A woman with glasses, with a night-time city skyline behind her
Stefanie Drews: ‘The biggest step I’ve taken is allowing work from home up to 100 per cent’ © Yutaro Yamaguchi, for the FT

Stefanie Drews, president of Japan’s Nikko Asset Management, has never had a go at karaoke.

One of the very few women at the top of asset management, globally, and the only foreign leader of a leading financial services company in Japan, Drews decided long ago to do things differently. That included avoiding the booze-filled, late-night client meetings that abounded then in the industry and remain a significant part of it today.

“I remember when I had my first child,” she says, looking out across Tokyo from her 42nd floor office.

“She was just a baby, and I was still nursing, and it was very difficult. And I remember that particular moment deciding, ‘I’m just not going to do it that way anymore . . . instead I’m just going to focus on performance’. And that is really where my business started to take off.”

Overcoming expectations
Now, 10 years after joining Nikko, the Japanese fund management group, and after 25 years in finance, Drews is determined to try to remove the kinds of structural problem that she was forced to overcome.

Starting new jobs, she always expect­ed to have “a much higher burden on myself and much higher obstacles to climb”, she recalls. “And that was a bit sad . . . I’m trying to make sure the next generation doesn’t internalise it. I wanted to change a construct so that they could deliver on their own terms.”

From consultancy to finance
A staunch environmentalist and vegan in a country where eating meat and fish can feel mandatory, a single mother of three, and the owner of an animal sanctuary 100km from Tokyo, Drews took a roundabout route to Japan. After study­ing at Oxford university, the German-born Drews made a “little car­eer mistake at the beginning” by choosing management consultancy.

She then made her way to finance via an MBA at Harvard Business School and spent 13 years at US bank Morgan Stanley’s private wealth business in London, before moving to Barclays’ ultra-high net worth unit.

Drews joined Nikko in 2014 and moved to Japan a year later — having never been to the country before and with no working knowledge of the language. She was soon tasked with making huge chunks of the business digital, one after another: “By the time Covid happened, we were fully digitalised. And that allowed us to have our two strongest years on the international side.”

Networks and language lessons
Less than 1 per cent of Japan’s top listed companies are led by a woman. But Drews was promoted to the top job in 2022, charged with overseeing Nikko’s $210bn in assets under management and almost 1,000 employees across 11 countries.

She attributes her ascent to the deep networks she built across the business, both through running various units and by less orthodox means — including the one-hour English lessons she gave colleagues four mornings a week, from 2015 until the pandemic hit.

Colleagues “were quite shocked”, she recalls, when they realised she would offer this for anyone, however junior. “People were like, how do I get a slot? And I’m like, well, just ask me.”

The problem, however, is that Drews remains an anomaly, not just in finance or in the often rigidly hierarchical world of Japanese business but at her own firm. Only a quarter of executives at Nikko are women.

Milestone dates

1997 Morgan Stanley: managing director in private wealth management

2010 Barclays: global head of wealth and investment management

2014 Nikko Asset Management: global head of institutional marketing and proposition

2016 Joint global head of product and marketing

2018 Adds role of global head of marketing and corporate sustainability

2019 Senior corporate managing director as well as global head of products and solutions, international sales and strategy, and sales support

2022 President

Japan has set a goal for women to hold 30 per cent of executive positions at top listed companies by 2030 — a target Drews says is actually very tough to hit because few women are moving up through the ranks.

That is why she eschews any congratulations for her own position and suggests there is a cognitive dissonance in how people assess the changes that have been made in the workplace, generally.

The percentage of female fund managers is 12.1 per cent globally, according to a report from Citywire in September 2023.

“Yes, we have more women at board level, but the reality is that doesn’t affect the 32-year-old woman with a one-year-old child,” points out Drews. “It just doesn’t trickle down fast enough.”

The industry can either convince itself that the situation is getting better, she adds, “or you can address the uncomfortable truth, and say we are nowhere near where we should be”.

Rethinking the future
Drews advocates a complete rethink of how women join the industry, and outlines “an end-to-end framework that goes from recruitment to retirement”. That would mean all companies agreeing to change hiring criteria, creating new, alternative career paths, and ensuring maternity leave does not hamper career progression.

But, since that remains outside her control, particularly in a regulated industry that can be slow to change, the most consequential action in her gift is allowing people to work from home, without restrictions. With that in place, other moves can follow, including support networks within the company.

“The biggest step I’ve taken is allowing work from home up to 100 per cent because that is the biggest structural issue there is,” says Drews. “What comes after that is super-important as well. But, without that first step, everything else is not actionable.”

While other financial businesses have cut back on remote working since the pandemic, Drews is determined to find ways to mitigate side-effects. If the ability to move up in a company is hampered by being away from the office, she argues, “then you have a broken promotion system”.

And, although proud of what she has done so far, she remains clear-eyed about the fact there remains much more to do.

“You have to keep moving,” says Drews, and eke out the small gains where you can: “You never, ever, ever stop . . . You simply don’t pretend [that all is well].”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article


Comments have not been enabled for this article.