“If you have the skill set – it makes no difference if you’re male or female”.
Natalie Bellis is the CEO of asset management company Seventy Ninth Group. Specialising in real estate and the natural resource sector, Seventy Ninth Group manages and develops assets in times of economic turmoil and uncertainty. We speak to Natalie about what it’s like to work for a family business, why gender doesn’t always matter in male dominated industries, and how Brexit and the war in Ukraine have impacted the company.
What was your journey to becoming the CEO of Seventy Ninth Group?
I started as Head of Compliance at Seventy Ninth Group, so my background is predominantly compliance regulation. I’ve been involved in large corporate organisations, with very big operational aspects to them, where I did a lot of compliance and regulatory assessments. One of my recent employers was Serco, which is in the private sector – I ran North of England regulatory contracts for them. It was never a typical compliance role, I was always on-site with the team and effectively training, coaching, and mentoring in the realm of compliance and regulation.
I love the fast pace of operations, but I also love the stability and structure of regulation. So, the CEO role gave me scope to be able to satisfy both of the things I enjoy most. I was working in compliance in the company for about six months and throughout that time we heavily recruited, so I was effectively Head of Compliance – but it was a very operational role, and I managed a lot of the recruitment for them; and historically, I have reported to board level, delivering corporate strategy in line with business objectives. As a result, they offered me the opportunity to become COO whilst still retaining the compliance accountabilities. Following a successful period as COO, the Webster family then offered me the CEO role, which I’m very humbled by.
What is it like working for a family business?
It’s very exciting. The difference between family-owned businesses and other, larger companies I’ve worked in, is that there is this passion and drive from the top down that you don’t necessarily get in blue-chip organisations. There’s also this real sense of closeness and community from everyone within the organisation, which is what I thrive on.
There is no ‘ceiling’ in our business. If someone needs to speak to someone, they can. We engage in and endorse open communication, and that’s what makes it different to a corporate atmosphere, when the different areas of the company are segmented. Instead, it’s very fluid – we recognise peoples’ skill sets. If someone has a passion to learn something new, we completely endorse that and we’re encouraging of progression and development. This is something I haven’t seen in more traditional corporate environments.
As a woman in the industry, did you have many obstacles to overcome?
There are usually fewer women in C suite or Board level roles. For me, that’s not necessarily been a challenge – because I don’t like to segment it into women’s challenges and men’s challenges. I think it’s a general employment challenge. Regardless of gender, if you apply yourself to everything you do, you can achieve what you want and get recognition for it. Being assertive and learning how to handle difficult situations is a very common situation that a lot of people have struggled to overcome.
I am in a very male-dominated industry, but if you have the skill set – it makes no difference if you’re male or female. I’m supported by a lot of other great female executives in the company, and that is really utilised here because the Webster family is very equality driven.
Are women being empowered into executive positions – are things changing?
I do genuinely believe things are changing. If I think back over the past 10 years, there has definitely been a significant change. There has been a definite shift towards women in leadership. The industry that I’m in, asset management and investment, can be very aggressive. But I am seeing more women in the industry including, in executive roles.
Do those skills of being more assertive and being able to communicate in a male-dominated environment need to be taught to girls at a young age?
Absolutely, I’m a big advocate of life skills being equally as important as professional skills for progression. I think as a society, not just this industry, we need to create better mentoring schemes. We have set up mentoring schemes at Seventy Ninth Group and it’s not just job-specific but it’s skill-specific. All of the senior team, not just myself, are accessible for all of the staff and we’ve set up clear pathways for progression for all of our staff and we endeavour to pass on all that we’ve learnt in our careers and also to enable them to improve professionally – be that by advising them ourselves, or providing training courses for those who want them. So, the aim is to not only provide the professional skills they’ll need to improve in their roles, but also to provide the personal skills they’ll need to be able to progress, as well.
These are all workshops and skills that I feel should be taught from a very young age. I have a daughter who is six years old. She might be young, but I always want to teach her how to communicate effectively and how to articulate what she wants to achieve from a conversation. It’s very important for young women to feel like they have a voice and understand how to use that voice – this will be an objective of mine for her whole childhood, and indeed, her life. Equally, I can encourage my daughter through family members; my mum and sister and so on.
I think open communication and having a clear mentorship programme internally is essential to how you will grow. Communication has to come from every level – we recently started employee engagement through quarterly Q&As which we hope to turn into face-to-face seminars.
What inspires you and why?
My inspiration is varied. I’m inspired by my daughter – having her was such a life-changing experience. As she gets older, I realise more and more how I can help shape her and empower her to make critical life decisions. You need to support your children through that decision-making process and let them know that things aren’t black and white. My daughter inspires me every day and challenges me every day, which keeps me on my toes. My inspiration comes from my family. I’m from a typical working class family who have the right attitude – they work hard, want to have a great life but are modest, humble and like to support and develop others around them. That’s replicated in the Webster family.
I also feel inspired by working with the Websters. They’re very driven and hard-working and I think that is a quality that you often don’t see. To have that much passion and drive, not just to make profits, but also to make positive change to the people they work with and the communities they work in, is very rare.
What is professional success to you?
To me, professional success is where I add value. I’ve never taken on a role for the sake of it. I’m selective and only choose a role when I think I can add value to that organisation or team. The development of others and growth of a team is also important to me. I like to develop internally, and when you see a person grow and flourish into what they dreamed of 12 months ago, that’s very fulfilling.
I also love making sure we deliver our objectives, whether they’re delayed or on time, so long as we get there the right way that’s okay.
How do you manage stress?
Working in multiple jurisdictions adds its own pressure. I asked a previous mentor of mine about how he handled the workload and he said: “You’ve got it, as long as you have your objectives, your deadlines and build in your capacity for each day, you will be fine. But also take the time to switch off at certain points as well”.
I’ve seen so many examples of people constantly being on their phone or emails all night. For me, that doesn’t create a good mental capacity – you will certainly burn out within 12-18 months if you do this. I just make sure I have that downtime and I make sure I’m clear with the people around me about what my capacity is. Having that communication when you are under pressure is imperative. We have internal mental health chats and discuss whether there are any external pressures that we need to factor in. It’s always communication that helps stress levels for me.
How have supply chain issues caused by Brexit, the pandemic and the war in Ukraine impacted Seventy Ninth Group?
Everything can be a lot slower and there are a lot of increases in costs due to inflation, so we have had to factor that into the business. But with each of our acquisitions, we build a lot of time into them. We build enough time to accept market variations, so it hasn’t impacted us in a negative sense.
We have a very large supplier network which we try to keep local to us in all the areas that we work in. However, when it comes to the impact of Brexit and the war in Ukraine — the opportunities that have been presented have been vast because we operate in undervalued and distressed markets. It has also highlighted how we can engage in our community relations, charity work and humanitarian efforts. We are very much driven by helping where we can, and our mantra is that we want to add value to every community we operate in.
It’s been a real eye-opener for everybody on the board – we started to ask ourselves: “When things like this crop up, what can we do to help?” The distressed market has opened up opportunities for us across real estate and natural resources, but it has also helped us hone in on how we can support wider charitable initiatives.