From 1980s trading to the trillion-euro investment management business: The rise of Regina Breheny

Responsible investment is ‘ticking along nicely’ say the IAIM boss, who has an eye to the future.

By Zuzia Whelan Reporter, Fora

REGINA BREHENY ADMITS that she fell into investment management accidentally – which is a little surprising for someone who would go on to run the Irish Association of Investment Managers (IAIM). 

When an early suggestion of a career as concert pianist didn’t play out, Breheny found a calling in business and trained as an accountant.

First moving into banking she joined the investment side of the group to avoid being amalgamated into the main bank when her division was wound up in the mid-1980s and kick-started a career that includes a sojourn doing consultancy work in Eastern Europe and Russia just after the fall of communism. 

Breheny also spent more than a decade as the director general of the Irish Venture Capital Association and has been in the investment management industry about two years now. 

“It’s been an absolutely tremendous career. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it,” she says sitting at a long, paper-stacked table in her office off Fitzwilliam Square.  

Ghost in the machine

The IAIM was founded in 1986 and represents the investment management industry in Ireland, with its members managing some €1 trillion in assets. 

Breheny has taken over in interesting times. When she started as CEO of the IAIM in 2017, concepts such as responsible investment were only beginning to become major trends. 

“It’s embedded now in the whole decision-making process. It’s evolved because investment people see it as important for the long-term sustainability of investment.”

What you see now, then, is a responsible investment movement – “which is ticking along nicely.”

The other big driver of change is technology. “There’s an autonomous investment firm operating in Hong Kong,” she says, smiling. 

Fees have always been high and regulation is an enormous cost to companies already – and machines will do it more cheaply. 

But she’s not worried. Despite cutting costs and streamlining certain processes, machines lack judgement. “A computer cannot deal with ethics the way humans do. I think there’s always a role for people.”

With issues like corporate governance, the environment and more gender equality rising in the headlines when it comes to investment, Breheny believes that the human factor will become increasingly important. 

‘Never looked back’

Breheny grew up in Blackrock as one of six children. UCD was the “obvious university” close by.

Her father wanted her to be a teacher because, assuming she would get married and have kids, it was a good job to balance those commitments.”I had been trying to teach one of my younger brothers mathematics (and) I decided teaching wasn’t for me,” she says. 

“I went and did a psychometric test, and what came out on top of the test was that I should be a concert pianist,” but that was unrealistic, she says, since she wasn’t that great.

Her second choice was business, so she did a commerce degree in UCD, discovered a flair it and got a placement in accounting firm Craig Gardeners. 

“I never looked back. In one of my accountancy exams I got a first place in Ireland. I just wanted to achieve, achieve, achieve and accountancy was a difficult area – and I was very good at financial accounting. It was an easy choice for me,” she says. 

Breheny went on to join the investment side of the AIB group after a division where was working as a management accountant was being wound up in the mid-1980s. Most people were brought into the main AIB group and “I didn’t want that at all,” she adds. 

“I ended up by accident joining the investment side of the group, which is a hugely high performing area. Everybody on the desk had some speciality. There was a doctor of chemistry, a corporate finance guy – you were mixing with and smart people in their own sphere, but all very interested in how to invest money and how to get performance out of investing money,” she says. 

‘Investment people’

Breheny’s speciality was trading equities – Irish, European and American, while another female colleague on the desk took care of Asian equities. 

For Ireland in the 1980s, she says the gender balance was not much different than it is now. “I don’t think it has improved much at all,” she adds. 

That being said, there was probably a relatively high number of women in finance – about 15-20% – at the time simply because there weren’t that many investment institutions. 

“Nobody in any way treated me differently to the fellas around the desk,” Breheny says. 

“We were dealers. We were investment people. That’s the beauty of the industry. It’s highly specialised and high performing – you’re just a dealer.”

At high-performing levels that hasn’t changed, Breheny reckons – the difference is that women who are interested in high-performance jobs have a lot more opportunities to pursue them now. Growing up, her school didn’t offer honours maths, so she had to do it externally.  

After AIB, Breheny joined Eagle Star, now Zurich, where funds were newly colour-coded red, for adventurous, and blue, for conservative. 

“I managed a red fund and that was great fun altogether. You had to keep it (at) high performance, high performance, high performance,” she says, tapping the table with her hand. 

“It’s the buzz of getting the decision right, seeing the price of the fund going up and reflecting the performance. People who wanted a bit of risk got their risk, and they got their high performance balancing that risk.”

In the early 1990s, Breheny stepped into stockbroking, as she joined Solomon Stockbrokers, an amalgamation of two firms that had been taken over by Anglo Irish Bank, to “blend the operations” of the entities. 

Within a few years, she decided she would prefer to work for herself and began doing consultancy work – which would give her career a more international flavour.

Her work with clients paved a road heading east, as she headed to places such as Bulgaria as she worked on developing banking and investment expertise. 

Among her work was a stint in Russia to work there amid privatization. “They did it using a voucher system. Our job was to go in and promote the voucher system to ordinary people – how to use their vouchers, how to bid, how to go to an auction, how to buy a stake in the company they had been working in.”

With no advertising at the time, in 1993-1996, they did this by putting up stickers on buses. 

“What happened next was I adopted children. I have three adopted children from Central America,” she says. Travelling so much became “too complicated” after that. 

“I was lucky enough to get contract work with Enterprise Ireland, who had an enormous portfolio of companies they had invested in – and they needed help managing that portfolio,” she says. 

She later moved into venture capital when “all the good companies that Enterprise Ireland would have supported went on to raise venture capital,” and she got to know them well.  

Breheny spent more than 13 years as the director general of the Irish Venture Capital Association. 

Low stock

While Breheny isn’t unduly worried about automation in the investment trade, she is a little concerned with the amount of talent looking to join the industry. 

“The industry seems to have slipped in the thinking of young people. I don’t know any young people looking at investment. I’m not even sure any university runs an investment course anymore,” she says. 

“Our feedstock seems to be shrinking. That’s a big worry. Even mathsy girls don’t think of investment at all – it’s the excitement of the tech area that they go for, so we’re under pressure,” she adds. “It’s a fantastic career and we just need to get that message out.”

Right now, the body is weighing up whether to get that message out through universities or schools. Breheny reckons young candidates don’t know about the industry and are afraid of finance. 

Young people “don’t realise the personal satisfaction and excitement you can get” in this line of work, she says. 

Her position in the CEO will be up in the next few months, and after so many career changes, she’s planning to return to an old hobby – bridge. She also played poker as a child. 

“Your brain can do an awful lot more than you realise. If you just keep pushing it, it’s interesting what it can do,” she says. 

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