The GRIP Files: Emma Bickerstaffe, Apex

Emma Bickerstaffe, managing director, ESG and Sustainability, Apex, discusses her work in ESG and the role that financial services could play in accelerating solutions to the world’s challenges.

We spoke to Emma Bickerstaffe, managing director, ESG and Sustainability, Apex. Emma joined Apex in 2023 as part of the MJ Hudson acquisition where she previously worked for three years as the managing director of the ESG and Sustainability practice. Prior that that she spent most of her career in the financial services sector including 10 years at HSBC.

Tell us about yourself

I have been in the world of finance for more than 20 years and I’ve observed its role in addressing the needs of society continue to evolve over that time. During my 10 years at HSBC I developed a passion for sustainable finance and the role that financial services could play in accelerating solutions to the world’s challenges.

I left HSBC to try my hand at running a fintech, and launched The Big Exchange, an impact investing platform for retail investors in collaboration with The Big Issue and a number of UK-based Asset Managers. After that, I joined MJ Hudson to lead the ESG and Sustainability practice, which was later acquired by Apex and, as they say, the rest is history.

I’ve held a variety of positions over the course of my career but have always been driven by the idea that there’s more to business than just business. We’ve seen a generational change in recent years, as businesses have focused on good corporate citizenship as well as profit. So, when the opportunity arose to head up ESG and Sustainability with Apex, I jumped at it. 

What are your areas of expertise?

Emma Bickerstaffe. Photo: Apex Group

My expertise lies in helping businesses and clients adapt to the new world we find ourselves in, where social and environmental responsibility is key to business success. This ranges from ensuring businesses can navigate increasingly complex ESG regulation in the geographies they work in, to ensuring social and environmental impact is defined and communicated clearly, to improving the operational health of their business.

The world of ESG is very dynamic and evolving rapidly. Increasingly investors are demanding clarity on what ESG really measures, and how it influences investment strategies, And, as we’ve seen with businesses being accused of greenwashing, if the communication  doesn’t match the reality of a business, there can be serious consequences.

It’s crucial that businesses communicate their ESG progress to the world clearly and based on accurate data, as funding flows are increasingly attracted to businesses which are environmentally and socially responsible.

What do you most like about your work?

I love my role as the leader of a global team of talented, purpose-driven colleagues. We share a passion for impact, and like my team I enjoy being part of a change toward a better future. Our opportunity is to inspire managers and investors to not only to report on their ESG performance, and ensure compliance with global regulation, but also to drive change and consider their role in addressing the world’s challenges and this is an exciting place to be in my career.

An ESG approach needs to be tailored to each client – based on their geographic footprint, industry, business model and value chain, and this brings its own challenges and its own particular dynamics. 

What are the main challenges for navigating global sustainability regulation?

The focus on ESG has grown rapidly in recent years as new generations of investors and consumers have come to demand business does its part to protect our shared environment. This is undoubtedly a good thing, however we are now seeing the fall out of the lack of consistency, global standards and regulation. Regulation is necessary, however diverse regulation can be difficult for investors to navigate, especially those which might be working across multiple jurisdictions.

Over time, we will likely see a degree of regulatory convergence across different jurisdictions as we see for example with the EU’s Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD). While this regulation only applies within the EU, its impact will nevertheless be felt globally as businesses from outside the EU fall within scope. The best approach for businesses looking to navigate these intricacies is to build internal knowledge, put the operational foundation in place to monitor required data, ideally set targets and consider what initiatives you might embrace to improve performance year after year. 

Any business that does will not only be future ready, but will also be well positioned to attract the estimated $37 billion of sustainable investment flows globally. So, while getting ahead of ESG might bring its challenges, it will also bring great results for businesses willing to embrace it.  

How do you assess the US backlash against ESG?

There is no doubt that, over the course of 2023, we have seen ESG become yet another front in the so-called “culture wars”. This is likely to intensify further as we get toward elections in the US next year, and rhetoric becomes ever more passionate. Away from politics, however, the forces driving ESG are here to stay. A report last year indicated that more than 80% of younger investors believe the way they invest can have a positive impact on climate change.

Regardless of what’s happening in the world of politics, it seems clear that business and finance recognise the challenges we collectively face, and are embracing a positive vision which balances making returns while also protecting the earth. So, there’ll be bumps in the road for ESG, but long-term I believe the future is bright.

What has been the proudest moment of your career?

Being given the opportunity to lead a team of 150 passionate sustainability experts, to not only create an environment which values innovation and collaboration, grow careers and team engagement, but also with the global reach of Apex, have the opportunity to make a real difference in the world. 

What advice would you give a person starting in ESG compliance?

The first thing to have to succeed in this area is passion. ESG compliance is an opportunity to drive change. Look beyond the regulatory requirements and reporting frameworks and consider what the data means, and how a company, manager or investor can play a meaningful role in addressing global challenges.

Leading on ESG in a business also means demonstrating to management and budget holders that investing in ESG will bring returns, financially, reputationally and in terms of being future ready. ESG continues to evolve, and there are many other challenges regarding political agendas, shifting regulatory landscapes, emerging themes and so resilience is also an important attribute when it comes to succeeding in ESG.

What mistakes do asset managers make when implementing ESG strategies?

One of the biggest mistakes we often see asset managers make is focusing on a software solution before they have done the groundwork of setting out their approach to ESG. Software solutions are essential to track and monitor performance, but it is unlikely to be effective unless there is a policy in place to define what data it should collect, how it will be verified, and what the output will be used for. 

How should firms support diversity and inclusion in the workforce?

This is an area we spend a lot of time working on at Apex as a diverse global team. Diversity and inclusion is not an HR activity, nor is it the responsibility of the CEO alone. Creating a diverse and inclusive workforce requires culture change and the focus and attention of the entire leadership team.

We would recommend that firms take time to define challenges that are present in the business, and then set a strategy that is global in its objective, but delivered locally allowing for cultural nuances and location-specific challenges to be addressed. Employee processes must be reviewed to ensure D&I is promoted at every opportunity from training and onboarding, recruitment, promotion and evaluation, pay and benefits and also make sure there is a confidential and trusted support structures to deal with incidents of inappropriate behaviour, discrimination and (sexual) harassment.

Most important, though, is creating a culture of honesty and trust so that DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) can be discussed openly and jointly owned.  

What are your hobbies and interests?

I am a mother to four-year-old twins who occupy most of my time outside work. It is an absolute joy watching them grow, become more and more inquisitive and learn new things. They are learning to read at the moment and I’m amazed at how quickly they take on new skills. 

I also love rowing, although admittedly I have less time for it than I would like. I sit down at the piano occasionally and love to cook (and enjoy good wine).

Can you recommend a good book?

I am re-reading Net Positive at the moment, which provides an interesting perspective on how companies should look beyond profit to take ownership for all of the societal and environmental impacts created – increasing the positive while eradicating the negative. This chimes with our belief that managers should consider the impact of all of their investments, not just those which reside in an impact fund.

You can follow Emma on LinkedIn