Corruption, a slow-growing economy, her own rusty Spanish — those are just some of the obstacles Citigroup's Jane Fraser faces as she takes on perhaps the biggest challenge of her banking career.
Fraser, the former chief executive of Citi's consumer and commercial banking operations, took over as CEO of Latin America in June. She is responsible for all of the company's operations in the region, including Mexico, where Citi has owned and operated Banco Nacional de México, or Banamex, since 2001.
Among her top priorities will be instilling a more U.S.-like culture at Banamex, which is the target of a money-laundering investigation by the U.S. Justice Department. While no wrongdoing has been found, Fraser acknowledges that corruption in Mexico's financial system is an issue.
"Part of it is about choosing your clients and knowing who you are and who you do business with and who you don't," she says. "You do have to worry about money laundering and fraud and all those things, but as a U.S. bank, one of the things we have to do is set the tone for responsible finance."
Fraser notes that while long-term prospects for growth in the Latin American market are good, the near-term situation is daunting. "Four percent growth is the new 10%," she says. "All the countries in Latin America are facing the reality of a strengthening U.S. dollar, weak exports and lower commodity prices. But aside from Brazil and Venezuela, we're still seeing positive growth."
Fraser, a strong advocate for women in banking, says achieving the goal of equality feels a longer way off in Latin America, where machismo reigns.
"I am the only woman on a number of the boards I sit on in Latin America," says Fraser, a native of Scotland.
Still, she fully expects to have her voice heard and to fit in comfortably. "My plan is to be myself," she says with a laugh. "There's no point in trying to out-machismo the men in senior management. I can also be feminine, though, and I'll use that as a strength."
She adds that "one advantage of being a new person" — not to mention the boss — "is that you can surround yourself with experts from inside and outside the organization, without worrying whether they know more than you."
Female executives are in short supply at Citi's units in the 24-country region Fraser manages, and she says she plans to deal with that shortage both by bringing people in from abroad, including talented Latina women working in the United States, and by making sure that high-performing women in the local ranks are getting opportunities.
But a bigger need is getting more young women into the pipeline. Toward that end, she plans to work through public forums. "It's clear to me that I'll have to use myself as a role model for women in their 20s and 30s," she says, "by talking honestly about my own challenges as a working mum: 'If I could do it, so can you.'"