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Isabelle Scemama: A builder of businesses

The chief executive of AXA Investment Managers – Real Assets has risen to the top by taking on one entrepreneurial challenge after another.

For Isabelle Scemama, challenges are not be viewed as obstacles, but as career opportunities. “I view myself as a business developer, so for me, what is very important is to have new challenges very regularly,” she says.

As chief executive of AXA Investment Managers – Real Assets, Scemama has had plenty of challenges to keep her busy. In the role, she oversees French insurer AXA Group’s €87 billion real assets platform, which includes investments in direct property and infrastructure and real asset finance on behalf of both the AXA Group and third-party clients, making it the largest real estate investment manager in Europe, according to INREV. AXA Group itself was ranked as the world’s sixth-largest real estate institutional investor in the 2019 PERE Global Investor 50, with $38.5 billion allocated to the asset class as of March 31, 2019.

Earlier this month, Scemama was promoted to global head of AXA IM Alts, a new €137 billion business unit that would incorporate AXA IM’s real assets, structured finance and hedge fund platforms. She will also remain CEO of AXA IM – Real Assets.

In 2019, AXA IM – Real Assets had one of its most active real estate investment years over the past two decades, closing on $6.14 billion of acquisitions and $2.66 billion of sales, according to data provider Real Capital Analytics. Not included in that total, however, was its most significant deal of the year: the privatization of NorthStar Realty Europe, a listed real estate investment trust with a €1.1 billion portfolio of 12 office properties and two hotel assets across Germany, the UK and France.

For Scemama, the acquisition was one of the most memorable deals of her 26-year career. “It has been one of the most complex and very exciting, because it was public to private, three currencies, so of course this one I will remember,” she says, speaking to PERE from AXA IM’s London offices.

Scemama, 52, began taking on difficult transactions early in her career. After studying economics and finance at IEP Paris, she began working at French bank Paribas in the corporate financing department in 1989, switching to the real estate debt group six years later.

“It was a little bit challenging, because I joined in 1995 and at that time, it was the end of the previous crisis,” Scemama says of her earliest days in real estate. “Banks were still under pressure, a lot of impairments. It was really risk-focused.”

The first deal that she led as part of the real estate debt team was the financing of Cité du Retiro in Paris, which was the first acquisition by French property firm Unibail Group’s Crossroads Property Investors investment fund. “It was a crazy time, it was Christmas time, we had to close the deal by New Year’s Eve,” she recalls. “It ruined my Christmas holidays, but it was so exciting that it was not such a big issue.”

She adds with a smile: “It’s always very good to learn during the holiday period when you’re a young professional, because generally, nobody’s around, so it’s a real opportunity to test your capacity to run things autonomously.”

A natural leader

At Paribas, Scemama showed early promise as a leader and investor. “I was so impressed when I saw her the first time,” says Léon Bressler, who, as chairman of Unibail, worked with her on the Cité du Retiro deal. “She had a natural authority in terms of being able to talk to the CEO of a large company and a natural authority when talking to senior people in her bank. That’s a great quality which explains her rise to the top.”

Scemama, then only in her 20s, exhibited a combination of strong credit risk analysis, a firm understanding of the product, a clear grasp of the borrower’s motivations, as well as the ability to protect the interests of the bank, recalls Bressler, now managing partner of real estate investment firm Aermont.

“That kind of combination was an indication that she would be a great investor later,” he says. “It’s this multifaceted personality, which can integrate a lot of very different, somewhat opposite dimensions of a problem, that makes it possible for people to get to the top.”

What also made Scemama stand out as a young banker was her flair for the unconventional, recalls Firoz Ladak, who first met the executive when they were both trainees at Paribas. “I always used to make fun of her, if you look at the way she used to dress, it was always a little bit on the fringe. She wouldn’t be the person who came with the typical business suit. There was always in her a touch of something original.”

But her originality also extended to how she approached her job, which won her the esteem of higher-ups at the bank. During credit committee meetings at Paribas, “she’d come up with these interesting, creative debt instruments,” says Ladak, now chief executive of Edmond de Rothschild Foundations. “So that, by definition, deserved respect. And even if she didn’t look like a typical bourgeois French person, it didn’t matter because in the end she asserted herself by thinking outside the box.”

Scemama’s ability to think outside the box, notable even today, was remarkable for its time. He adds: “Being a woman in that banking environment 30 years ago, she had to be daring to do that.”

An entrepreneurial opportunity

After working on several financings of large real estate assets, however, Scemama sought to make a switch to the equity side of the industry. While she had opportunities to work at several private equity funds, she opted in 2001 to join AXA Group, which was preparing to launch its third-party business.

CV

1989
Graduated from IEP Paris with a degree in political science (economics and finance focus)

1989
Began working at Paribas in the large cap corporate financing department

1995
Joined the real estate financing department at Paribas

2001
Joined AXA IM – Real Assets to head real estate fund structuring and financing

2005
Launched the CRE loans business at AXA IM – Real Assets

2013
Launched the infrastructure lending platform at AXA IM – Real Assets

2014
Named CEO of AXA REIM SGP, which oversaw AXA IM – Real Assets’ funds group

2015
Launched the open-ended funds business, including AXA CoRE Europe fund

2017
Appointed CEO of AXA IM – Real Assets

“I thought if I joined a fund, maybe I would be better paid, but it would be more intense,” she explains. “I had been considered for positions where I’d have to travel everywhere in Europe, which was not so easy, because I had three young children.”

Just as importantly, Scemama was drawn to the entrepreneurial opportunity that the insurer offered. “The challenge was really exciting. And I had the feeling that it could be a good opportunity to have some flexibility to develop something completely new, this third-party business,” she says. “It was the right time, because the market was less crowded than it is today.”

Scemama was put in charge of the first third-party real estate fund that AXA launched and managed, Paris Office Fund I, to invest in an office portfolio in the French capital. “The platform was not structured and set up to manage this third-party business, so that was the kind of situation where you have to do a little bit of everything, but it’s very, very good training,” she says. “It had been a real chance to start from a white sheet of paper because you have to really address everything, from the operational side, the structuring side, the financing, the capital raising, the reporting.”

She adds: “I learned a lot from this first experience, because you really have an opportunity to work with the back office, with the front office, with external providers, and to really see how to access from A-Z. The lesson was that each part of the value chain was critical.”

Four years later, Scemama was launching another new business for AXA, this time in real estate debt. To start the platform, the insurance company gave her €500 million – an amount of capital that was small enough not to impact the overall business and therefore did not put her under a lot of scrutiny. “I had a lot of freedom, to test, to learn, to decide to invest or not to invest, so it’s the best way to launch a new business,” she says.

One critical decision that Scemama made early on with her colleagues was to house the new business within the real estate group rather than the structured finance group.

Launching this business just two, three years before the crisis, we could have completely killed the franchise by making the wrong investments,” she says. “I think we made the right investments, and this was because we were very close to the real estate people and were testing with them the loan to value, the performance and the local market of the asset.”

It was from working closely with the real estate team that AXA IM – Real Assets avoided making potentially risky loans on assets with aggressive valuations. For this reason, the firm had invested less than 50 percent of a €1 billion allocation to real estate debt at the start of the 2008 crisis.

“We still had some cash to deploy and we entered the crisis in quite a strong position,” Scemama notes. “This allowed us in 2009-10 to really start investment quite early, far earlier than probably others, because the portfolio was not impacted, we had no impairment on the portfolio, which still had cash, and pricing was so attractive.”

After building a track record in real estate debt on behalf of AXA Group, Scemama went on to open up the strategy to third-party clients in 2012. Dennis Lopez, who was chief investment officer at AXA IM – Real Assets from 2009-17, says one of Scemama’s major successes was scaling the real estate debt business from approximately €2 billion when he joined to more than €10 billion today. That platform is poised to nearly double in AUM by the second quarter, with the expected closing of the firm’s acquisition of a US real estate debt business from Quadrant Real Estate Advisors.

Lopez, who is now chief executive at QuadReal, the real estate arm of British Columbia Investment Management Corporation, saw a different side of Scemama when she launched a similar third-party initiative in infrastructure lending a year later. Compared with real estate debt, the launch of the infrastructure platform was much more trying, as it was beset with staffing and other challenges for nearly two years. “It was a huge testament to her tenacity and resilience, because many other people would not have been able to make it through that,” remembers Lopez. “But she stuck it out and she managed to get it on track.”

Scemama is “a real model for the industry,” he adds. “She’s innovative, she’s proved repeatedly that she can identify opportunities, and not just identify them, but actually build businesses to seize the opportunity and be a major player over and over again.”

Lopez says Scemama’s success at scaling AXA’s businesses in debt, infrastructure and, subsequently, open-ended funds – which was launched in 2015 and today has €13 billion in assets under management – is partly the result of her tenacity. “She’s very determined, so when she sets her mind to something, she doesn’t give up easily,” he says. But her people skills also play a key role, particularly in her ability to put together good teams, Lopez observes.

Indeed, when Scemama is asked about her proudest career accomplishment, she refers not to developing businesses, funds or deals but one particular team she has built: AXA IM – Real Assets’ eight-person management committee. “I set up a team of excellent, outstanding people,” she says. “People say we act as commandos, so we are very close together, making quick decisions but also putting all the challenges, all the topics on the table.”

Scemama has also been able to not only recruit talent but also retain it, Lopez adds: “She’s very loyal. She takes the time to build up personal relationships with people on her team. She manages to find the right balance between being involved and letting them do their own thing, which is important. She’s not a micromanager, so she really creates an environment that feels attractive for people coming and joining.”

Lopez, whom Scemama credits as her mentor, also notes the executive was unusual for her openness to feedback. “She was really coachable. She was really open to change. In fact, she would actively solicit comments on her. She didn’t want to just hear the good stuff, she would be open to hearing things she needed to work on. She wouldn’t get defensive, she wanted to know more and then she would go work on it.”

Three-year horizon

Reflecting on her long tenure at AXA, Scemama says that while she had opportunities to join other organizations over the past quarter century, the chance to build new businesses kept her in place: “You start to think, maybe the grass is greener. But I think AXA fed me with new challenges every three or four years, so I did not think too much about external opportunities.”

There are still more challenges for Scemama to take on at AXA IM – Real Assets. “I’ve only been in this role for three years, which is not so long,” she says. “There’s still a lot to be done within real estate, and we have the infrastructure business that is at an earlier stage so I’m really excited to have this also to develop.”

Within real estate, Scemama will be focused on expanding in Asia, where AXA IM – Real Assets has a growing number of investors and is seeking to deploy more capital through its two investment platforms in Japan and Australia: “Leveraging on a business that is only at an early stage will take me quite some time. I expect real growth to happen in the coming three to five years.”

Within infrastructure, she expects to quickly double the size of the platform. She aims to take the business, which currently totals €7.5 billion across equity and debt, to €10 billion in the short term.

Although she expects to work for at least the next 10 years, Scemama says her professional horizon only spans the next three years. “I try to live in the present time,” she says. “I’m very pragmatic, I spend time on things on which I can influence and which I can impact. I can certainly impact the next three years. After that, there is so much unknown that it would probably be a waste of my time.”

For more on Scemama, watch our video interview with her here.

A woman who dares

As one of only two women heading up real estate or real assets platforms of the institutional investors in PERE’s GI 50 ranking, Scemama is the rare female executive who has risen to the top in a male-dominated industry. Yet “I never considered being a woman to be an issue in my career,” she maintains.

Still, she recognizes the problem of women generally being too shy to ask for what they want and has urged some of the young women she has mentored at AXA to take more risks: “I will always encourage them to dare. Because I have this entrepreneurial mindset, daring is part of my DNA.”

Perfectionism, too, holds some women back, she adds. “Women are very conscientious, they always want to do things perfectly. Sometimes it’s about learning the 80/20 rule. It’s better to do it with 80 percent of the ingredients rather than waiting for the 100 percent that will never come.”

For Ladak, Scemama bucked the typical career trajectory of young female professionals who worked in banking in the 1990s. “These young women certainly contributed to the business’s success,” he says. But “then they would start a family, and you could see the women slowing down and going into less pressurized environments like HR, for instance.” Scemama, a mother of three herself, avoided the same path of sacrificing her career for her family, Ladak points out: “I think Isabelle is someone who’s been able to succeed also by not being a conformist.”