When she was a schoolgirl, Jane Fraser would make a few extra pennies caddying for rich American tourists on the famous Old Course in her native St Andrews.
‘I used to earn my pocket money on the golf course,’ she once said. ‘My father was a Scottish accountant, which meant you’re not really relying on parental generosity.’
Little did those rich American tourists know, however, that one day that young caddy would be in charge of their money.
Fraser is the most powerful woman on Wall Street. At 56 years old she is chief executive of Citibank, one of America’s biggest banks, and the first woman to hold the position.
Sense of a woman: Jane Fraser’s ‘soft power’ helped her become chief executive of Citibank
Scottish born and bred, she has an intriguing reputation in the finance world – impeccably modest (just a few years before taking the top job at Citi she dismissed the notion, saying she ‘still had a lot to learn’), yet unafraid to take tough decisions.
And this week, she certainly didn’t mince her words while addressing the bank’s 240,000 employees as she laid out a radical management overhaul which could see a restructure of the company and thousands of job losses.
‘Get on board,’ she told her staff, or ‘get off the train.’ It’s all a long way from the ninth hole at St Andrews Links, particularly for a woman who as a child had no ambitions – despite her accountant father – to be a banker.
‘I wanted to be a doctor when I grew up,’ she said. ‘But I was lousy at biology, so that one ended quickly.’
When she was 12, an only child, her parents relocated to Australia, a move which she said ultimately benefited her when she applied to study economics at the University of Cambridge.
‘I thought I’d died and gone to heaven because the climate difference is quite material [between Scotland and Australia],’ she said.
‘I applied to Cambridge from Australia. And I think they probably thought I was such an unusual person in terms of background, I managed to talk my way in there.’
After Cambridge, Fraser joined US bank Goldman Sachs as an analyst in mergers and acquisitions, based in London.
Just 20 years old she was, by her own admission, ‘the boring girl from Scotland’. She said: ‘Everyone else was European, spoke multiple languages, was a lot more exotic and interesting than me.
So, after I finished the honours programme, I thought I’d better make myself a bit more interesting.’
Fraser moved first to Madrid, where she spent two years as an analyst at consultancy Asesores Bursátiles and learnt Spanish, a skill that would come in handy when working in America, and then on to the US, where in 1992, she says, in typical modest fashion, she ‘talked my way into Harvard Business School’.
‘I was fascinated by the American machine. And if you’ve spent a bit of time in Europe and grown up in the 70s and 80s, it’s fascinating.
America is just something you want to try and understand, and the American economy and the American entrepreneur is not someone you are going to bet against.’
After finishing her MBA at Harvard she joined consultancy McKinsey in New York, partly, she said, because she ‘would have a chance of having a family’ and ‘a bit more predictability in the work schedule’.
It is an astonishing admission for a woman who was clearly climbing the career ladder, particularly in the 1990s, when women made up less than 10 per cent of the workforce in most finance firms.
But Fraser, who married her husband, Cuban-born banker Alberto Piedra, after leaving Harvard, says she was terrified by the women she had met in banking in the 1980s in London, and had made up her mind to do things differently.
‘There were so few women there, there are so few women in financial services, and those who were there were rather scary,’ she said.
‘It was the days of wearing these big-padded shoulders, they were dressing practically like a man in these suits that were horrendous. And none of them were that happy.
‘They were very successful. They were brilliant. But it was tough.’
Still, even at McKinsey, where Fraser quickly rose through the ranks, she encountered resistance.
‘I got quite a lot of advice. ‘Don’t get pregnant in your partnership year.’ And I just thought that was nonsense.’
Sure enough, she was made partner at McKinsey two weeks after having her first baby.
‘I was just thinking, ‘Please get off the phone because I’ve got to feed my baby’,’ she said of receiving the news.
It sparked two important decisions, however, which were to work part-time throughout her ten-year employment at the firm, and have a second baby.
But if Fraser was determined to ‘have it all’, those choices brought their own challenges.
‘It wasn’t easy – my own ego suffered a bit on that one, because you do see people who are more junior than you who are accelerating faster in their careers,’ she said.
‘But that’s what enabled me to actually feel happy and have a balance in my professional life and personal life.’
The twin responsibilities of motherhood and a high-flying financial career have always rested heavily on Fraser’s shoulders.
She has talked of fretting over whether her husband was feeding her children pizza instead of their greens while she was on business trips, and balancing her priorities.
‘Being a mother of young children and having a career is the toughest thing I have ever had to do,’ she said. ‘You are exhausted, guilty, and you must learn how to do things differently.
It was the making of me because I became much more 80-20 – focusing on what was really important – got good at saying no, and also became more human to the clients who also face many of these issues too.’
But there were benefits as well. ‘When I got back to working again and working full-time,’ Fraser said, ‘my clients used to tell me, ‘You’re a much more empathetic person – you were just this machine before’.’
Fraser joined Citibank in 2004 as head of client strategy in the bank’s investment and corporate banking division and the family relocated to London.
In 2008, during the financial crisis Fraser’s husband, himself a high-flying banker in London, agreed to step back from his career to care for their children.
‘He said, ‘OK, I’m done. I’m going to go and do something different, so go for it’,’ she said.
Fraser did go for it. She tore through a number of top roles at Citi, bouncing between New York, London and St Louis, and was praised by her management for her empathetic approach.
And she was popular with staff for her modesty and no-nonsense attitude.
‘Unless I’m 120 per cent prepared for something, my immediate default is to say I’m not good enough,’ she once said.
In 2015 she headed for Florida to take charge of Citi’s Latin American operations, becoming the first woman and indeed the first foreigner, to run the division.
It was a difficult job that involved taking on a Mexican business linked to a money laundering and fraud investigation that later led to a fine by the US authorities.
The role, her highest yet, also involved her rethinking her wardrobe.
‘My husband took me out. He said, ‘We’re going to buy an elegant red dress, slightly higher heels than you’re used to, and a new haircut and you’re going to stride on the stage’.
He knew that if I could stride out there and be quite comfortable in who I am… that would be a benefit.’
She took the top job at Citi in the autumn of 2020 after a stint as the bank’s president, right in the middle of the Covid pandemic, after her predecessor Mike Corbat called her to tell her that he was planning to retire.
‘Becoming CEO during Covid is not the easiest because one’s used to going around, going to different sites, seeing our people, seeing our clients in person, and while Zoom did an amazing job, it is not the same.’ She insisted on working in the office, though.
‘I think my husband would have not been too thrilled if I was home all of the time if I’m honest.’
Her husband has also been her biggest support.
‘He’s a wonderful asset to have because he understands what you’re going through and these jobs are ones where having someone who’s supportive of you makes a huge difference.’
Her children, meanwhile, are now in college – one at Duke and one at Stanford – and ‘not so interested in finance’.
Now an American citizen, Fraser has little chance to relax, although the couple own a house in Wyoming where they enjoy weekends and a spot of fly fishing.
And – perhaps inspired by those days in St Andrews – she does occasionally play golf. At one private event she was invited to play a round with Tiger Woods and initially shrank from it, terrified of embarrassing herself in front of a crowd and cameras, until her son talked her round.
‘They’re going to be watching him,’ her son told her. ‘And for the rest of your life, you’ll be able to say that you’ve played golf with Tiger Woods.’
Clearly, being the top woman on Wall Street pays well. In 2021, despite the economic downturn and the continuing effects of the pandemic, Fraser took home $22.5million (£18million).
The significance of Fraser’s appointment – the first woman ever to run a major American bank – cannot be overestimated in the world of finance.
In April 2019 the CEOs of seven of the largest US banks – all male, all white – appeared before the House Financial Services Committee and were asked under oath if their successors were likely to be female or a person of colour.
Not one raised his hand.
As Wall Street’s first female CEO then, Fraser has a lot to prove, and this week her talk of restructuring the bank suggests that she means business.
Intriguingly, one individual, who has worked with Fraser for years, called her tough-talking comments this week to Citigroup’s employees ‘un-Jane-like’.
Perhaps the position has bounced her into the sort of decisions she would rather not make. And yet she has spoken repeatedly of doing things differently, and harnessing the power of being a woman in a positive way.
‘Being a woman has real power and strength to it,’ she once said. ‘I can be much more vulnerable in certain areas; talking more about the human dimensions than some of my male colleagues, and I don’t feel that’s in any way soft or weaker. I actually think it’s much more powerful.’
For this Wall Street CEO, it would seem that far from a weakness, being the only woman is her ultimate strength.