Having met a good many people over the years as part of my profession, few have left an impression as lasting and awe-inspiring as Maheen Rahman, CEO of Alfalah GHP Investment Management.
I first met her in 2014 to discuss an ad campaign she had been involved in for Alfalah GHP and I remember being surprised to see a woman at the helm of an asset management company worth almost Rs 20 billion at that time. Even more startling was how young she was, especially in an industry that seems to consider grey hair and being male as prerequisites, especially at C-suite level.
During our meeting she explained the intricacies of mutual funds with clarity and precision – leaving me thoroughly impressed by her business acumen, number crunching skills, disarming personality and the passion she demonstrated for her work.
Two years later I heard that Rahman had made it to the Fortune’s list of ‘40 under 40s: top ten women CEOs’ – and the only Pakistani woman at that. It was this which led to our second meeting – this time for an hour long, relaxed conversation at her tastefully decorated corner office overlooking the Arabian Sea.
She smiles when I ask her how it all happened; appointed CEO of IGI Funds in 2009 at the age of 32, turning around a loss making company worth two billion rupees into a profitable entity of over eight billion within a span of only four years and then when Alfalah acquired IGI Funds in 2013, selected to be the CEO of the merged company – now worth approximately Rs 40 billion.
“To be honest, my appointment at IGI Funds came as a surprise. I had no background in asset management; my previous experience had been in investment banking with BMA Capital Management.”
Being the pragmatic and methodical person she is, Rahman rolled up her sleeves, moved fast and dived into work – learning the business, understanding the synergies between departments and ruthlessly identifying the discrepancies and the measures required to eliminate them, not resting until the “bottom line was looking less red.”
Rahman reminds me that she took over the reins at IGI Funds in 2009, a time when recession was hitting Pakistan hard. The economic outlook was bleak and people were extremely reluctant to invest in mutual funds.
“We had to adapt quickly, tweak our business strategy, and convert one of our income funds into a cash fund, in order to give our investors the comfort level they required.”
The onus of having to turn around the company during this period took steeliness in resolve, extreme dedication and the courage to take hard decisions – traits that were either inherent in her or she simply had to acquire. One was the unpleasant task of dismissing people.
“When I had to right size the company, I was directly affecting livelihoods – to have this on your conscience is hard.” However, Rahman was quick to clarify that most employees were absorbed into other group companies or offered compensation.
"From being a nobody doing equity research to running a company, Pakistan has rewarded me for my perseverance. There is so much more to do and I want to be smack in the middle of it."
Coming out of the recession a winner was like acing a financial endurance test. The experience, she remarks wryly, was gruelling but gave her the confidence of knowing she could survive the worst of times. In comparison, she says, her job now is much smoother and less stressful with only occasional “black swan events.”
She adds that over the years she has learned to switch off when she comes home to her family.
This is my cue to ask a very progressive CEO a few regressive (yet inevitable) questions about her support system and what is it like to be a woman CEO in a male dominated industry.
“I knew my husband from college days; he knew how ambitious and interested I was in all things finance and he was completely supportive.”
A mother to three young girls, Rahman is also quick to acknowledge the support of her parents and in-laws when it comes to her children, adding that “I never ever want to depend on hired help for my children’s primary care.”
“As for being a woman CEO, I have never thought of myself as such. I am a person who likes to get the job done. Being a woman gives me no privileges.”
With a quiet confidence that only comes from years of hard work and working her way up the ladder, she believes that the only thing that counts at the end of the day is performance.
Leaning back on her chair, she says with a smile that women CEOs are placed under tougher scrutiny compared to their male counterparts and therefore must lead decisively, leaving no room for mistakes. The trickiest part for a woman, and especially at a higher level, is finding the balance between being driven and reserved and yet remaining approachable.
“The last thing any person at leadership level wants is to be isolated. If people feel they cannot communicate with you, it will hurt your progress and business.”
Rahman identifies the comportment exhibited by women – the instinct to suppress their personalities at work, an unwillingness to ask for a promotion, a conservatism in estimating their own potential – as not being exclusive to Pakistani women, but as a global phenomenon based on the effect of centuries of gender bias.
“However, we have come a long way – girls are taking their careers seriously and organisations are providing environments that are more conducive to employing women.”
I ask whether she ever manages to take time off from work and she confesses she thoroughly enjoys travelling with her family, often takes three or four days off work to do so. She also loves cooking and graduated from the prestigious Cordon Bleu School in Paris when she was living there with her husband in the mid 2000s.
Is there anything less than perfection that you strive to achieve? I ask, slightly enviously. She blushes slightly, saying “there is still a lot more to do. Asset management is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what can be done terms of finance and capital raising in Pakistan.”
So does that mean her future plans are to stay in Pakistan?
“Absolutely! From being a nobody doing equity research to running a company, Pakistan has rewarded me for my perseverance. There is so much more to do and I want to be smack in the middle of it,” comes her reply.