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Dawn Johnson&#39s earliest memory is her first day at school.

She remembers sitting at a table of four, with a small boy next to her crying his eyes out while she looked round, thinking, what&#39s wrong with him, what a wimp.

Not that she is anxious to take a stance on girl power. Although she is the first female managing director of Woolwich Independent Financial Advisory Services and thinks it is important to have more women in the industry, she does not want to be interpreted in terms of gender issues.

She refuses to comment on the Spice Girls&#39 Girl Power phenomenon ("Oh God, no comment") and sees IFA firms run by women for women as valid in terms of being a good "marketing ploy&#39.

She was born in Northern Ireland but rowed for Scotland and is a woman running an IFA in a male-dominated industry.But none of that matters much to her.

Johnson&#39s appointment by Woolwich – she was promoted to Wifas managing director from Wifas operations director in December – is more interesting in terms of her experience rather than gender. Wifas is still a relatively small part of the Woolwich empire although she always describes Wifas as sitting "on top" of the rest of the bank. Most of its business is based around referrals.

Predecessors who have run Wifas have been from the corporate side but Johnson&#39s background is from within the advisory arm. It is an indication that Woolwich realises it needs to give more attention to its non-core business.

Wifas made £10.2m profit from £19m net commission income last year, with about 25 per cent of its business coming from its existing customer base.

A colleague says: "Ian Bullock [her predecessor] was more of a Woolwich man rather than an insurance person whereas Dawn is more of an insurance person than a Woolwich one."

But Johnson has done her time. She has worked her way up steadily with about seven different roles since she started as one of its first advisers 10 years ago.

She says: "I&#39ve done my bit, training, marketing development work, sales manager.

I got to do a bit of everything. But going round the sales offices is my favourite bit, making sure everyone knows what&#39s going on. I like to think I know what they do and understand the pressures they&#39re up against. I&#39ve been there and done it and am much closer to the detail."

She is also described by workmates as having "no airs and graces", as "not a toff" and "one of the lads". She describes herself as being practical rather than a dreamer. But then you have to be if you end up working in the financial industry.

Johnson was born in Northern Ireland, went to a local grammar school, picking up 10 O levels and 4 A levels before moving to Edinburgh University to study for joint honours in Maths and Statistics. She doesn&#39t talk any wild tales of student recklessness but was busy rowing nearly every day. She won several Scottish championship titles, and rowed for Scotland in 1983 at 23.

Although she wanted to be a vet when she was little, she ended up – possibly not every young girl&#39s dream – working at Guardian Royal Exchange in the pensions department. She says: "It was just a job that was available. I did not have a good vision of what I wanted to do at that stage in my life."

After three years at GRE, she moved to a small insurance broker in Dumfries before moving to Gateway Building Society in 1987 as assistant insurance manager.

She claims she has been lucky having been in the right place at the right time. She moved into the industry as a whole when the Financial Services Act came in (1986) and then joined Gateway (1987) just before it was taken over by Woolwich, where she was able to move into Wifas (1988).

Although she has moved into the top slot at Wifas, there is still a question mark over how much free rein she has. She may head the subsidiary but she has a boss who has a boss and still has to refer to them on financing decisions.

The Woolwich corporate vision is never far away and during the interview, there was an in-house PR sitting by her all the way through.

This could indicate why she was rather vague about her future plans and ambitions. "I really enjoy working in Wifas. I guess I will ultimately move on into the main group because you need to move around to keep fresh. But it&#39s hard, it depends what&#39s around, what&#39s available, what the development of the group is and how it&#39s structured."

She also says that as part of the Woolwich, she wouldn&#39t want to hurt the group by being a maverick for the sake of it.

When she&#39s not working, Johnson likes to sleep, flop and spend time with her family.

Johnson got her promotion just one month before her partner, who had taken a couple of career breaks to look after the children and to do a PhD, went back to work.

With two girls, aged two-and-a-half and four years, it is not surprising that she describes life as "hectic" with little time to daydream.

Consequently, Saturdays are sacro- sanct as family days and any working at the weekend is restricted to Sunday evening.

Johnson is not a well-known figure in the industry but then neither is Wifas – something which she points out herself.

"Wifas itself is a well-kept industry secret. People aren&#39t very aware of exactly what we do or how we operate or how successful we are. So I think it&#39s a consequence of that."

She is hoping to change that. Her ambitions for Wifas are to get the name known in the market, expand the advisers from 100 to 200 and give more advice to its existing customer base and the outside world rather than rely on Woolwich referrals from the branches.


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