Confident, classy and exuberant are words that accurately describe Lorna Pillow, London Forfaiting Company’s (LFC) Malta-based head of operations. But for every large dose of charm and kind-heartedness that make up this reputable forfaiter, there are equal measures of sheer grit and determination. In the next instalment of GTR’s series about inspirational women, Shannon Manders speaks to Pillow about her rise in the world of trade finance, and the support that she’s had along the way.
Born and bred in Malta, Lorna Pillow – and her two sisters – were brought up in a way that made them feel, as females, an important part of society – on an equal footing with males. “As a child I was told that I had a role to play. That I had a voice,” she says. At school, she cultivated her passion for economics, but couldn’t quite decide if she wanted to be a banker or a lawyer. So she studied all the subjects she would need for either career option – later completing her honours degree in banking and finance. Her parents, she says with gratitude, were adamant that their children get an education.
Discipline and confidence were other key values that her parents were keen to impart to their children. One of the ways in which they did so was by sending them to ballet lessons. And even though Pillow never really wanted to be a ballet dancer, she continued dancing – eventually qualifying as a dance teacher – until she was pregnant with her first child. Ballet instilled in her a sense of conviction, and taught her that even when you’re having a truly bad day, you still have to get up on stage, face the audience and perform.
The principles bestowed on her by her parents were just what Pillow needed when she entered the world of finance.
Starting out in private banking, she then moved into trading international repos and securities lending, taking up a position at an agency on behalf of RZB. Before long the bank decided to shift all of its developed market assets, and she was sent to Austria, solely responsible for setting up the systems and the team. She was just 22 years old at the time. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Pillow was later appointed general manager of the company.
Armed with this “amazing experience”, as she calls it, Pillow then went on to join FimBank in 2003 as the bank was securing its takeover bid for LFC, a move which saw it transform from a relatively unknown Malta-based bank into a global player in the trade finance market.
What followed was a period of restructuring for LFC and of great difficulty for Pillow, who at the time had no trade finance experience. Nevertheless, she was entrusted with establishing the LFC operations unit in Malta.
“I was very conscious that I was working with counterparts in London that had 30 years of experience in the sector,” she says.
Determined, as ever, to prove herself, Pillow spent her free time researching and becoming familiar with the industry that she had found herself flung into. “In trade finance, training is important, but it’s also about being driven enough to look things up for yourself,” she asserts.
Under her supervision, the operations unit was successful in attaining the first ever ISO9001:2000 certification in forfaiting. She also established the company’s factoring department. Today Pillow remains responsible for LFC’s middle and back-office functions, and leads a team of 15 people. She is also deputy chair of the International Trade & Forfaiting Association (ITFA).
Despite all the challenges she has faced in her professional life, none of them compare to the one she encountered when she became a mother and had to grapple with finding a balance between work and motherhood. She remembers the first years as “overwhelming” – particularly because it was a struggle she had never truly understood.
“As a young, vibrant woman I didn’t feel at all discriminated against,” she says, laughing at her naivety. “For me, the world had evolved.”
She remembers thinking that she could simply just take a couple of years off after having her baby, and then go back and find her job as she had left it. The reality, she found, was completely different.
“We all read magazines, and we all have this expectation that we’re going to be superwomen,” she says. But rather than suggesting women have something to prove to the world, Pillow believes it’s healthier to teach young mothers that they need support – and that it’s OK to ask for it. “There are no superwomen; there are only women who have support.”
For Pillow, this support came from her family, but also from her employer. Even after having her two children and returning to work – something she feels she did too soon – she was still afforded opportunities. This, in turn, she says, has driven even greater dedication, loyalty and hard work on her part. As an aside, she jokes that her boss at LFC often tells her she’s tougher on herself than he – or anyone else – can ever be.
For young women forging ahead in the world of trade finance today, Pillow has some astute advice. Firstly, education: “Get it all,” she says. “This will give you confidence, and with that, people will respect you and listen to what you have to say.” Secondly, she urges women to inspire and help one another. “Don’t be afraid to talk about the problems. And when things don’t fit into your schedule as a mother, speak up: reschedule the after-hours meeting so that it works for you, make yourself heard.”
More articles in GTR’s Women in Trade Finance series: