Meet the CEO changing the game

By Claire O’Loughlin
Photo by Sanne Van Ginkel

Featured in Capital #79
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Many New Zealanders experience barriers to engaging with their finances.

Rhiannon McKinnon, the CEO of Kiwi Wealth, wants to change that – and break some glass ceilings while she’s at it.

I knew before meeting her that Rhiannon McKinnon, the newly appointed Acting CEO of Kiwi Wealth, was not your “average” CEO. At 42 years old, she is one of the youngest people ever appointed to lead a top-10 wealth and investment organisation in Aotearoa New Zealand. Kiwi Wealth is the largest New Zealand-owned KiwiSaver provider, with over 220,000 members, and manages more than $8 billion in funds.

But I didn’t expect her to be the first person I met at the office, appearing out of nowhere as I battled with the virtual receptionist (an iPad). She helped me sign in, and we sat talking on bar stools in a meeting room. There were no intimidating formalities (scary iPad aside), no stuffy suit jackets, no flustered assistants. The atmosphere was relaxed. It was like chatting to a friend.

Originally from the United Kingdom, McKinnon grew up in Watford, just outside of London. Eventually her older brother’s stories lured her into the city. Though she knew she wanted to work in finance, at university she chose the subject that interested her the most, History. It’s a decision she’s always valued.

“I think arts degrees are amazing. You normally have an essay question, and have to make a stance and an argument, and distil your argument. Learning how to communicate effectively and succinctly is important as well. That’s a great skill, and I think it’s helped me a lot.”

Then came a post-graduate finance qualification — she is a Chartered Financial Analyst — and a position in a graduate trainee scheme at an investment bank, followed by more finance jobs. As in any career, there were ups and downs.

“I ended up in a couple of jobs where it was not uncommon for me to be crying before I went to work. The key learning was that not every job suits you. Sometimes you can’t succeed in what you’re doing, because you are in the wrong spot. And then in the next place things begin to flow again.”

McKinnon is half Chinese, and after a year in China learning the language, she and her partner moved to Christchurch in 2007, and then Wellington in 2011. She worked in corporate finance and investor relations at NZ Post, before becoming Executive Advisor to the CEO at Kiwibank, and then holding senior roles at Kiwi Wealth. But  this recent promotion has been her big “smash the glass ceiling” moment.

“I’m super proud of it. A new job is always scary. You turn up and you’re like, am I the right person for this? How do I do this? But just fake it until you make it. If people think that you can do it and you don’t, just believe that you can and go for it.”

Now at the helm of Kiwi Wealth, she’s focused on reaching their 220,000 members, and all Kiwis, to engage them in their financial futures.

Many people experience barriers to engaging with their finances, she says. The most common ones are knowledge, confidence, and getting started. Even the word “wealth” is a barrier.

“Very few people wake up and think ‘I’m feeling wealthy today’. So even that word means that people kind of go, ‘oh, that’s not me. I’m not that person.’”

Research shows women are less confident than men about financial decisions, and as a result feel more stressed about their financial futures. However, McKinnon is quick to point out that the evidence also shows that, once they take the first step, women are just as good at making financial decisions and investing as men. She believes the difference is more about finding the confidence and headspace.

“I think women are constantly planning for the future, constantly thinking about their children, and logistics. I know I do an enormous amount of thinking about short and medium-term things for my family. And I wonder whether women do so much in that space that we fail to think about ourselves as well.”

The lack of financial education is also a big issue. Finance and investing isn’t really taught in schools, though that is changing. But mostly, it’s a subject you learn after school and you have to self-start.

Men often feel more confident to self-start, she says. It’s similar to the way  women can be more nervous to put their hand up for promotion. Her advice for getting started in investing is just to do it.

“Dip your toe. You don’t have to take an enormous amount of risk, but just get started in some way, shape, or form. And build your confidence from there.”

Managed funds are a great way into investing, she says. In New Zealand there is a focus on property as if it were the only kind of investment, when actually there are many options. You can use a managed fund to save for a house or invest for a deposit. While it’s important to think about timeframes and the risks, investing options are not mutually exclusive, McKinnon says.

Share trading platforms have risen in popularity in recent years, when traditionally their high fees and complicated processes restricted them to the already-wealthy. McKinnon says the change has been a democratisation of owning and investing.

She believes investment should always come back to your goal — be it a house, a wedding, or an amazing holiday. “Goals make investing more real.”

Understanding and engaging with your money and investing can make an enormous difference to wellbeing. According to research, those who feel they have enough money are three times as likely to define themselves as happy, and people with assets often feel a lot more confident about their future than those who don’t.

While Kiwi Wealth’s customers are her focus during the day, as mother to three kids under seven years old, it’s a big gear-shift into family life at the end of the day. “You come home and you are being called into the bathroom by your three-year-old son to help him.”

McKinnon regularly works from home, does the school pick-up, and makes up time working in the evenings. Kiwi Wealth’s flexible working practices help, and she believes making equal and fair workplaces means realising that people have other commitments.

“If you look at the traditional old-fashioned workplace where men show up and they’re 100% dedicated to their jobs, it probably means there is somebody in the background, most likely their wife, looking after the kids and making sure they never interrupt their working life. Well, that’s not real life.”

Engaging with real life, what’s really going on for people, meeting them where they are at and helping them get to where they want to go, is what McKinnon is all about.

“What we’re really trying to do is say, right, if you’re here now, and you want to go over there, we can help you make some decisions to achieve that. We’ll partner with you along the way.”

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