Hiring Circle meets Pantheon Ventures' Imogen Richards; Partner and Global Head of Investment Structuring and Strategy
Imogen Richards has worked at Pantheon for 16 years, a length of time some might consider unusual in this day and age. Here she talks to Hiring Circle's Georgie Banfield about what she has learnt along the way; from the value of mentoring and sponsorship, advice for candidates looking to move to the buyside, an insight into working at Pantheon and ultimately what has made her stay.
Firstly, please will you explain who Pantheon are and your role within the business.
Pantheon is an international investor in private equity, infrastructure, real assets and credit that invests on behalf of over 500 institutional investors and has over $50 billion in assets under management. Pantheon’s investment strategies include primary fund programs, secondaries, and co-investments across the different asset classes that we invest in.
I’m a partner on our investment team in London and I manage the Investment Structuring and Strategy team which includes the following 4 teams: Investment Structuring Team (responsible for closing and structuring all of our investments), the Portfolio Strategy Team (responsible for portfolio construction, deal allocations and investment strategy), Research (data driven insights into investment strategy and activities), and Treasury & Fund management (manages Pantheon’s cash, fx hedging strategies, debt programs).
Our main competitors would be multi-asset managers in the private markets space and other specialist private market investors e.g. Partners Group, Hamilton Lane, Harbourvest, Lexington, Coller, Pomona etc.
You studied Natural Sciences at Cambridge. How did you end up in Private Equity?
If I'm honest I would say I fell into Private Equity. I joined Anglo Irish Bank in their Private Banking Division when I graduated in 2002. Soon after, a Partner joined to set up a Private Equity fund and I ended up working with him, so really it was complete luck. In all honesty I had no idea what PE was and back then it wasn’t necessarily that well known anyway. I’ve spoken to a lot of people about it and in my experience, back then, unless you’d done an MBA or worked in investment banking, most people got into PE serendipitously.
In terms of my degree, my Natural Sciences background has had very limited implications for my career. What was key were the transferable skills such as the ability to present, and what my education showed was intelligence and the ability to synthesise information into a coherent argument.
When I moved on from Anglo Irish after 3 years there, I knew I wanted to move to another PE firm as I loved the industry. I actually had multiple job offers at the time, but I wanted to get a broader exposure to PE and I liked the opportunity that Pantheon could give me to get experience of the overall private equity market (and I also got on really well with the team and that helps)!
How would you describe Pantheon?
Collaborative, inclusive, kind, hard-working, people want to do their best, innovative, diverse.
You’ve now been at Pantheon for nearly 16 years. These days that’s quite unusual in terms of a career – what is it that has made you stay?
Yes, when I started at Pantheon there were less than 50 people in the London office. Now there’s nearly 250 permanent staff globally!
The most important thing for me is that I've managed to do different things with my career at Pantheon and continue to be challenged. I started in the secondaries team and was there for 9 years. Then I had a child and wanted a different challenge so I started working with our Partnership Board and Manging Partner on a lot of strategic projects. I did some interesting things then ended up seeing an opportunity to change the way things were done, so I set up the Investment Structuring team that closes all of our deals, and the Portfolio Strategy Team which does all of our allocation and investment strategy. Then a year or so later I took on the Research function, then took over the Treasury function too.
I’ve been led in so many different directions and I'm really pleased it’s been that way. If I hadn’t been proactive and thought it was possible to do other things then I wouldn’t be doing what I'm doing today and I would probably have left. I'm lucky that I had people who believed in me.
A lot of PE firms we talk to want to recruit people who have worked in banking first. Do you agree with that?
If you want to be in the investment team then frankly yes you do need to have worked in an investment bank first (or consulting). You have got to have 2 years’ experience at least because people want someone who knows how to use a spread sheet and build a model. You’re very unlikely to get a job unless you’ve been a banker, a management consultant or potentially an accountant – you need to have had that training.
But on the other side of it, people often forget about the ancillary services that are still within PE. Private equity is more than just about the numbers; you’ve got to be able to negotiate the legals when you're closing the deal, set up tax structuring, manage all of the debt if you're putting that onto a transaction and you’ve got to be able to manage that company after you’ve made that investment. There are different skillsets required at different stages of the process. In fact, one of the reasons we set up the Investment Structuring Team was to do exactly this, and we’ve hired a number of grads for example with Law degrees with great success into those team. What they teach you at university isn’t going to necessarily be that applicable, but taking smart grads who have a general understanding of the world and training them about what works for us has worked pretty well.
I’m sure you see a huge number of CV’s from “smart grads” with similar academics and experience. What makes a candidate stand out at interview stage?
Yes, there are so many candidates out there that have the required level of academic competency – so that’s the baseline hurdle you have to get over – but there are exceptions to that rule.
In general however, it comes down to how candidates present themselves in interview. They obviously have to have a certain level of ability but essentially it’s whether I like them, whether the team will like them, do they come across to senior people well, can they present their ideas thoughtfully and coherently, can they grasp things quickly, are they quick learners, do they have the right attitude, are they interested in the job and have they done their research around who we are.
It’s amazing how much comes down to the softer skills, which you can’t necessarily teach people or gauge from a CV.
You mentioned there were exceptions to the rule. Can you elaborate on that please?
We have hired a number of people who haven’t come from the traditional top tier universities. One route in has been for people to join the firm in a back-office position, and prove themselves to be exceptional and then apply for an internal transfer onto the investment team. I would advise candidates not to be blinkered in their focus on only joining an investment team straight away as there are other routes in.
Also the private equity industry is much broader than the obvious private equity houses, so think outside of the box around other firms or roles that might be of interest e.g. intermediaries, fund of funds, secondary investors, investor relations roles etc.
Firms are also increasingly focussed on diversity, and on recruiting people from different educational backgrounds and experience. There is much more awareness of ‘unconscious bias’, and firms are trying to discourage hiring people who fit the mould of everyone who is already there.
As a mother, are you able to work flexibly to support your family?
When I had my son 8 years ago the expectation was that I would be in the office 5 days a week – there wasn’t any working from home back then. We just had desks and desk top computers and no ability to take our work home with us. Then we moved office about 5 years ago and we were given laptops and flexible desks and that fundamentally changed things and enabled us to work more flexibly. Also, many senior men were leading the way and working from home and therefore there wasn’t a gender stigma associated with working from home. That change in culture made it much better for people with families.
I think COVID has instigated the change for many firms that we at Pantheon had actually been through before we moved office – COVID has probably forced other businesses to think the same way and change their working practices. It’s proved to be possible and also it’s very valuable to people.
How is working from home affected the way you do business?
I found working from home fine and I think to be honest it will be much easier for people to work flexibly in the future due to COVID. Personally, I don’t think it’s impacted my work – I can work as productively if not more productively from home, but what I do miss is the people interaction – you see people on the screen and talk about what you need to talk about and then you hang up. But if you were in the office you would have many more points of interaction. It’s quite difficult to replace that unforeseen communication but we are thinking of ways to overcome that as we recognise how important it is. For example, we are doing 15-minute zoom calls where different people from different teams are invited on to chat socially without a work agenda for the call.
The other impact is on new joiners. I've had 2 people on one of my teams join over lock down and I would say on the whole it’s worked but they’ve missed out on meeting people in person. It’s especially hard for junior people who want to build that social network of people in the office.
What value do you place on mentoring and as you’ve become more senior, where have you turned to for mentors?
Mentoring is extremely valuable but so is sponsorship and it’s important to understand the difference. A sponsor is someone you have internally who is going to advocate for you when you're looking to be promoted or put on an interesting project. A mentor is a slightly different relationship which is a bit more impartial – someone to ask advice of in certain situations. I've definitely found the most useful mentoring situation is where there is a specific issue that needs to be worked through.
I think it is important for members of my team to have both mentors and sponsors. I currently manage 25 people and I can’t necessarily be a champion for all of them. You need to actually think about who is beneficial to your career, who are the decision makers, how can I get them on my side, then when decisions are being made – will they think of me. People don’t necessarily think consciously or calculatingly about who is going to be beneficial in their career, especially at the more junior end, so we place a lot of value on sponsors.
I've had experience of being a mentor and a mentee both internally through our mentoring programme at Pantheon and externally in places such as Level20. [Level20 is a membership organisation whose activities are focused on supporting the goal of increasing the percentage of women in senior leadership in European private equity]. Back in 2015 I was one of their first intake of mentees and since then have mentored other women through the programme. I have certainly had mentors within Pantheon, but at a senior level I have found external mentors through Level20 very valuable.
What is your advice to candidates coming into the market now, and particularly to those candidates looking to move into Private Equity?
Don’t think of the obvious options. When I was leaving university and talking to the career service, there were the obvious career choices and I didn’t think beyond the companies that had large graduate training programs. I would encourage people to think outside the confines of the obvious options because there are other (potentially very interesting) jobs available. Be broader minded about your options.
If you're looking to get into PE you need to know what it is you are actually doing, and be aware that each firm is so different. Life at one of the big mega-houses is completely different from being in a venture fund or a midmarket house. Just to say you want to be in private equity isn’t necessarily meaningful.
Also, the “investment team” is where most people think of as being private equity but remember that there are a wide variety of people around the periphery who help the machine function. Actually, getting people placed in those areas is potentially more exciting, especially if people don’t have an investment banking background.
Finally, I'm always interested to hear how women, especially senior women with children, balance home and work life. How do you make it work?
It’s very difficult to do it on your own, so having the right help at home is essential, whether that’s a supportive partner, or someone who comes into your home to help. Having a supportive work environment is also essential so that you can do the important things for your family like go to your kid’s parent’s evening or school play and your firm enables you to have that flexibility. I think if you don’t have that mutual trust and flexibility at work, then it’s going to be very difficult to make it work as you will always feel like you are compromising somewhere.