Leading ladies of the FX industry: Meet Julia Free, Director at CFH
Senior positions within the electronic trading industry combine excitement, cutting edge technology and great responsibility. Julia Free, Director of Regulatory Compliance at CFH Clearing details her illustrious career, her background as a lawyer, leadership in a global business and the innovative steps that have made a difference in a highly advanced regulatory environment
Electronic trading is a very modern, highly sophisticated and fast-moving business which continues to attract urbane and astute talent across all sectors from experts in specific niches that provide services from cutting-edge digital marketing initiatives, to automated strategies, interactive education packages, ever-evolving retail trading platforms and of course, the brokerages themselves.
Along with the modernity of this industry is the complete lack of a metaphorical ‘glass ceiling’ – therefore without boundaries, it is very much an environment which encourages free thought, innovation and ultimately career mobility in the upward direction for those with a driving ambition.
Among today’s young executives, gender equality is also a sign of the modernity of the business, which has its roots, especially in the retail sector, in the early 2000s, and although very highly developed and global, is a fledgling compared to the hierarchical and rigid world of traditional finance.
The ability to move forward very quickly is part of the appeal, and indeed, has given rise to some highly successful leaders – many of whom are ladies, hence FinanceFeeds decided to take a look at what motivates today’s successful women in the FX industry and what has led them this far.
The very lifeblood of the electronic capital markets industry can be found within the specialist institutional liquidity and technology providers, and today we speak in detail to Julia Free, whose illustrious and senior level career has led to her top position at CFH, where she is Director of Regulatory Compliance.
A qualified lawyer, Ms Free has held a number of senior positions including Head of Onboarding, Compliance Officer, MLRO before being elected as a Director at CFH the institutional liquidity and prime of prime brokerage company, which is one of the largest financial technology (FinTech) companies to have come out of Scandinavia and is part of the publicly listed Playtech Group. Whilst CFH may well have its origins in Denmark, today it is one of the key corporations among London’s giants.
Based at the company’s London headquarters, its parent company having concentrated all of its financial services and electronic trading business at the prestigious Broadgate Tower in the heart of Central London’s financial district, Ms Free holds the most senior position in the company with regard to the increasingly complex and technology-driven area of regulatory compliance, overseeing the company’s regulatory responsibilities when providing liquidity, technology and prime brokerage services to retail FX brokerages, hedge funds and institutions.
Julia, tell us about your background, and what set the scene for corporate leadership?
From the beauty and sophistication of Vienna to the high tech and legal scene of London
“I was born and raised in the beautiful city of Vienna, Austria, where I went to school and completed my A-Levels” explained Ms Free. “I had initially not planned to move to the United Kingdom permanently and had planned to stay in London for a few months only, however, I fell in love with this wonderful city and with England, its people and their mentality and thus decided to stay and complete my university education here instead of Vienna.”
It was this ambition and will to seek an international education that set the scene for Ms Free’s career, who has since called London her home for the past 15 years.
Reminiscing on her arrival to London in the mid-2000s Ms Free looked back fondly.
“I fell in love with this wonderful city and with England, its people and their mentality and thus decided to stay and complete my university education here instead of Vienna” – Julia Free, Director of Regulatory Compliance, CFH Clearing
“Vienna and London are pretty similar in respect of culture and attitude and so I felt right at home” she explained. I was pretty determined to become a lawyer from an early age onward. My keen interest in the law was sparked, in my childhood, by my parents, who enjoyed theorising about the law and finite points in respect of its relevant application, and undoubtedly, to a lesser extent, I was also impressed by court room drama on TV and lawyers passionately “objecting” to points raised by their opponents. It is fair to say though, that I have always been impressed by how the law is drafted and written and how it always seeks justice.”
“It is fair to say though, that I have always been impressed by how the law is drafted and written and how it always seeks justice” – Julia Free, Director of Regulatory Compliance, CFH Clearing
As a newly qualified and enthusiastic young lawyer, what opportunities beckoned and did CFH feature along the way?
“Prior to joining CFH for the first time, I had worked at a number of law firms in the City in different capacities. In 2014, I then joined CFH, which at that time had an office in the Victoria area of London, near Buckingham Palace as Head of Onboarding and then subsequently also assisted with Compliance related matters, which I found extremely fascinating. CFH was then a start-up company and it felt like a big family with everyone working towards the same (big) goals. It was then that I developed a keen interest in financial services” explained Ms Free.
“I subsequently qualified as a lawyer specialising in litigation. Having left CFH two and a half years before, I was then approached again and asked if I was interested in joining them again. The company had since grown significantly and had moved to bigger offices in the city near Aldgate. This was just about six months prior to the implementation of MIFID II and my role was to work on the implementation of this rather large piece of regulation. It sounded like a real challenge, but I was so intrigued by working at CFH again and by meeting this (what seemed like an almost impossible) target” said Ms Free.
“I was so intrigued by working at CFH again and by meeting the MIFID II regulations, which seemed like an almost impossible target!” Julia Free, Director of Regulatory Compliance, CFH Clearing
MIFID II – The almighty infrastructural challenge!
Looking back at rejoining CFH in a senior regulatory position during the advent of MIFID II, Ms Free explained “Whilst it was a stringent deadline, which consisted of a few hectic and challenging months, I thoroughly enjoyed being thrown in at the deep end and having to get on with it. Whilst CFH had grown in numbers, it had luckily not lost its friendly and supportive culture and it was fantastic to see how everyone in the company was working towards achieving bigger and better things.”
“Whilst CFH had grown in numbers, it had luckily not lost its friendly and supportive culture and it was fantastic to see how everyone in the company was working towards achieving bigger and better things” – Julia Free, Director of Regulatory Compliance, CFH Clearing
Legal, compliance and technology – the three tenets of Julia Free’s leadership remit
“In general, I thoroughly enjoy reading legal texts, new pieces of legislation or regulation and seeing how they could apply to CFH, further establishing frameworks and internal controls so as to ensure that all legal requirements are met” she said.
“I am one of those people who happily take home legal texts to review relevant sections in the evening out of sheer interest in the matter. Regulatory requirements are constantly evolving- as are technological solutions; so regulatory compliance is an extremely fascinating area to be in; one which will grow significantly so in the future. At the end of the first year of having re-joined CFH, an opportunity arose for me to become the company’s Compliance Officer, which required authorisation from the FCA and which I gladly accepted” continued Ms Free.
Invitation to the Board of Directors
Ms Free has held senior positions at CFH for approximately four and a half years, across two stints.
“Over the next 12 months, I worked on regulatory projects, such as the GDPR and on improving the firm’s internal controls and procedures in respect of Compliance and meeting all relevant regulatory requirements. Towards the end of my second year with CFH, I was then asked to also consider taking on the Money Laundering Reporting Officer position and to join the board of directors as a director myself. I was extremely honoured by the board’s trust in me and by the offer to join as Director” she said.
Ms Free began to define this career progression by elaborating a little on the opportunity and responsibility of being elected to the Board of Directors at CFH. “Being a member of the board generally offers great opportunities to be a part of shaping the company’s future as well as its strategic decision making” she said.
Looking at the culture within the company, Ms Free happily explained “CFH is a great place to work, as the firm strives for greatness whilst appreciating the regulatory requirements. Whilst I am the only female member of the board, the firm actively encourages women and promotes them to senior roles, such as our Head of Legal, Head of Onboarding and our Financial Controller.”
“I am proud to say that CFH has implemented a state of the art training centre, which consists of monthly run face to face training sessions as well as training courses offered by external training providers. I believe that by constantly re-training our staff on how to combat financial crime and on the requirement of personal conduct rules, we embed a culture of fairness and equality, which is so vital in today’s financial services markets. Most importantly, it ultimately also ensures that clients receive the best possible service from CFH at all time” enthused Ms Free.
“I consider myself very lucky to be in a position of thoroughly enjoying my job and doing what I care about deeply on a daily basis. However, I take my positions of holding Senior Managers functions, SMF3, SMF16 and 17 very seriously, as these roles carry a tremendous amount of responsibility with them and I am accountable to the FCA in respect of matters pertaining to my area of responsibilities. However, at CFH, we attract immense talent and I am surrounded by my team which consists of extremely intelligent and hardworking individuals, whom I am able to rely on and whom I trust” she said.
“I work closely with all Heads of Departments to ensure that there is good understanding of the rules and expected conduct of everyone in the company” explained Ms Free.
“Since the implementation of the Senior Managers and Certification Regime in December 2019, a particular focus has been on furthering our colleagues’ training requirements” added Ms Free.
“It is fair to say that the prevention of Money Laundering and combating financial crime has become my new passion and I thoroughly enjoy working on our financial crime frameworks and staying abreast of new areas of the law and ensuring that CFH has tight controls in place” enthused Ms Free.
“Money Laundering affects everyone, not just individuals working in Finance. The consequences of money laundering are devastating for people, but also for wildlife and the illegal trade thereof, and so we must do everything we can to fight it. Financial firms, in particular, have a responsibility towards society to ensure that they are not used to further crime.”
“As a Director, however, I owe a duty of care, skill and diligence to the company. As such, board room discussions do not only focus on the company’s vision, but more importantly, also on how we can ensure that our legal and regulatory obligations are fully met. My main objective is of course always on how we can ensure to remain a competitive and successful business whilst adhering to all relevant regulations” – Julia Free, Director of Regulatory Compliance, CFH Clearing
We asked Ms Free to consider that as one of the world’s most prominent female senior executives in this industry, what she would define the success of ladies in leadership positions in electronic trading at institutional level.
Concluding, Ms Free’s perspective is “I don’t believe that success should be defined differently for women than it is for men. As a society we must strive to ensure that both women and men are able to fulfil their full potential. At CFH, all of my colleagues define success on a daily basis by bringing with them extreme dedication and due diligence to their roles. Everyone at CFH will go above and beyond to achieve and exceed our goals.”