Gwladys Fouche

OSLO (BestGrowthStock) – In 2006 Kristin Petursdottir was a high-flying investment banker in London but was disillusioned with the Gordon Gekko culture she was part of.

She quit and co-founded Audur Capital, a financial firm back home in pre-crisis Iceland that would not be based on macho risk-taking, big egos and profit-no-matter-what thinking. Instead, it would be based on “feminine values.”

“Investment banking was crazy,” said Petursdottir, Audur’s chief executive, in a phone interview from Reykjavik. “We wanted to see if it is possible to create a financial firm based on different values and take advantage of a business opportunity.”

“Women tend to be more risk-aware, more long-term thinking, they think about what the impact of their actions are, they have a broader horizon. That view is in my opinion always healthy.”

Finding a new approach to finance has particular resonance in crisis-stricken Iceland, which saw the collapse of its three top banks after taking on too much debt. Icelanders jumped on the bandwagon and are now faced with mountains of repayments.

“We are in a mental crisis,” said Petursdottir. “Before, Icelanders took pride in being risk-takers and making decisions fast. Now we are not making any decisions.”

CHANNELLING FEMALE VIKING SPIRIT

Founded in 2007 and named after Audur the Wise, one of Iceland’s foremost Viking women, the firm defines its feminine values as “straight talking, independence, risk awareness, emotional capital and profit with principles.” And a rarity in the world of finance, two-thirds of the staff of 39 are women and its top management is female — Audur’s chairman, who is also Petursdottir’s business partner, is a woman.

Audur wants to take advantage of two trends in the market: the growing economic power of women and the increasing focus by companies on social responsibility.

Its activities go from wealth management to corporate finance and private equity, with some 30 billion Icelandic crowns ($259 million) under management. It has some 2,000 customers in total, but most of the business focuses on some 300-400 customers in wealth management.

All of them are Icelanders due to the capital controls imposed by the island in the wake of the crisis, split roughly 50/50 between male and female customers. Audur is expected to break even this year and to be profitable in 2011.

Audur’s private equity arm seeks firms owned or managed by women or those that cater to the growing female market — 6 out of the 9 firms it has invested in are owned or led by women.

One is Ja, an information directory company, whose CEO and chairman are women. Another is ELM Design, a fashion firm whose three designers and chief executive are also female.

“Eighty percent of households’ consumption decisions are made by women, so the female market is important for any company. For a company not to have women (in senior positions), it is like looking at the world with one eye,” she said.

Audur’s approach seems to have worked so far. Rare among Icelandic financial institutions, it did not need a bailout.

“We got through the eye of the storm and saved our clients’ assets and our own,” said Petursdottir. “Before the crisis we certainly saw dark clouds on the horizon but in our wildest dreams we never imagined how enormous the collapse would be.”

Does she feel that Audur’s approach is being emulated by others in the financial sector? “I think so. The financial sector is talking more about this as a result of the crisis.

“But in many instances it is window-dressing. For people’s behavior to really change, it has to become part of a company’s DNA and that takes a very long time.”

Are only women able to be cautious and think responsibly? Says Petursdottir: “We are talking about feminine, not female, values. Not only women have those values.”

(Editing by Jon Loades-Carter)

Iceland asset manager banks on feminine approach