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What I've learnt: Ann Cairns

MasterCard's International Markets president Ann Cairns on maths, management and offshore adventure
Ann Cairns at MasterCard Worldwide's Canary Wharf office
Richard Cannon

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Investment banking in 1987 was more sexist than the rigs

Ann Cairns, 56, is president, International Markets for MasterCard Worldwide. A pure maths graduate, she began her career as a research engineer for British Gas and was the first woman qualified to work on offshore rigs in the UK. She then moved into the banking sector, spending 15 years in senior positions at Citigroup before becoming head of transactional banking at ABN-AMRO. From 2008 to 2011, working for restructuring company Alvarez & Marsal, she led the European team unwinding the assets of Lehman Brothers Holdings International following the bank's collapse. She now manages MasterCard's markets outside the US.

I was born in Newcastle. My parents both left school at 14 but they were bright. If they'd been growing up today, they would both have gone to university and been professional people. My father used to tell me and my brother and sister that we could be anything we wanted to be. I think that's a very inspiring thing to do, particularly for a Northeastern man. 

I went to Sheffield University to study pure mathematics and had no idea what I would do after I graduated, I was just following my passion. The joy of maths is that you can look at tables of numbers and see patterns. It's like looking at a painting. It's just the way your mind works. 

After I graduated I went on to do a Masters degree in statistics at Newcastle University. Then I got a job with British Gas designing experiments for engineers. After a while I thought it would be nice to do something more leading edge and decided the exploration and production division looked really fun. I had to do a petroleum engineers course to make sure I was qualified to go offshore. It was a one-week course in Great Yarmouth in April and as part of it they do a simulated helicopter crash in a pool. They also throw you in the sea in your dry suit to simulate what would happen if you jumped off a platform or came out of a helicopter. I discovered that the suits are all made for guys, so even though I wore a small suit, it was too big for my face. All the water rushed in and I virtually got hypothermia. You cool down really fast in the North Sea! 

I'd visit the rigs twice a month and as a woman I was treated as a bit of a novelty. It was quite good fun. There are a lot of myths about how people are on the oil and gas rigs. Basically the guys who ran the platforms were reasonably well educated and were all doing Open University degrees. I think having grown up in the Northeast and with the sense of humour I have I've always been very relaxed around men. To be honest, when I moved into investment banking with Citigroup in 1987 it was more sexist there than it was on the offshore platforms. 

By the end of my time at Citigroup I was running the operations and technology part of the business. I was in charge of 6,000 people in 103 countries. It was intense but I realised it was a bit like being a general in charge of an army. Although there are 6,000 people, it's only really the heads of the divisions around the world that are reporting to you directly and they're all highly competent people and they have lots of people underneath them who have lots of people underneath them. So it's really about having a vision and setting a direction.

There are techniques you learn along the way that make you better at your job. The first thing I had to learn when I first started work was how to read and write again, because I was a maths graduate. I was actually sent off on writing courses and taught things like "Try not to write sentences of more than ten words" and "Keep it simple''. And I was sent on a speed-reading course, which was actually really good and has helped me all my life, especially with the advent of email. It means you can cope with hundreds of messages a day. When I joined the bank they would send me on courses on how important it was to be part of a team but, being an engineer, it's a natural thing to be part of a team, everybody has their place. You wouldn't want to walk over a bridge built by individuals!

I remember sitting in an office in Canary Wharf the day Lehman collapsed and I could see everyone walking out of the Lehman building with boxes. Lehman's holding company had big assets in London including a 200,000 swap portfolio. I had to set up a team that could unwind these complex swaps. It's not easy. In order to be able to value these things you basically need people with PhDs in mathematics. 

Today I'm working at MasterCard, which  is a long way from a shrinking business. Innovation is important to us and we're currently working with the United Nations World Food Programme. They deal with 90 countries across the world, trying to get food to the people who need it the most. In only five per cent of the cases do they actually get money into people's hands so they can buy food. The rest of the time they're moving food around. We're developing what we call digital food, an electronic voucher system where the vouchers can be used in special World Food Programme approved shops to buy food. 

It will take a long time before we get to a cashless society but it's a great vision to go for. Around 85 per cent of the world's transactions in the consumer space are still cash or paper and studies show that between 0.5 and 1.5 of GDP is the cost of just collecting cash, checking it, moving it around, security and so on. Cash will ultimately be replaced by mobile and card transactions. You see that already in places such as Kenya, where people are using their mobile devices to send money between themselves.

I travel every week. I believe you don't really fully understand a global business until you have sufficient exposure to the different countries. And, let's face it, your own staff love to meet you. Face-to-face visits are important. I'm sure most senior executives of global firms feel exactly the same. 

Interview by Tim Hulse. 

Tim Hulse

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