Shemara Wikramanayake: Macquarie Bank’s Brightest Star in Meteoric Rise

John Kehoe, in 2013 at

Shemara WikramanayakShemara Wikramanayake is not your typical Macquarie banker. As a diminutive female and immigrant with Sri Lankan heritage, she has already busted the stereotypical assumption that being male, white and egotistical is a prerequisite for success in the testosterone-driven world of investment banking. The head of Macquarie’s most profitable division, funds management, Wikramanayake is being billed for even greater things.

When talk turns to who will be Macquarie’s next chief executive after Nicholas Moore, Wikramanayake’s name figures prominently as a leading candidate. For outsiders that may come as a surprise, but colleagues such as 2011 Australian of the year Simon McKeon say Wikramanayake has been making an impression at the bank for many years. “She is an extraordinary individual, both professionally and what she does outside of Macquarie,” McKeon says.

Though she is notoriously publicity shy, Wikramanayake has a spirit of adventure. During her three decades at Macquarie, she has taken time out to climb Mount Kilimanjaro and visited Antarctica. She also took a 12-month sabbatical to set up a charity fund for child education. As head of Macquarie Funds, Wikramanayake oversees more than $330 billion in assets under management, controls the world’s largest manager of infrastructure assets and is responsible for 1400 staff in more than 20 countries. The only woman on Macquarie’s 10-member executive committee, she is regarded as charming and personable. “She’s super intelligent and a good people-manager, which is not a trait you always see in investment bankers,” says one former colleague.

“She’s one of the genuinely nice people that have risen the ranks of an investment bank.” It is hard to find anyone with a bad word to say about her, which is unusual in the bitchy world of investment banking. “She has proven herself in so many different roles over the years and she always delivered,” says retired senior Macquarie executive, Michael Carapiet, who worked closely with her for many years.

A TOP ANALYST WITH GOOD COMMUNICATION SKILLS: Wikramanayake was born in England to Sri Lankan parents. Schooled in three countries, England, Sri Lanka and Australia, she later studied law/commerce at UNSW before joining law firm Blake Dawson Waldron in 1986. After spending 12 months working as a lawyer on mergers and acquisitions and commercial matters, she left for a six month trip around South America. Upon her return to Sydney, she joined Macquarie’s investment banking team in 1987, where she came into contact with the likes of Carapiet and McKeon.

Working on mergers and acquisitions, she earned a reputation as an investment banker with the rare combined qualities of being a top analyst and having good communication skills, with staff and clients. “Many investment bankers have a vacancy somewhere, but when I think about Shemara she really does tick every box,” McKeon says. “She’s a great manager, she’s technically deep and analytical. Out in client land she is second to none.”

In the 1980s and 90s, investment banking was dominated by white anglo and Jewish males.

“In a sense, she had to be so much better than anyone else just to make her mark,” one observer says.

PASSIONATE ABOUT EDUCATION FOR ADVANCEMENT: But banking is not Wikramanayake’s only passion. In 2000, she took 12 months’ leave to pursue interests outside of work. As well as starting a family with her husband Ed Gilmartin, a former Macquarie banker, she set up a the Serendipity Scholarship Fund in conjunction with World Vision Australia and former Macquarie banker and friend Tim Burke. The fund helps gifted children from developing countries obtain tertiary education.

“I am passionate about tertiary education as a way of advancement,” Wikramanayake told alumni last year at the UNSW, where she is a member of the law school’s advisory council. Wikramanayake has never given a mainstream media interview and she declined to comment for this story. “I’m not into media profile,” she told the same UNSW publication. “There’s so much else to do – and we value our privacy.”

While a dedicated banker, Shemara clearly values her interests outside of work and family. In 2011, Wikramanayake lived for about six months in the United Kingdom, from where her husband orginates. While she kept running Macquarie Funds from London, her husband and two school aged children travelled around Europe. She caught up with them on weekends.

After her year-long sabbatical in 2000, Wikramanayake returned to Macquarie. She helped develop the strategy to restructure the investment banking divisions in the early 2000s, working closely with Moore. The equities, corporate advisory and infrastructure and asset management businesses, were merged under Moore when Allan Moss was chief executive. Insiders says it was around this time that Wikramanayake’s star began to rise rapidly in the eyes of senior Macquarie figures.

After successfully helping complete the integration, she was put in charge of the prudential team at the investment bank and conducted a commercial review of all transactions in which Macquarie Capital took a principal position, including acquiring seed assets for prospective funds. It allowed Wikramanayake to hone her risk skills in a highly complex financial institution.

She moved to New York in 2004 to head up the North American division of Macquarie Infrastructure and Real Assets Division to establish and manage infrastructure and private equity funds in the US and Canada.

While Moore was being groomed to take over the top job from Moss, Wikramanayake’s reputation continued to grow. Then, when the global financial crisis hit, Wikramanayake had the unenviable task of merging Macquarie’s specialised infrastructure and private equity funds from the investment bank into the funds business. The old millionaires factory’s listed satellite funds model, which Moore was instrumental in building, and which binged on cheap debt and charged hefty management fees, had to be unwound. The management rights to the stable of listed managed funds including Macquarie Airports and Macquarie Infrastructure Group, were sold off. Restructures like these not only demonstrated her ability to undertake complex corporate restructures in times of financial stress, but also gave Wikramanayake control of a larger share of Macquarie’s business.

FUNDS BUSINESS A BRIGHT SPOT:  But it was after becoming head of Macquarie Funds Group and joining Macquarie’s executive team in 2008 when she really made her mark. As head of Macquarie’s expanding funds management business, she led the 2009 acquisition of United States fund manager Delaware Investments for $US428 million, in a bid to extend its wealth management activities in North America.

While several of Macquarie’s other offshore acquisitions in the US and Europe have been less than successful, the Delaware deal has proven to be a winner. “That was probably the best deal Macquarie has done behind buying BT,” says one close observer.

Off the back of that deal, the funds business has grown to become Macquarie’s biggest revenue generator. At a time when the historical driver of financial returns, investment banking and securities are losing money due to the weak global economy, Wikramanayake’s funds business is one of the few bright spots at the Silver Donut. Assets under management have surged from $197 billion five years ago, to more than $330 billion today. The division’s return on equity is estimated to be above 20 per cent, versus 7 per cent for the group.

She also has to manage relationships with big investment institutions and large clients. There is also the task of controlling the egos of Macquarie’s own fund managers, one source says. Along the journey in her nearly three decades at the group, Wikramanayake also established Macquarie’s corporate advisory offices in New Zealand, Hong Kong and Malaysia. With experience and results like these, it is not hard to understand why she is figuring in talk about a potential successor to Moore, even if his exit is still some years away.

METEORIC RISE DEFIES CONVENTION:  If a new chief executive was selected today, Wikramanayake is viewed by close observers as the likely candidate to take the job, should she want it. But Moore is in no hurry and will be hoping the economic environment picks up to avoid his leadership legacy being the last five years when Macquarie has gone through the toughest period in its history.

If time is on Moore’s side, that will give others a chance to prove they are chief executive material. Macquarie’s Fixed Income, Currencies and Commodities head Andrew Downe and Macquarie Capital boss Tim Bishop are viewed as contenders. Deputy chief executive and former chief financial officer Greg Ward is also regarded as a safe pair of hands.

If Shemara wants to beef up her credentials, she may still need to prove she can build a business from the ground up, as Moore did before rising to CEO. This view reflects that the funds business Shemara runs is largely a combination of the infrastructure business and the structured finance business, both of which Moore created.

The history of Macquarie chief executives such as Moore and Moss is that they have built businesses from scratch.

Still, the Macquarie Funds business is growing steadily and continues to be a stand out performer for the group. Shemara may not fit the typical investment banker mould. But then again, neither did the unassuming Allan Moss who rose to become arguably its most successful chief executive – albeit in a bull market.

Shemara’s meteoric rise has defied convention to date. It may very well continue.


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