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Edition 4 - Article 4

One in a million

A life of unlikely experiences, from the trauma of losing a child to the triumph of success in a male-dominated profession, forms Sonia Baillie’s sense of calm, perspective and purpose.

Sonia Baillie, in many ways, has had a fortunate life. She has a big job as head of credit at AMP Capital, is married with four children, lives on Sydney Australia’s leafy north shore and is optimistic about the future.

It could have been very different.

In 1942, Baillie’s grandmother fled Latvia in a boat with her children in the dark of night. She crossed the Baltic Sea, which was being bombed, in a bid to escape the Soviet massacre. Months later her husband found them again in Germany and the family became “displaced”.

Baillie’s father lived in a displaced person’s camp from the age of three to 13 with little formal education. Eventually the family found their way to Australia and Baillie’s grandfather worked as an engineer and labourer on the Snowy Hydro Scheme, the iconic hydroelectricity system that at the time was the largest engineering project ever undertaken in Australia. Her father began his education late, and eventually become an electrical engineer. He met Baillie’s mother while living in Canada, a German, and they married and had three kids.

A family history like that provides a child with perspective.

“When I was working at Lehman Brothers and it went bankrupt, I was worried. Then I thought of my grandparents. I realised I had a house, I was in Australia, I could get another job. I thought: pull your socks up.”

Baillie is head of credit at AMP Capital. In the pantheon of financial markets investing, credit is often regarded as somewhere below equities. Or as Baillie puts it: “We are the trusty Toyota while equities is the Alfa Romeo that keeps breaking down.”

Credit market investments can take years to come to fruition. It is something Baillie likes about her job.

“We look at the linkages between macro factors, societal changes, consumer changes, policy changes all the way down to the idiosyncratic level of the company and how they respond to changes in macro trends and structural changes. It’s quite dynamic.

“For example, we’ve been talking about the consumer in Australia and rising indebtedness for a long time. Quite a while ago, about five years ago, we tilted away from buying retailers and retail property trusts. That decision emerged as the right one during the past year. In credit markets, you can identify trends early but it’s a long game. You’ve got to be patient.”

When I was working at Lehman Brothers and it went bankrupt, I was worried. Then I thought of my grandparents. I realised I had a house, I was in Australia, I could get another job. I thought: pull your socks up.”

Baillie was educated at Abbotsleigh in Sydney’s north, one of the best performing academic schools in the country, before going to the University of New South Wales to study commerce, with a view to studying in Germany.

She had already funded an exchange for a term to a school in Hamburg when she was 15, by working at McDonalds, and with the encouragement of her mother, was becoming a Germanophile.

The study in Germany didn’t eventuate, but she finished with a degree in finance and accounting. She has worked at fund managers ever since – at Colonial First State as an accountant, then at UBS in fixed income, then Lehman Bros, Nomura Australia and for the past nine years at AMP Capital.

“I felt a strong sense of wanting to do something for good, something more altruistic,” she says about AMP Capital. “There is such a strong human element to markets and economies. I like that. I like interviewing companies and understanding their strategies.

“At AMP Capital we are providing financial security for others. That is something that I take seriously, and I think it is really important.

“Financial independence is empowering and I think of people like my parents. They need that independence and they rely on that. I feel there is a noble purpose.”

Baillie has a sense of perspective in all her conversations. She is very positive, often laughing at a situation before providing an alternate, less rosy view.

“Lehman Bros was one of my favourite workplaces. When it collapsed, there was a surge in Lehman babies. There were a lot born in 2009. It was either because the stress levels went down or people thought they weren’t going to get paid so it was a good time to have a child.

I was breast feeding my little baby with the whole surgery team waiting. I had to say goodbye to my children. But they fixed it. It was a pivotal moment. Nowadays when stressful stuff happens, I often think ‘like whatever’. I’m so grateful for every day.”

“There was a flip side to that. There was a lot of suicides and darkness that went on. Not just in Lehman’s but across the industry and it was very hush, hush at the time. For me as a female, it was very interesting to see how much work really defined some of my male colleagues. They really took the bankruptcy hard.”

She is open about traumas in her own life.

“I had a tough couple of years. In 2014 we had a stillborn baby. We then had a little girl in 2016. Six weeks after she was born, I had a brain aneurysm – a rare fistula arteriovenous malformation. A one in a million chance.

“I was breast feeding my little baby with the whole surgery team waiting. I had to say goodbye to my children. But they fixed it. It was a pivotal moment. Nowadays when stressful stuff happens, I often think ‘like whatever’. I’m so grateful for every day.”

And she has very firm views on certain issues, including girls’ education. Her own high school, Abbotsleigh, is famous for its pioneering approach to teaching girls and Baillie is now a non-executive director of her alma mater.

“It was founded as an academic school for girls so they could go to university. It wasn’t a finishing school. It was heavily connected to Women’s College at Sydney University.

”The liberalism and opportunity at Abbotsleigh didn’t translate to the outside world, something Baillie struggled with when she first started working.

I genuinely thought that the sexes were equal. But the real world isn’t like that. It took a really long time to make peace with that.”

“Coming out of Abbotsleigh was a really big shock because I genuinely thought that the sexes were equal. But the real world isn’t like that. It took a really long time to make peace with that.”

Baillie provides the example of being in her late 20s and a friend of hers, who was also a chief executive of a financial services firm in Australia, saying that no-one would hire her because she was a female and had just gotten married so everyone would assume she’d have children.

“He said 'I wouldn’t hire you’. He was young and relatively progressive and there was this entrenched stereotyping.” The friend wasn’t being nasty, just realistic.

As such, Baillie has her reservations about the true impact of the gender diversity debate in corporate Australia.

“I’m sceptical about the effectiveness of the politically correct diversity movement. I think there are some wonderful true believers, but they are in the minority,” she says.

“If I could play a role and help other females who are interested in economics then that’s what I’m passionate about because it is a lonely journey. I was at a Christmas lunch the other day and there were 12 people and I was the only female. When I was younger, I might have found that intimidating but now I don’t.”

She says living in Hong Kong was quite liberating.

“There’s a perception that it’s more conservative and women don’t have as many rights. But I felt being in a vibrant, dynamic international mixing pot, there were far more female role models than in Australia.”

Maybe because of her heritage, or her experiences, Baillie has a strong streak on internationalism. She’s proud of her European background. When 15, and at school in Munich, the Berlin Wall came down.

“In the weeks before it happened people were coming in from Eastern Germany and the Czech Republic. It was a pivotal moment for me. I understood where I was from.”

Important Notes

While every care has been taken in the preparation of these articles, AMP Capital Investors Limited (ABN 59 001 777 591, AFSL 232497) makes no representation or warranty as to the accuracy or completeness of any statement in them including, without limitation, any forecasts. Past performance is not a reliable indicator of future performance. Performance goals are merely goals. There is no guarantee that the strategy will achieve that level of performance. The information in this document contains statements that are the author’s beliefs and/or opinions. Any beliefs and/or opinions shared are as at the date shown and are subject to change without notice. These articles have been prepared for the purpose of providing general information, without taking account of any particular investor’s objectives, financial situation or needs. They should not be construed as investment advice or investment recommendations. An investor should, before making any investment decisions, consider the appropriateness of the information in this document, and seek professional advice, having regard to the investor’s objectives, financial situation and needs. This document is solely for the use of the party to whom it is provided and must not be provided to any other person or entity without the express written consent of AMP Capital.

Edition 4 - Article 5

The global events on our radar in 2020

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