Off-shore experiences good springboard for MasterCard supremo
Early career involvement with survival suits helped navigate choppy waters, writes Colm Kelpie
FEW of us would admit to carrying a full-sized rubber suit around. Even fewer would want to admit losing it, while on a train, on the way to the office.
But in a previous life, Ann Cairns, the current president of international markets at MasterCard, had one specially made just for her.
You see, while life for the 57-year-old is now an endless series of airports, hotels and international locations, an earlier career that saw her become the first woman qualified to work off-shore in Britain was arguably a slightly more intriguing one.
Life as the then head of off-shore engineer planning for British Gas wasn't an entirely glamorous existence. Especially as her training off the Norfolk coast included her being plunged into the sea as part of an exercise simulating what would happen if a helicopter went down in hostile, choppy waters.
"They threw me into the sea with the 47 guys – there were 48 of us in the course," she recalls to the Irish Independent during a recent visit to Ireland, where MasterCard's global centre of innovation is based.
"I had a man's survival suit on. The thing is, I was quite small at the time and the thing didn't fit me around the face so all the water gushed in. I nearly got hypothermia as it wasn't really protecting me. I suppose it was a good job I found out during the training."
After that, the powers-that-be in British Gas thought it wouldn't be very good PR to have their first woman qualified to work off-shore drown because of an ill-fitting suit, and so they went about having one specially made for her.
But it didn't last very long.
"At the time I was going into my office in London with a suitcase with powdered milk for my coffee and this rubber suit. I went to the guy in lost property and I said, I left my bag on the train and he said what's in it, and I explained the contents, and he said, really?"
Whether a career off-shore would instill in her the qualities needed to navigate the stormy waters of high finance remains to be seen. Perhaps in an industry heavily populated by men, spending her early years in a male dominated environment helped.
"There weren't necessarily locks on bathroom doors. How did I cope with that? I just used to put my feet up," she jokes.
"It was an interesting and exciting life. It just appealed to me to be doing something a little bit different."
She left British Gas after three years, when the company was privatised and was taken over by "accountants and financial people".
After stints in banking in the late 1980s and then restructuring in 2008 which involved leadership on the European unwind of Lehman Brothers, and a period in Ireland working alongside NAMA, the Newcastle woman joined MasterCard in 2011.
As President, International Markets, based in London, she is responsible for handling activities in all markets outside the US. That ensures she clocks up the air miles.
Her itinerary is exhausting. Since January, she has been to Japan, India, visited New York three times, travelled to San Francisco, Stockholm and Rome.
MasterCard, she reminds me, isn't a credit card company, but a tech giant, spread across 210 countries and territories and with a marketing budget of about £800m (€988m) a year.
Banks, big stores, governments and airlines are all among MasterCard's customers. Mobile phone companies are also becoming increasingly important. And the emerging markets are the big growth area.
It's arguably no better a time for the company, given the push from cash to electronic payments, with governments at times the main drivers.
But Ms Cairns argues that transition is still in its infancy.
"Right now, of the world's consumer business, only 15pc is electronic; 85pc is cheque or cash and so there's a huge whitespace in order to expand into. In that 15pc you've got us and our competitors. In some parts of the world it's over 90pc cash or cheque. It's a huge growth area," she says.
"In the emerging markets, things change really quickly. We have nine big projects around the world in places like Mexico, India and Nigeria.
"We'll reach another 350 million people, many of whom have never been able to have a bank account and been able to do electronic payments before."
But Europe, despite struggling with a debt crisis, is also enjoying double digit growth.
"Our business is interesting for banks because our business is recession proof. People ask how can you have double digit growth in Europe when the sovereign debt crisis is going on? The answer is our products are used for everyday payments," she says.
"You're still putting petrol in your car, you're still going to the supermarket, you're still doing all the things that you need to do."
The lifestyle may be glamorous, but the hectic travelling from continent to continent must be a drain, as well as placing pressure on family life.
"It is tiring but you can't just rely on technology to communicate to your people. Your people like to see you, as do your customers," she says.
But how easily can life in the boardroom or near the top of the corporate ladder lie in harmony with having a family?
"I don't think that you have to sacrifice. I think that family life is different if you're a stay-at-home mum versus a working mum," she says. "My daughter is 20 now and she often says to me that she's proud that I have a great job. So there may be times in life that you have the odd guilt trip . . . but your children respect you for the rounded person that you are."
She and her family have lived in Britain, Holland and in the US on two separate occasions. She credits her husband's job with making the global trek that bit easier.
As a school teacher, his career is portable and at times he actually worked in the school in which their daughter was studying.
But she says more needs to be done to help women aged in their 30s manage the competing demands of starting a family while maintaining a career.
And she said there are several reasons why women are underrepresented in corporate life.
"There's how men and women perceive themselves. When I interview women, they often won't put themselves forward for jobs unless they feel 100pc confident that they can do it," she says.
"So they are not taking a punt on themselves, whereas men will take more risk, they'll put themselves forward. There isn't a single factor and there are many things that need to be addressed."
But she's opposed to the idea of gender quotas on boards.
"When you're appointed to the board, you'd like to think that you got there on your own merit, rather than you're the token woman on the board."
The visit to Ireland was a brief one, and included an evening watching her daughter, a student at Trinity College, play a starring role in a play at the Samuel Beckett Theatre. Ms Cairns was back to London the following day, before hopping on a jet for yet another trip to New York, where MasterCard is headquartered.
Thankfully she rarely, if ever, needs to travel by helicopter anymore.
Which is good.
The rubber suit was never found.