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Interview: „The research attracted me. This is why I moved into asset management“

Wilma de Groot leads the equity quant team at Dutch asset manager Robeco. She likes numbers and research. Fondsfrau Anke Dembowski talks to her about her career and how she manages to reconcile family and job. (The whole interview will be devided into two part, and this is the first part).

Wilma, what did you study to do what you are doing now?
I studied Econometrics in the Netherlands, which is a combination of economics and mathematics. I already noticed quite soon that I really like research. First I was not determined in which field. So it was also an option for me that I would do operations research in logistics. Then I would have calculated how you optimise a train network, when a train should run from A to B. But then I got interested in finance, and I did my masters in quantitative finance.

How did you then go into the asset management-Industry?
In the last year of my university study, I visited many banks and asset managers. What I saw there was okay, but when I visited a workshop that was held by Robeco’s research team, I really got the spark. It was not done from HR or from marketing, but by David Blitz who is leading the research department. There, we had to do an assignment which was very similar to what I am doing now in my job. I thought that this is really what I wanted to do!

How did you get your first job at Robeco?
After visiting Robeco’s workshop, I called David. I was eager, but it was still a couple of months before I had to do my internship. He said that I was way too early, that I should call him in a couple of months. Then I got a position as an intern at Robeco, where I could also write my master thesis. Actually, I did the same work a junior researcher would do. That worked out well for both sides, so I got a position at Robeco.

How did your career go on then?
I spent 12 years at Robeco’s quant research department. Here, I worked on improving the models that we use to select stocks. They are based on factors, such as momentum, for example. My work also includes translating the model signals into actual portfolios, dealing with trading costs, etc.

How did Robeco’s quant-sector develop, and what did you do in there?
When I joined Robeco, we did not have any active quantitative equity products yet. But after one or two years, we got the first request to set up a quant portfolio. I developed the algorithm for it, and we are still using it nowadays! That was a really nice development, because before, the models were used as idea generators by the fundamental portfolio managers, and since then, there were actually assets invested on it. It then went really fast, and the growth in our quant portfolios has been huge. After 12 years, end of 2013, I moved from the research side to the portfolio management side. So I became a portfolio manager, focusing mainly on emerging markets quantitative portfolios. And since the beginning of the year, I am leading the core quant team within Robeco. The strategy we focus on has the objective to deliver a consistent outperformance, given a certain tracking error, and my focus is on enhancing this strategy.

What are the most fascinating sides of your job?
What I really like is the contact with our end clients, which can be pension funds, whole sale advisors, or intermedia selectors. When I am talking to them, I am not only sitting behind my desk doing computer and research work. I need to explain the strategies to our clients, make sure that they understand them, so that they take the right decisions. I like it a lot, because each client has a different view and different questions. And we work with clients from Europe, Australia, Asia and also the US.

Do you travel a lot?
Yes, actually quite a lot. There are some smaller trips within Europe, maybe once or twice a month. And around four times a year, there is a larger trip to Africa, Asia, Australia, or the US.

What personal skills do you need in the asset management industry?
It depends on in which area you would like to work. Within the asset management industry, there are different functions. In the quant research team, mathematical and programming skills are certainly required. As a portfolio manager, it is more the economic rationale that is important, and being precise and accurate in the implementation. And if you work with clients, you need communication- and sales techniques.

As a school girl, what kind of job did you have in mind?
I liked mathematics and biology a lot. Working in biology research would also have been an option for me, but in the end I chose econometrics. The financial sector just soaks up many people here, because one knows that you can get a good job there and that you will earn a good salary. I am playing the accordion, so a bit earlier I thought about doing something with music, for example as a music therapist with disabled children or elder people. I even went to a school for that, to have a look if this was something for me. But then I heard that singing was involved there, and singing is really not my expertise.

You got nominated as INTERNATIONAL INVESTMENT WOMAN OF THE YEAR. What does that mean for you? And why did you get nominated?
I think that one of my colleagues nominated me. I was quite surprised, very nice, let’s just see! What could play a role here, besides working in the industry, is that when I did my PhD I had one kid, and while I was doing my PhD, I got two more, so I have three kids now: 3, 6 and 8 years old. Besides that, I am also a board member of the Robeco Pension Fund, which is for Robeco employees. It is a relatively small size fund, about 500 million Euros. But we have the same type of regulation and the same questions like the large Dutch pension funds. So I am also a client of Robeco, and taking this other view can be quite helpful. Experiencing both sides, I can understand better what my clients actually need and I understand their questions better.

When will the election for the “International Investment Woman of the Year” be?
That will be in November.

Thanks for the interview, Wilma! We will bring the second part of it at a later stage!

Foto: Christoph Hemmerich

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