Ulla Agesen is Head of Infrastructure at the Danish asset manager Nordic Investment Opportunities (NIO). Fondsfrau Anke Dembowski talks with her about infrastructure investments and women in the financial business.

Ulla, you are head of infrastructure at NIO. Can you tell us, what you are doing during a normal working day?
I talk to other general partners (GP) that manage alternative investments. I am focusing on Infrastructure, which is a super interesting job, as I speak to some of the most well educated and knowledgeable people in that industry. Infrastructure really is my baby, as it is assets that are essential to society: Windfarms, care homes for elderly, or putting fibre in the ground for communication. It is really for all kinds of different people. My job is talking to the people that are active in that sector, understanding the dynamics, and finding a team that works well together and has deep expertise. I spend a lot of time talking to these people and analysing their previous results.

You are building infrastructure portfolios for investors. Is infrastructure still an important asset class now, when yields in the bond sectors look attractive as well?
From a financial point of view I fully appreciate that we are now getting nicer output on bonds than just a year ago. But with infrastructure, you still get a risk premium. You earn higher returns there because it is an essential asset, which makes it very resilient when markets go up and down. It gives investors an inflation protection, which is particularly important as it is a long term investment. Infrastructure yields 8 to 10%, after all fees – at least we have been able to generate these results historically. And in addition: You can be part of investing in parts that matter to all of us: It is climate related, helps the connectivity of people and their mobility!

Who are the most important infrastructure investors?
The big pension funds have always been invested in infrastructure, and they have their own specialized investment teams. But you need 20 or 30 Million Euros minimum to invest in infrastructure projects. We can go down 100.000 Euro. So we make infrastructure accessible to investor groups that usually have difficulties accessing private markets. Our investors are mainly family offices, foundations, and HNWIs.

What is your background, Ulla?
I have a master’s degree in business and finance, and did some teaching in statistics in business school. My first job was with a consultant in Denmark. There, we helped pension funds select managers for equities. We did the screening and came up with a short list of suitable asset managers. I did that for 9 years and really enjoyed it. I started this at age of 26.

This was listed assets, mainly equity, and after 9 years, I wanted to try something else. I got a job in London at Aon Hewitt Consulting, where I became part of the manager selection team, which was quite big, with 70 members. Our clients were institutional investors, some very big pension funds, and insurance companies. There, I became European Head of Equity Selection.

Why did you later on move to Denmark?
After I worked for Aon Hewitt Consulting in London for 4 years – I had 3 kids at that time – we moved back to Denmark for family reasons. My husband had stayed at home with the kids, and by the time we moved back to Denmark our son was 7 years old and the twin girls 4 years old. We both feared that it could be tricky for my husband to find a job after having been off the market for 4 years, but in Denmark he found one quite quickly.

When we came back to Denmark, I started in Nykredit, who are also doing manager selection. First, Nykredit only looked at equity managers, but from 2013 on, we were ready to look into new areas, into alternatives and infrastructure. In 2018, we started with private equities as well.

Did you have a career plan, to work in infrastructure?
No, I did not have a career plan, I rather grew into that. I know what I like and what I am good at. Between equity managers and infrastructure managers there are a lot of similarities: The team dynamics, how the alignment of interest works, looking at a number of opportunities. I feel that I have a lot of knowledge on the listed side, which helps me to look into the alternative side as well.

Do you think that women do manager selection differently than men?
I don’t think there is a gender specific selection process, but some women might have more focus on soft criteria, at least this is true for me. These criteria are sometimes overlooked, although they are important. For example, I had an investment with a manager that really turned into difficulties, and I was deeply involved to find a solution. I talked to the management teams and to the individual team members. It is important to try and listen what really worries them. What has to happen so that they stay with the company? This is not really psychology, it is rather listening what is actually going on behind nice presentations. It is like “what I am hearing, you are saying…. Is that right?” Then people come out of their presentation mode. It is also about respect.

We at Fondsfrauen we are trying to convince women to make themselves “visible”. I saw that you are speaking at several conferences. How important do you think is “visibility” for women in the financial sector?
I think it is more and more important. We can look into the statistics. It is good in all teams to have a good diversity, regarding gender, age, background and so on. I don’t want to consider myself a role model. But you should have a person that others might be able to identify with: That could be you! In London I had a young woman in my team. She was very outgoing, very bright. One day she pinged me: “You were so brave. Showing that it can be done. We can all do it!”

I am also active in “Women in Asset Management”, a network in Denmark.

And apart from that, how are you networking?
How you network depends on who you are. For example, I am not good at networking in LinkedIn and other Social Media. I prefer talking directly to people: To other managers, to investors. I have a lot of people that I can call up and discuss things. I speak a lot to other women networks. That can be very low key, such as “I am looking for a new team member”, up to “how do you repower windfarms?” It is important to stay interested in learning. And once you are in there, you are getting to know more people. For me, it comes automatically.

Is there something that is done very well in Denmark, regarding working women?
Yes, in Denmark, there is now a good mix in terms of diversity at business schools. In my time, we were 10% women in finance courses, now it is 50:50, so now you can find women. Sometimes you just need to be a bit open minded for taking people in, not just a box ticking exercise. Everybody can bring something to the team. It is important not to have clones in the team.

Diversity should be also on background and nationality. We are not very good at that in Denmark; that works much better in the UK. There, companies are also open for people that have not studied finance, but for example history, philosophy, or literature. They can still do a CFA on top of it and then give a different perspective. Otherwise, CAPM-modelling is always coming up with the same results. For this, it is important that both sides are open minded: The companies, but also the people must have a bright mind and be willing to learn. The people that have a positive can-do-attitude are the best people in a team!

Thank you for this inspiring interview, Ulla!

Profilbild von Anke Dembowski

Anke Dembowski

Anke Dembowski is a financial journalist and author of various investment fund-related and other financial books. She is also a co-founder of the "Fondsfrauen" network.

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