Ming Long was asked to step up to chair of AMP Capital Funds Management in 2017 after less than a year on the board. Here she recounts her character building experience.

    The foyer of Sydney’s 126 Phillip Street, with its four fountains, makes the ground floor of the Deutsche Bank building a pleasant spot to meet, even when the subject of discussion is difficult. Ming Long GAICD discovered this in 2008 while steering the debt-burdened Investa Property Group through the global financial crisis. She held regular catch-ups there with the company’s lenders — “the Big Four and many others” — who had every right to be spooked.

    “We used to have coffee down there all the time, to say, ‘Look, it’s not great, but I have it under control,’” says Long, who was group CFO. “Sometimes I had up to seven coffees a day.”

    Successfully navigating that five-year ordeal a decade ago, and numerous mergers and acquisitions deals, has been critical in helping Long rise to another moment when things were in a state of flux. She didn’t blink when, in June 2018, she was asked to replace John Nesbitt as chair of AMP Capital Funds Management, a month shy of her first anniversary as a non-executive director of AMP Capital’s main Responsible Entity and Trustee boards.

    She concedes her “accidental” elevation to chair “was a surprise because it was quite quick”, but regards it as “a natural progression given everything that was going on and a fantastic challenge”. Nesbitt had vacated the role to become chair of the private company’s parent, AMP Capital Holdings, which has almost $190 billion under management, as part of a reshuffle during the banking Royal Commission.

    The attributes that had made Long a strong candidate for the board position — deep experience in funds management across a range of markets and a tested commitment to unit holders’ best interests — now qualified her to lead the directors as the financial sector reeled under revelations from the Royal Commission.

    Confidence in the organisation she had joined “in terms of culture, the leadership team and the AMP Capital CEO” eased the transition.

    Everyone can see how you behave at the worst of times; that’s how they know you have ethics and integrity at the best of times.

    Ming Long GAICD

    “I’ve been able to draw on my personal experience working through significant volatility and crisis to help during this period,” says Long. “[It] has enabled me to draw on personal agility and the ability to adapt to change quickly, not sweating the small stuff and keeping an eye on our purpose and the bigger picture.”

    How people react under pressure reveals a lot about character, says Long. “You draw from a lot of your own values at that point. Everyone can see how you behave at the worst of times; that’s how they know you have ethics and integrity at the best of times.”

    In pulling together the $1.9b self-syndicated loan that ultimately saved Investa, Long banked on her ability to engender and sustain the level of trust needed to keep the stakeholders on board, the value of her word being her bond, and assiduous cultivation of close ties with lenders and stakeholders — all of it relevant to her current situation. “I wanted to be the one who faced those relationships,” she says. “That has a lot of parallels with the role I have now. When people place their funds at AMP Capital, they are trusting us to be stewards of their money. It’s a pretty grave fiduciary responsibility.”

    It also gave her a confidence that underpinned her approach to future corporate challenges.

    “I cut my teeth working in volatile, disruptive environments. It taught me a lot of things about who I am, how I execute, how I deal with people, and all of that equipped me for many challenges,” she says. This includes a business world characterised by continuous, even abrupt, transitions — “either through future of work, or through digital AI, or regulatory changes coming through”.

    Long’s grit has its roots in her migrant experience. Her Malaysian-Chinese parents moved the family from Kuala Lumpur to Australia in 1980 to give their children a brighter future.

    “My parents decided our education was the priority,” she explains. “On a work trip to Australia, my father saw an ad for a job in electrical engineering.” It was in Lithgow, NSW. Theirs was the only Chinese family at school and the culture shock took in experiences such as taking the request to “bring a plate” to a social event literally. Her three siblings became doctors; she chose economics, law and accounting, studying at the University of Sydney and joining Investa after stints at Borough Mazars and APN News & Media.

    Long left Investa in 2016 after a year as joint MD/CEO of the group, and two years as CEO of the Investa Office Fund. As well as joining the AMP Capital Funds Management board in 2017, she became deputy chair of Diversity Council Australia and a non-executive director of Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand. She is also a signatory to the Banking and Finance Oath, in which finance sector members pledge to build trust and pursue ethical aims.

    In the current environment of severely diminished public confidence, Long says directors should understand that rebuilding trust begins with the individual, with a personal commitment to do the right thing by all stakeholders.

    “Each director needs to look at why they are on the board they are on,” she says. For her, the “proper purpose” is to make a difference, and to demonstrate integrity individually and collectively. “It’s no longer about what we say; it’s what we do and how we go about doing it.”

    Long says early last year the board began outreach to investors “to ensure we understood the challenges our customers were facing, what was important to them and to build deeper relationships with them”.

    “The Royal Commission has accelerated the pace of change — so much so that the organisation is working through a very high level of change,” she says. “That also creates risks, but we are all alive to the risk of not changing fast enough.

    What is important is that I see people hunger for change for the better. This is encouraging and will become its strength.”

    The Royal Commission presents specific challenges, not only for boards, but also for the general community. “It’s becoming abundantly clear there are changes afoot from a legal and compliance perspective, making sure that organisations are compliant,” says Long. “It’s important for the community to understand there is not a single organisation that is perfect because we have human beings in all our organisations. What is important is that the organisation responds appropriately when mistakes are made; [that] we make sure there is appropriate rectification.”

    Asked about accountants, for example, whose professional bodies have adopted a new ethical standard allowing them to break client confidentiality if there has been non-compliance with laws and regulations (NOCLAR), Long agrees there is also a responsibility to the wider community. “To break that non-disclosure rule is a pretty serious thing to do, but the ethics committee is saying you have a greater responsibility to the public.”

    She also approves of other steps businesses are taking to prove themselves good corporate citizens, such as when parent company AMP Capital introduced an ethical investing framework in 2017, a move that included exiting $440m tobacco stocks. The review of the ASX Corporate Governance Council’s Corporate Governance Principles and Recommendations will also play into how business is done post-Royal Commission.

    “I don’t think we need a whole set of new rules,” she says. “The rules and standards we have are appropriate. They need to be executed well and there needs to be greater scrutiny and people being happy to stand up to that scrutiny.”

    Long is pleased with the direction the AMP Funds Management board is taking and describes its culture as “inclusive, challenging and respectful”, setting the right tone from the top.

    As chair, she sees herself as the enabler of the sort of freewheeling discussion that sparks innovation.

    She is a relative newcomer to the community of directors, but has a higher profile than many others, partly due to appearances on ABC TV current affairs panel show The Drum. She encourages directors to become “known” to the community in ways they aren’t at the moment, to be unafraid to voice personal convictions — although not speaking on behalf of their organisations, which is the role of the executive team.

    “It’s important for directors to talk about things so the community understands who we are,” she notes. “We need to be involved in big discussions… even if the boards we are on are not involved in them. We have a role to play to shape discussion in the community and where this country goes.”

    Ming Long is a speaker at the upcoming Australian Governance Summit. More information here.

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