Five takeaways from our Women in Infrastructure event

How to achieve diversity, dealing with late-cycle ‘schizophrenia’, technology and regulatory risk, and why the right questions are crucial for ESG implementation were some of the key topics covered.

The latest edition of our Women in Infrastructure event (now rebranded to Women in Private Markets to encompass all the alternative asset classes PEI covers) took place this week in London. With 600 attendees, it was the largest and most vibrant edition of the event yet. Here are five key takeaways from it.

Diversity starts at the top, but it doesn’t stop there

“Everyone can play a part in creating a more inclusive culture. It doesn’t just come from the top,” Brenda Trenowden, a partner at PwC and global co-chair of the 30% Club, said during her keynote speech, kicking off the two-day event.

Creating a sense of belonging in the workplace starts from the top, but implementation happens at the team level, she added. In that sense, the conversations she is having with chief executives nowadays are more about how to achieve gender diversity rather than why.

“I’m fed up with people wanting evidence of how having more women makes my business better,” one of those chief executives said. “Who’s ever asking for evidence of how many men will make my business better?”

‘Schizophrenia’ a symptom of a late-cycle market

From KKR’s perspective, the market is “definitely” in the late cycle, the firm’s head of European infrastructure, Tara Davies, said. An indication of that is the “little bit of schizophrenia” that surfaces at times when a high-quality asset comes to market but with few buyers showing interest.

Esther Peiner, managing director of private infrastructure Europe at Partners Group, agreed. “You get a lot of investor interest and excitement, but at the same time, people get scared incredibly easily,” she said.

So, should the market be preparing for a correction? The answer to that question is not easily forthcoming. While leverage in the infrastructure sector has increased in the past decade, it hasn’t reached 2007 levels. “That is something we definitely don’t see today,” Davies asserted.

Get ready for technology risk

You can’t have a good conference without a bit of crystal-ball gazing. So kudos to KKR’s Davies, who did a good job of tackling an audience question about what infrastructure will look like in 2040.

“The vast majority of the infrastructure market is energy-related, and that space will look completely different in 25 years,” she said. “There will be more technological risk associated with those assets. Will that risk ever be an infrastructure risk, or will it be more of a venture-capital risk? That’ll change infrastructure [investing].”

We couldn’t agree more, which is why this month’s cover story tackles how Big Tech is poised to disrupt infrastructure investing. Check it out HERE.

Regulatory risk

Another topic you can’t not address at an infrastructure event is regulatory risk and how it’s evolving.

“In my experience, changes to regulation are generally seen by investors as increasing risk – whether they are good or bad changes,” Regina Finn, a director at London-based consultancy Lucerna Partners and former Ofwat chief executive, said. So, “by virtue of the fact that change is happening at all – the answer is yes”.

To mitigate that risk, Finn advises investors to engage with regulators at an early stage – when frameworks or policies are being designed or existing frameworks are being revised.

The stage when individual decisions affecting individual firms are being made is too late. “Complaining at this stage is wasted effort,” Finn said.

ESG: Asking the right questions

“There are very few investors who don’t ask about ESG, but, over time, more and more investors will ask the right questions.” That comment from Sandra Lowe, investor relations director at InfraRed Capital Partners, elegantly sums up the ESG state of play. Which is to say it’s high on everyone’s agenda, with LPs ranking managers on their ESG prowess. But challenges remain on everything from benchmarking to data collection.

Unfortunately, that also means, as Mercer’s Catherine Lloyd put it, that there is “still a lot of box ticking and self-certification” going on.

With 78 percent of our audience saying ESG is now core to their investment decisions, expect these issues to be ironed out sooner rather than later.

Write to the authors at: bruno.a@peimedia.com, kalliope.gourntis@peimedia.com