The lightning pace of the financial services industry leads to a clear divide – leaders who can’t keep up and those who set the pace.
Shemara Wikramanayake sits squarely in the latter camp, having been a driving force at Australia’s largest investment bank for 30 years.
Not only has the 61-year-old executive earned her financial leadership stripes, but she has done so successfully and seemingly without fuss as a woman in a male-dominated industry – scoring a hat-trick of firsts along the way.
As CEO since 2018, Shemara is the first woman to lead Macquarie Group, the first Asian-Australian woman to lead an ASX 200 company, and the first woman to top reported earnings table for successive years – though her earnings are the lowest for a chief executive at Macquarie since at least 1999.
Being named the world’s fifth most powerful woman by Fortune prior to becoming CEO is perhaps testament to the influence she has wielded in her 35-year-long finance career.
And since securing the top job, her name has appeared regularly on consecutive power lists, ranking among global female financial greats such as Jane Fraser of Citigroup.
Confidence and resilience secrets to success
Shemara first cut her investment banking teeth in Sydney in 1987 aged 25 – when she turned her back on the legal profession in favour of banking – and Macquarie Capital.
In the three decades since, she has worked in six countries across numerous business lines, establishing and leading Macquarie’s corporate advisory offices in New Zealand, Hong Kong and Malaysia, and its infrastructure funds management business in the US and Canada – driving the emerging asset management division of the business.
As head of Macquarie Asset Management for 10 years, she managed a team of 1,600 and 24 markets and led the division to become a top 50 global public securities manager and the bank’s most profitable venture – an achievement that no doubt propelled her to chief executive status.
The secret to her success? Confidence and resilience, both characteristics she learned during her childhood, when facing financial hardship and living in three countries and five schools by age 13 she cultivated a “natural resilience”.
Her disrupted childhood gave her the strength to succeed and the confidence to be whoever she wanted to be, she said in a rare speech about her life back to the Melbourne Foundation for Business and Economics back in 2020.
“You shouldn’t restrict yourself to the box that you come in.”
That resilience (and attitude) has served her well, prepared her for life in the finance sector, where she has never been part of a majority, and for life as a leader in turbulent times.
In the four years she has been CEO, earnings have risen 58% to A$4.7 billion.
Shemara has led the global financial services group to record-breaking heights, with profits of US$3.5 billion in 2022, up 56% over 2021’s then best-ever financials.
Growth spans all four of the diversified company’s operating businesses, covering six continents and activities including asset management, retail banking, renewables development, and capital raising.
Macquarie is now Australia’s ninth largest listed company by market value and its leading investment banker – with A$871 billion assets under management, 19,000 employees and offices in 33 markets.
But the numbers are just one part of the story.
Driving the energy transition
UK-born but of Sri-Lankan descent, Shemara has pushed herself and Macquarie into the heart of the global finance industry’s efforts to discuss, coordinate and advocate on climate change.
Just months into her role as Macquarie chief, she became one of only three CEOs to be named commissioner of the World Bank-led Global Commission on Adaptation and was further appointed as the founding CEO of the UN Climate Finance Leadership Initiative (CFLI) – working with others towards a six-fold increase in climate mitigation from the private sector.
This has seen her play a major role in consecutive COPs, most recently at COP27 in Egypt, where she joined various executive panels, including with former Bank of England head Mark Carney on unlocking climate finance for emerging markets, and with UN Special Envoy for Climate Action, Michael Bloomberg, on the importance of accessible, reliable and comparable climate data.
Her focus is to drive investments towards renewables and climate-resilient solutions and to help energy transitions of poorer countries.
She is leading by example too, moving Macquarie away from hydrocarbons and financing solar, offshore wind and hydrogen projects instead. Among her climate action hits, she led an effort to raise A$1 billion for renewables investment and more recently partnered with the UN’s Green Climate Fund on a project to get EVs and their charging infrastructure in place and operational, raising an initial US$205 million from institutional investors.
Her ambition for a smooth transition to green energy is matched only by her drive for diversity both in the community and the workplace.
The push for diversity in finance
As an ethnically diverse woman in the upper echelons of world finance, Shemara used her platform to advocate and action change for others.
Under her leadership, Macquarie has smashed its UK Women in Finance Charter female representation, 18 months ahead of schedule, and in India, ranked in the top 100 Best Companies for Women – a listing historically less common in investment banking circles.
Female representation has increased at all levels – with gender parity at board level and 21.8% at senior executive level, up from 17.2% in 2018. Under her watch, four in five roles filled globally last year had at least one female candidate on the shortlist and one or more female Macquarie staff on the interview panel, and women are being hired in greater proportion than the underlying application rate.
Shemara’s push for ethnic diversity in finance is equally forceful. At least half of Macquarie female employees identify as hailing from a culturally diverse background; while globally, more than a third of female directors identify as ethnically diverse.
“We need the richest possible combination of different ages, genders, cultural and racial backgrounds, diversity of sexual orientation and socio-economic backgrounds and experiences – and regardless of any disability,” Shemara told attendees during a Chief Executive Women Event in 2020.
It’s perhaps ironic then to consider the one inequality she continues to face.
Though she is the highest-paid CEO in Australia, Macquarie salaries based on profits, and the first woman to top the reported earnings table for successive years (2021 and 2022), Shemara is not the highest-paid executive at Macquarie.
She is also the bank’s first chief executive to be regularly paid less than her subordinates and, based on profits, is the lowest-paid since at least 1999.
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