All Woman

MONIQUE FRENCH:Success in Risk

By PETULIA CLARKE

Monday, October 22, 2012    

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SHE grew up believing you should have the courage to take on whatever you want, and the idea of excellence driven by education was something her parents preached.

Always the entrepreneur, always the one thinking economics, Monique French, now senior vice- president, Bank of Nova Scotia credit risk management, recalls at seven or eight applying the economic principles of scarcity and demand to make one of her earliest sales pitches.

Everyone had received gum in packets from overseas. They all ate, but Monique waited for the opportunity to turn a profit from hers.

"I waited until scarcity and demand set in and then I sold it over our back fence in Portmore. I even cut gum in half and doubled the profit," she laughed.

They are principles she has applied throughout her life and career, a career that has seen her, with a strongpoint in economics, shoot to the top of the male dominated field of credit risk, and excelling there.

"The idea of 'I can't' is not something I grew up with," she told All Woman. And so, guided by her parents — mom is activist Joan French — she passed through St Andrew High School for Girls, then it was on to the University of the West Indies for an accounting degree, after which she headed to Canada to do her master's.

Never one to shy away from her true calling, French said there was never any doubt as to what she would be, as she recalls her mom telling her that when she was very young she had her heart set on one day heading a bank.

She's not quite there yet, but as a senior VP of credit risk — and you won't find many other women in Jamaica in risk and at that level in an organisation — she's living her dream.

She started her hardcore banking career at Citibank but worked with Island Victoria Bank as a first stop after UWI.

There she said she learnt a lot, though she stayed less than a year.

"It was a new bank with a great idea to really focus on service," she said, adding, however, that it was her first insight into the trouble that can occur if there is great strategy without the right risk underpinning and control.

She picked up and absorbed what she could there, and met great people in the process. She then left to do her MBA in Canada.

When she returned she went to Citibank, on recommendation that it was the place to be if one wanted to become a good corporate banker.

She went in as a management associate but was eventually assigned to risk, an area that still excites her.

"I could see risk was the engine of the bank. The analytical side of me really liked it..."

It has traditionally been male dominated, but she said at Citi, the person she replaced was in fact a woman, Celia Terrelonge, having "landed in the right place at the right time".

"You have to acknowledge the blessings you've had," she said of her many strokes of good fortune. "Education is the baseline, you need your ticket in the door, after that you have to work."

There were many 2:00 am shifts, and French was known as the one who would work, who would see things through, who would not let anyone down, which were integral in the early days to cementing her place as a leader.

"You have to bring hard work, discipline, build relationships, and you have to really want it. I love risk! For me it's proactive and empowering. You cannot get a good thing done without a risk manager. It's the core of banking."

She has been in senior management/executive positions since 2001, and dabbled in corporate banking, managed a treasury, managed market risk and touched operational risk, foreign currency risk and structuring and selling derivatives.

She started Scotia in late 2007 in her current position, breaking for a year to work with Global Risk Management in Canada in 2008.

Her passions, her need for development and fear of stagnation means she always looks ahead, and is, for the future, looking to whatever new ventures will come her way.

"What is next? I don't know. Something that's challenging to me. Something that's exciting, using my analytical skills and my love of working with bright people and developing people. It's in finance, but exactly what it is I don't know. Sometimes development is not up, it can be across... Scotia is a big place and there's [no barrier] for me in terms of limits."

For young professionals, she emphasises that "getting there" is hard work, and that's why it's important to have passion for your job.

"In the hard moments you have to know that you intrinsically like what you're doing, or you can't withstand it," she said.

"Find good people who support you, who have the values that resonate with you, hang on to them, keep in contact with them, give them back the same support they gave you. Know the lines you will not cross. Don't sell your soul for anything, if you wait long enough you will get there. Do your work. Don't be Machiavellian, if you say you're going to do something, do it."

And it's not necessarily harder for a woman to follow in her footsteps, breaking glass ceilings and then some, French said.

"In the middle distances and the sprints, I've seen men move forward. In the long distance you [the woman] get to where you get to because people realise what you're about, people value the hard work. Sometimes men are better at being slick. They talk up themselves to the moon. In the fullness of time, unless you're really in the wrong environment, all that noise will go away and your star will shine. The trick is riding out some of those moments [when you face adversity]. Don't fight it out, work it out."

Her strength comes from mom, a superwoman who devoted her life to education and to women's rights and who gave her two girls the confidence they needed to face the world; and dad Stanley, now deceased, a St Lucian who worked with the Caribbean Development Bank and taught her the value of saving, a full day's work, and that the sky was the limit.

"My mother was part of the reason we have maternity leave. I grew up watching my mother drive around the place for JAMAL. It was about 'passion Jamaica'...they [parents] instilled confidence. It's one of the most important things parents can give to their kids.

Her sister Simone is a doctor at the University Hospital, the two girls having lived up to their parents' push for excelling.

But it's not all work for French, who remains to this day stuck on the values of thrift her dad taught her — including, she laughed, choosing to save and invest rather than flaunt her success in a luxury BMW. She has chosen instead to stick to her reliable Nissan, and to use her resources to help those, especially children, in need.

A sportswoman at heart, French has been from primary school involved in sports, and in high school played field hockey for Jamaica at the Under 21 level.

She is still involved with the St Andrew Hockey Club as a member, having served in various posts over the years

She participates in 5k charity events and loves art and architecture, a passion that has taken her to Spain and Dubai, both places known for architectural wonders.

A lover of the outdoors with an interest in renovating, she said children will come in time.

Now she sets her sights on ensuring that she works with her staff so development and progress is universal.

"You can't work with me and be in the same place you were when you came," she insisted.

A philanthropist, who helps as much as she can in ensuring kids get the tools for education, Monique French's mantra is simple — "Always turn around and help who you can. Do what you can. Help somebody out."

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