WHEN Rowena Houston arrived in Leeds in the mid 1990s, sections of the city’s waterfront were in dire need of investment.
Buildings which had been created by some of the industrial revolution’s founding fathers had fallen silent, and this neglect was harming Yorkshire’s economy.
“There were a lot of old derelict buildings dominating the skyline,’’ Ms Houston recalled, “Leeds has become more dynamic.”
The winds of change have certainly improved the landscape around Investec Wealth & Investment’s Quayside House.
The streets nearby have become a hive of commercial activity. The influx of new businesses reflects a growing awareness of the potential to use historic buildings to meet the needs of the 21st century business community.
Ms Houston said: “We had quite a thriving legal and accounting community, but now we’ve got lots of other businesses joining in.
“You’ve got the micro-breweries, the retailers and the restaurants, but you’ve also got the media companies, the tech companies coming into the region. That’s quite exciting; that’s a whole new range of people we can reach out to.”
Next week, Ms Houston will become the head of Investec Wealth & Investment’s Leeds office, at a time then the city’s skyline is undergoing radical changes. Her new role is a reward for 20 years’ loyal service.
In 1996, she joined BWD Rensburg, which is now Investec Wealth & Investment, in Leeds as an investment assistant. She was promoted to senior investment director in 1999. She will take over from Simon Kaye, who is retiring after heading the Leeds office for 20 years.
Today, Investec Wealth & Investment employs 130 staff in Leeds, including around 55 staff who report to Ms Houston directly.
Sadly, a relatively small number of women reach the top in the financial sector. Ms Houston is keen to spread the word about how businesses can benefit from diversity.
She’s joined an organisation called Inspiring Women Changemakers, which is made up of female business leaders who want to make sure that more women get the chance to achieve their potential.
The Yorkshire-based organisation aims to provide a voice for women in business and also show that diversity makes sound business sense.
“Diversity in any organisation brings a richness of decision making, and a richness of conversation, that you wouldn’t get if you didn’t have diversity,’’ Ms Houston said. “Groups and sections tend to think the same. If you can introduce a different way of thinking, and a different conversation piece, then you will make a better decision at the end of the day.
“So part of the challenge for the financial sector is to attract those people, and to make sure people understand truly what we do, so that they’re not frightened of it, or they don’t come with their own pre-conceived ideas about what working in an organisation like this is about.
“To change something from being dominated by one group of people, you have got to have somebody who is willing to step over the threshold.
“But we can make little changes. It doesn’t have to be any one big step; we can just join groups and talk to people. That’s how we’re going to change things. The change starts with you, but then it evolves because you seek out opportunities and start to promote different ideas and different ways of working.
“I always think our industry should appeal to women because we’re about making long term relationships with people.
“In a lot of the families I deal with, it’s the women who keep in touch with the long distance relatives, and it’s the women who tend to keep that social network going.
“I hear that from a lot of different places, and it’s certainly true in my household. They are very good at keeping long term relationships going.”
Ms Houston’s job involves managing large funds for private clients and independent financial advisers, and her career has been built around an ability to forge relationships that can stand the test of time.
She added: “There is the investment side that’s incredibly important. But even that is not completely a science.
“It is an art and a science. That’s quite exciting and should appeal to more women than I think it does. But it is changing. We will get there.”
Ms Houston anticipates that the handover from Mr Kaye will be very smooth, because “he has built a very good business”.
She added: “We’re going to make sure that this office provides a high quality of service, and evolves that service.
“I’ve got no plans for any massive recruitment; we’ve got good people here.
“There may be opportunities but I’ve no grand plans to upscale massively,” she added. “We’ve got a culture here, and we’ve got to make sure that that culture is protected. It’s a good culture.”
Ms Houston worked in London for three years for Lloyds Investment Managers before arriving in Leeds. She believes that younger workers understand that all career roads don’t necessarily lead to London.
She added: “A lot of the young people I speak to who are in our business now, in the North, are very keen to stay here.
“There’s an appreciation nowadays of the work life balance, much more than there was when I went down to London, which was just after the 1980s.
“It was a very exciting time, but I don’t think I gave one thought to work life balance or affordability,
“Nowadays, the young do have a good grip on that, and actually want a better work life balance, and the North gives them that.”
The best investment directors know how to listen to their clients, according to Rowena Houston.
Ms Houston said: ”Listening is very important, because we build our business on providing solutions for clients, and not things we are trying to sell to them.
“They need to be listened to; they need to be understood. We need to go and reflect on what they’ve said, and we come back to them with what we think is the right solution. Even this may change with further discussions.”
Investec Wealth & Investment has around 1,200 staff located at its 15 offices across the UK, which includes the base in Leeds. ”