WIL Member Serena La Torre has over 20 years experience working in the financial sector and began her work at the UniCredit Group in 2008. She presently heads the Rome Central Area of UniCredit SpA which is comprised of i) a corporate division ii) a retail division iii) a business development unit. WIL was thrilled to have the opportunity to discuss with Ms. La Torre her career in finance, the challenges to the sector during the crisis, women in finance and much more!
WIL Europe (WIL): You have 20 years of experience in Finance, more specifically Real Estate Finance, Shipping Finance and Acquisition Finance. What was your motivation to become an expert in these fields? What do you like most in your job?
Serena La Torre (ST): To opt for the major Finance at University has been pivotal and groundbreaking for my professional life. I am very lucky to have made this choice, which allowed me to acquire skills and prepare well for structured finance positions. The decision to further concentrate on Shipping and Real Estate Finance, was due to my passion for complexity in general and more specifically complex structured transactions. In my current position, I manage Rome Central Area of UniCredit Group (comprised of corporate and retail divisions) and keep multiple items under control at the same time, which requires high legal and financial background and a deep knowledge on cash-flow mechanisms. I really enjoy having a busy day and keeping my brain function active.
WIL: Has the financial crisis starting in 2008 had an impact on your work or professional routines?
ST: Yes very much so. We strongly felt the financial market crisis in 2008 and it changed and determined strategies for banks. The activities in financing divisions were very slow at that time because there was no liquidity to support financing. It appeared to be very difficult for the creditor side to commit stability to anyone, so transactions and business dropped heavily. During 2008 and 2010 however, I had the opportunity to be involved in the setup of the Investment Banking Real Estate division, aimed at supporting real estate Italian players and SGR. In this role I was also involved in the setup of the UniCredit Real Estate Closed end Funds for implementing the spin-off of real estate assets
WIL: According to your expert opinion, which European initiatives aiming at the stabilisation of the financial sector prove to be most efficient and meaningful?
ST: I think that it is very important to focus on interest rate politics, to ensure a flat level of interest rate. This helps to stimulate investment, boost the economy and grow out the crisis. On the other side, I also want to underline the usefulness of European state grants. Focusing on specific areas, particular market niches or regional markets, it determined the betterment of many states’ financial situation. Usually state grants are a very good driver for the local economy.
WIL: In what way do financial institutes, like the UniCredit Group, contribute to stabilisation and growth in Europe and more specifically Italy?
ST: UniCredit took several actions to ensure stability in Europe and Italy. In fact UniCredit Group has signed a loan agreement with the European Investment Bank (EIB) in support of Italian businesses. The project launched March 2014 provides a total of €700 million to be lent at competitive price to businesses in the Italian economy. Other credit lines are aimed at boosting the agricultural industry, €300 million are administered to reconstitute the tourist industry and we recently launched a 400 million bond issuance secured by Italian guarantor fund aimed at supporting SME working capital. The credit lines are usually also supported through state guarantees.
WIL: How do you perceive promotion prospects for women in your sector? Is there a level playing field between the sexes?
ST: I believe that prospects for women in the financial sector are not yet as good as one would wish. It is a very competitive field of work and it is challenging and hard to assert oneself, specifically for women, because they are often dismissed and underestimated. But this is evolving: strong attention is currently paid to women and their managerial skills. Special projects and corporate policies are put in place to balance gender diversity. In UniCredit Group the Senior Management is entrusted with a gender diversity mandate and there is a pipeline for the women in our company, which holds overall 120 women. However, I think that I am lucky to work in an international company, because the diversity of culture is different compared to many Italian companies. In Italy cultural stereotypes between the sexes remain. There are various organisations and campaigns in Italy working to reform deadlocked views on gender roles, but it will probably take long time and big effort to overcome.
WIL: UniCredit operates in various countries across Europe and Central Asia and has acquired several international financial institutes: What impact does it have on the divisions you lead?
ST: Currently I lead also a corporate division which is comprised of many Italian companies that want to internationalise or are already working internationally. In this division I largely benefit from the international network of UniCredit. If I am supporting clients who want to expand abroad or find corporate solutions in e.g. Turkey, the Eastern Europe, or Russia, I can refer them to the local country chief of UniCredit, who has all the specific expertise and experience in the area. This way, I don’t even have to travel a lot, but can simply profit from the knowledge of our teams abroad.
It is a great opportunity to have an international team, because we have a wide range of partners that we can provide our clients with funding and it helps to increase creativity and new ideas. The challenge is to get acquainted with the flow-chart of our group, but once you have deeper knowledge of it, you can benefit from all the services and products it provides.
WIL: What piece of advice would you give to women undertaking a career in finance, and seeking leadership positions?
ST: As a woman in the financial sector, it can be hard to prove oneself. Sometimes clients do not recognise you as the leader because you are a woman and it is complicated to gain their full respect and be the authority. In my opinion, a woman in the financial sector needs to make a bigger effort to conquer the customers trust. My advice to women, is to be strong, dignified and very balanced, since women get evaluated a lot more in regards to their attitude and humour than men.