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A merger of family and high finance

M&A maestro Michelle Jablko likes to keep things close to home, writes Miriam Steffens.

M&A maestro Michelle Jablko likes to keep things close to home, writes Miriam Steffens.

Michelle Jablko looks surprisingly fresh, considering she's been up since 3am caring for her sick three-year-old son before taking the red-eye flight from Melbourne to make it to our breakfast meeting.

"I don't sleep much," she laughs.

The 38-year-old investment banker is quick to acknowledge it can be a juggling act, pursuing a high-powered career advising on multibillion-dollar mergers and acquisitions for UBS and looking after her two young children.

Her husband, Paul, a former private client banker at Credit Suisse, has taken on the role of stay-at-home dad, giving her the stability needed to put in the demanding hours in the traditionally male-dominated investment banking industry.

But to Jablko, who was the only woman among her peers when she started at UBS in Melbourne 11 years ago, it really comes down to output and attitude, rather than gender, and businesses giving parents sufficient flexibility to combine family and career.

She clearly loves the "buzz of transactions", dealing with people from different backgrounds and industries to get deals over the line, such as AMP's $14.6 billion takeover of AXA Asia Pacific last year, or China MinMetals's $US1.4 billion acquisition of OzMinerals's assets in 2009.

And while acknowledging bankers do not mince their words negotiating such transactions, she reckons the aggressive, rough-and-tumble reputation of her profession is "a bit of a myth".

"You take your work very seriously, but not yourself too seriously," she says of her work at UBS.

Jablko grew up in Melbourne with a Polish immigrant background.

Both her grandparents arrived in Australia after World War II. Her father was a car salesman and her mother a travel agent, working to fund a private education for their daughters. Jablko was the first in her family to go to university, completing honours degrees at Monash in economics and law.

She started her career at the law firm Allens Arthur Robinson, where she specialised in mergers and acquisitions before being seconded to the legal department of BHP's petroleum division.

It was the early months of Paul Anderson's tenure as head of BHP, which were marked by a string of asset sales. Jablko got involved not only in the legal, but also the commercial side of the deals, which she says "really cemented" her wish to become an investment banker.

She moved on to UBS, where she soon helped on some of the large deals, working under the wing of heavyweights such as the former UBS Australia boss Chris Mackay and Matthew Grounds, his successor.

Her first transactions included advising Colonial First State during Commonwealth Bank's $9.4 billion takeover in 2000, then the largest financial tie-up in Australian corporate history, and the merger of BHP with Billiton a year later.

Peter Scott, UBS's vice-chairman of investment banking, who has worked with Jablko over the years, describes her as "very bright and commercially astute".

Jablko suspects the only time she sets herself apart from her male counterparts is during business small talk, which almost invariably turns to bats and balls.

"I hate sport," she confesses. "I grew up in Melbourne so I have to follow a football team. But I wouldn't know whether they've won on the weekend or not.

"So I'm the person who would go into meetings with six men sitting around the table and I'm the one not talking about football. I actually think it's better to be a little bit different. Because I don't talk about sports I had to think a little bit more about my clients and what they like."

Her life as a high-profile dealbroker includes unpredictable hours and late-night shifts, especially during cross-border transactions. Jablko remembers her 32nd birthday, when she was outbid in a hostile takeover war, missed her birthday lunch and worked away until 10pm to catch a plane at 6am the next day.

And even on the way to hospital to give birth to her daughter, she wrote emails instructing colleagues to call back a client.

Surviving in the fast-paced world of investment banking means "you're just always on", she says. Her husband calls her "Crackberry" when she checks her email on the BlackBerry first thing in the morning.

And there are bizarre episodes such as when a plane journey to present a deal in London was delayed, forcing Jablko and her team to dial into a board meeting from the only private space they could find at Heathrow Airport - a baby changing room, stunning a mum with her bub.

The pace of mergers and acquisitions in Australia has been sluggish over the past few months after a strong start to the year, but Jablko says the highly competitive nature of the local market means work to generate deals never lets up. "We seem pretty busy and there seems to be a lot of activity, things just take longer from working on to [being] announced," she says.

UBS is leading the local M&A league tables, ahead of Barclays, JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs, according to Bloomberg data. It has been involved in $US16 billion worth of deals this year so far, including embattled Centro Retail's sale of its US shopping centres to the Blackstone Group and Foxtel's long-mooted offer for Austar.

Jablko does not expect that the $9.5 billion bid from the global brewer SABMiller for Foster's Group will set off a new wave of takeover activity in Australia but says demergers and buying interest from private equity will trigger some deals.

"In non-retail industries there's quite a few happening and quite a few that will happen," she says. "Resources will continue to have the biggest activity for the foreseeable future."

Preferring to work for Melbourne-based clients to be near her family and to be able to take the children to bed at night, Jablko works on transactions across industries, though recently mostly with financial institutions. She puts on her sneakers and walks 70 minutes to the office every morning to clear her head before the day starts.

"For sanity," she says. "By the time I'm in, I've gone through the day."

Her weekends are spent with family, as much as possible. "There isn't much downtime," Jablko says.

She is interested in foreign languages, understanding the Yiddish spoken by her grandparents, and enjoys reading novels and biographies, "books about people", but she only finds time for it during her holidays.

Next week, the busy dealmaker will board a plane yet again. But this time, the business suits will be left behind and the children and husband will come along, for the family's annual holiday in Tuscany.

Asked if she could picture herself doing anything other than investment banking, Jablko admits she feels "the green grass syndrome" every once in a while.

"I'd probably be living in the countryside in Italy," she says. "But I don't know how long I'd last."

THE CV

JABLKO, Michelle

Born Melbourne 1972

Education Wesley College, Melbourne. Honours in economics and first-class honours in law from Monash University Occupation Managing director of investment banking at UBS since January 2010

CAREER

In January 2000 joins UBS, first as an investment banking analyst beforemoving into advising on mergers and acquisitions.

Worked as a lawyer for Allens Arthur Robinson, specialising in mergers and acquisitions.

Family Married, with two children aged 3 and 5.


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