Banking may often feel like a men’s club, but not for Tara Smyth, who manages a team of more than 40 bankers and wealth advisers around the Middle East for JP Morgan Private Bank.
Ms Smyth, who is based in Geneva, Switzerland, was made the managing director and head of the Middle East market for the bank this summer, having headed the region’s investment team since 2013.
JP Morgan Private Bank has an 80-year history in the region, with clients across the Gulf and in Egypt and Lebanon, and manages US$425 billion globally.
The financial institution only deals with investors with at least $10 million in investable assets, and Ms Smyth says her team helps them to build a diverse portfolio, get credit, plan their estate and inter-generational wealth transfer and even assist with their philanthropic needs.
A “very large percentage” of clients are from merchant families, she says.
Last year there were 610,000 high net worth individuals – or HNWIs, who hold liquid assets worth more than $1m – in the Middle East, according to the latest World Wealth Report, which is co-published by Merrill Lynch and Capgemini. Combined, they were worth $2.3 trillion.
There is a clear need for women to work in the wealth management niche. Statistically, women control more than a quarter of the world’s wealth and act as the primary investing decision-maker in two-thirds of households, according to a 2014 report from the US think tank the Center for Talent Innovation – what it calls the “power of the purse”.
Ms Smyth says that many of her clients in the region will bring their daughters to meetings. “They are interested for them to meet a woman in business,” she says. “They encourage them to ask questions and participate.
“Wealth should survive generations, so it is important to have the next generation well educated – not necessarily to manage the portfolio, but to know the right questions to ask when they meet private bankers.”
But according to stockbroker Pershing, only 30 per cent of investment advisers are women.
So in the week hundreds of delegates gathered in Dubai at the Women in Leadership Economic Forum to support and embrace female leadership, how did Ms Smyth make it in this man’s world?
She has worked for JP Morgan since 2000, from London to New York to Geneva, 12 years within the JP Morgan Private Bank, and says that while so many people move from organisation to organisation today, longevity in a business can really help your career.
“Hard work gets you wherever you want to be,” she says. “As you develop a reputation with a firm over a long time, you build relationships and, as people take on more responsibility and appreciate your hard work, they bring you with them. Maybe the person you used to sit next to becomes important.”
In her time at JP Morgan, Ms Smyth says she has had “strong support” from many senior people, including some women. One of her mentors, she says, became the chief executive of the US private bank.
Ms Smyth, who is Irish but speaks with a strong American accent after nine years in New York (“it had a heavy influence on me”), says that although the world will experience “some more subdued growth in the next two to three years”, the opportunity for wealth growth in the Middle East is “far more substantial” than many other countries because of its young and growing population.
The banker says Middle East clients may consider themselves conservative, but that they actually “embrace risk” more than traditional US-based clients. “An 8 per cent return might be conservative for them, which might be aggressive for a US investor. They think about returns and benchmark differently,” she explains.
Often she is dealing with clients who have banked with the firm for 40 years and are into the third generation of family business – something she says is “more unusual” in the developed world these days, particularly the US (although also still common in Latin America).
“The family unit is often much larger in the Middle East, but at the same time those families work together and are focused on trying to make sure it is sustainable through generations,” she adds. “In a country like Kuwait, which was invaded, families are very conscious that it is important to have money in a safe haven such as Switzerland.”
Obviously one thing the Middle East team at the private bank does not have to handle for its clients is tax – a refreshing situation that Ms Smyth confesses is “very nice”.
“Many times, people will make a decision that is not the right decision, so as not to pay capital gains,” she says. “To make a decision for its own merit makes it a lot simpler.”
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