BComm ’90, DPA ’91
Despite working with PwC since leaving college, Olwyn Alexander sees her time at the firm as a series of mini-careers with an ongoing pipeline of interesting opportunities and challenges, including, for example, stints in Dallas and New York and her current role as global asset and wealth management leader.
About Olwyn Alexander
Tell us a bit about your education and early career
I’m from Kildare and after going to school locally in Naas I did a BComm in UCD. After that I did a diploma in professional accounting (DPA), sponsored by PwC – or Price Waterhouse as it was then. I was initially with the firm in Dublin for about three years while I was working towards my chartered accounting qualification.
Then I was asked to spend six months with PwC in Dallas, which was very interesting, both professionally and personally. It was a great life experience and working environment. The following year, when I was back based in Dublin, I had an eight-week stint in Boston. By that stage the US bug had bitten me so I then moved to New York for four years.
When I first joined the firm I was quite broadly focused on financial services and did a mix of banking, insurance and leasing. In Dallas I started to do a good bit around securitisations. Then, back in Dublin, the funds industry was just starting to take off here so I worked in the funds group.
In New York, I really wanted to focus on alternative investments for two reasons. Firstly, I probably had more of a mathematical bent so I found it very interesting. And secondly, and for a less professional reason, a lot of the work was done offshore in the Caribbean and I wanted to travel and learn how to scuba dive! I managed to do both – I got great experience in the alternatives space and my basic and advanced scuba licences, so it was a wonderful time.
When I returned in 1999, Ireland was really starting to take off as a servicing centre for alternatives managers. The industry was booming so the phones were hopping every day with new funds setting up and managers needing help with that. Also, as there was so much growth in London, I spent a lot of time there and got quite involved with the Alternative Investment Management Association (AIMA). I helped AIMA work on a guide to sound practices for hedge fund valuation and that was a wonderful way of networking and meeting a lot of people in the industry.
I was also studying during this time and took my CFA (chartered financial analyst) exams in 2003.
Because I had been involved in PwC’s alternatives business from an early stage and had travelled quite extensively in the UK and the US and knew a lot of people in the industry, I was asked to lead the firm’s alternative asset management business in Ireland. Then I was asked to take on the role for Europe and I ultimately took on the global role around four years ago.
What is your current role?
Last September, I was appointed overall global asset and wealth
management leader, which includes traditional investments as well as alternatives teams across our network. From an external perspective, the role covers everything from profile and branding to meeting senior clients and engaging in the industry and with industry bodies. Internally, it involves making sure all of our territories are aligned and bringing the best of our ability across the network to serve our clients.
We feel very passionately in PwC that people always continue to have some client work. So 50% of my time is spent on the global role but the other 50% is spent on direct client work. I think it’s really important to stay grounded in terms of what your clients are experiencing every day in the industry. Sometimes, leaders can go into a sphere where maybe they’re not as in touch with what’s happening on the ground. This is something PwC is very passionate about and I get huge reward from my own direct interaction and serving my clients.
Describe your leadership style
I’m very driven, decisive and focused. A lot of people tell me I lead by example. I live what I preach as it were. I’m very focused on building trust and making a difference to people and also making sure that I’m accessible and making time for them.
I firmly believe it’s important in a leadership role to delegate and to empower people. I would always try to ensure people feel empowered to do what they want to do but know that I’m always there to support them if they need it.
What motivates you?
I always do my best for my clients and that really is what motivates me. Nothing gives me more pleasure than to get rewarding comments or feedback from clients that the firm has done a good job. I’m focused on making sure we are not only delivering but exceeding on expectations and delivering what our clients need.
Who or what has inspired or influenced you?
I’ve had a few mentors during my time at PwC. When I was interviewing for the DPA I had four or five opportunities with different firms. It was a very difficult decision and, as a young student, hard to know how to differentiate between them. For me, it came down to the experience when interviewing and the fact that there seemed to be more females in more senior positions in Price Waterhouse than in the other firms. One of those women was Marie O’Connor who was very much a mentor to me for quite some time.
Damian Neylin was another partner I worked with for a number of years. More recently, in my global role, one of the American partners is a mentor. I think no matter what level you’re at, you do need someone looking out for you and just providing a sounding board.
I also have a number of clients who have inspired me in terms of what they’ve achieved.
And, quite recently I met a young lady who works in our firm who had very difficult personal circumstances growing up and overcame huge challenges. That is very inspirational – if that lady can be so driven and ambitious and want to stand up and speak out about things, then all of us should be doing the same. So, inspiration doesn’t always have to come from someone older than you or a peer – young people can inspire you as well.
I also think my experiences travelling were a huge influence on me personally and professionally.
What is your biggest achievement to date?
Professionally, it has been achieving the global asset wealth management role, even though it wasn’t something I aspired to or sought out. Someone called me and told me about the role and said they thought I was the right person and that they’d love me to do it.
On a personal level, family is so important to me: getting married to my wonderful husband who’s so supportive and having my two beautiful children are definitely the highlights.
Are there particular failures you’ve learnt from?
Before my current role came up I applied for a different internal position. It was quite a formal process with interviews but I didn’t get the job. So there was initial disappointment, but ultimately I took the feedback and I think I grew from not being successful that time.
If we ever fail in the professional context with clients we always do feedback and try to take the learning points to come back bigger, better and stronger.
What are your tips and advice for success?
You can’t match international experience. Certainly, in my industry, going abroad is not only beneficial from a technical point of view, it also pays off in terms of networking and meeting people, having a different experience culturally and maybe even another language. I think to really succeed you need a very broad perspective and a capability to think about things from a different angle. But it’s also very important to build a global network and create a profile for yourself.
I would say investing in yourself is vital and that could be through pursuing additional or complementary studies or, coming back to the travel piece, widening your cultural or language experience. I read recently that you’re never finished learning and studying and you should never assume because you’re a certain age that you’ve gone beyond learning something new.
I also think it’s important to hone your network. So, really take the time go out into your industry and meet everybody – not just the influencers. All the
people you meet play a role in the industry and in society so you should never just focus on the really senior people. Everybody you meet is a valuable connection and you should be a valuable connection for them – so, even if they’re not directly relevant to your line or your business, think about how you can help them with their network.
Confidence is very important. And genuinely caring and taking an interest in others will always pay dividends.
What are your plans for the future?
I’m always very open that when I joined the firm I didn’t envisage staying for my entire career and here I am! But I feel I’ve had lots of mini-careers along the way and the firm continues to challenge me and offer some really exciting opportunities – we work with fantastic clients in a really vibrant industry. As long as the firm continues to challenge me in different ways, my plan is to stay and work with that and seek out further opportunities.
Something I definitely want to do is further study. I just need to find the time to do that and it would have to be part time. With the huge advantages in technology, I think about doing something in that space or maybe around governance, because that’s very relevant to my world as well.
What are your main interests outside work?
Number one for me is my family. I have two daughters who are nine and six and my world centres around them when I’m not working. I’m also an avid horse rider and I do a lot of show jumping and dressage. I enjoy working out, cooking and holidays, but family and horses are where I focus most of my energies when I have time off.
How has your degree benefited your career?
My degree has been a great and very broad foundational skill set for the career I have followed. It is a really flexible degree – many of my colleagues from the BComm days have followed quite different paths with successful careers in many different industries.
What is your fondest memory from your time in UCD Business School?
It has to be the friends you make, and the collegiate atmosphere. Many of those friends remain great friends today, and there’s also a camaraderie amongst the class that lasts a lifetime.
How important is your UCD alumni network to you?
Really important – see above. I meet people from UCD in many countries around the world working in really exciting areas.
What piece of technology can you not live without?
My handheld device, ie my iPhone.
What is your pet hate?
People whose egos get in the way of good business decisions.
What’s your favourite book?
Touching the Void by Joe Simpson.
And what is your favourite band or musician?
Bands are SnowPatrol (keep it Irish), also Pearl Jam and Nirvana and musician is David Bowie.
What is your favourite dish to cook?
Pavalova ! It’s quick to make and usually turns out well. If it doesn’t you can just cover it with cream and berries :)
What teams do you support?
Leinster and Ireland rugby and Irish international showjumpers and eventers.
What is your favourite place in the world to visit and why?
Italy – there is so much to love about it, the weather, the food, the climate….
What’s on your bucket list?
See more of Asia and catch up on sleep!
What charities or causes are closest to your heart?
Concern and Help for Children, where I’ve spent time on the board.