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Catherine Priestley: Using her STEM degree in agricultural investment

Catherine Priestley knows agriculture first-hand, having grown up helping her parents on their farm in the Central West of NSW. After graduating with a degree in Engineering and Commerce, she now experiences it from a different perspective, working as an Analyst in Macquarie Asset Management’s Agriculture team.


After graduating, Catherine completed an internship at Macquarie and later joined the Graduate Program as an analyst in Macquarie Asset Management’s Agriculture team in the Real Assets division.

With hindsight, Catherine says Macquarie turned out to be a perfect fit.

“I grew up on a family farm in Central West NSW,” explains Catherine. “But when I applied to join Macquarie Asset Management as an Intern in 2018, I didn’t know I would end up in the Agriculture team. I’m no longer rounding up sheep, I’m part of a team that manages agricultural assets on behalf of investors.”

“Our role is to manage those investments in the best possible way, and show current and prospective investors why agriculture is an attractive asset class.”

“I love rural Australia, so working in agricultural investment feels like a good fit for me and I find it very rewarding,” says Catherine.

Investing in agriculture has flow-on effects like supporting employment, keeping rural communities strong and generating real opportunities for a lot of people."

From scholarship to mentorship and internship

Studying engineering gave Catherine a solid grounding in technical skills, but she found she was more attracted to the bigger picture, solving problems and finding opportunities. While still studying for her degree, she was awarded the Katrina Dawson Foundation scholarship, and a mentor she met through this program introduced her to Macquarie, opening her eyes to a career in asset management.

“Once I heard about Macquarie’s reputation for investing in real assets and the impact it has on business, I really wanted the opportunity to be part of it,” Catherine says.

She completed a three-month summer internship with Macquarie in 2018 and says the high performance environment really motivated her.

“The internship was a learning experience that really stretched me,” Catherine explains. “It was a new way to apply myself, and I liked that a lot was expected of me.”

Inspired by a combination of the calibre of the people she worked with during her internship and the support they were willing to provide her with, she applied to join the 2020 Graduate Program.


Agriculture growing as an asset class

While agriculture is a lesser-known asset class than infrastructure, Catherine says its popularity is increasing, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. Today, Macquarie responsibly invests in and operates 4.8 million hectares of farmland – producing red meat, grains and oil seeds.

Catherine’s team raises funds to invest in agriculture assets, and then acquires and actively manages farmland to create sustainable large scale, diversified farming enterprises, which feed a growing population.

As an analyst, Catherine says her role is varied. She assists her team with research, data analysis and constructing presentations for current and prospective investors. She also works on transactions with stakeholders, vendors, and advisors within the industry.

“A lot of it is about effective communication,” Catherine says. “It is also about developing relationships with a range of people and organisations.”


Investing in reducing farm emissions

Catherine says that one of the highlights of her role has been helping her team with broader strategies, including assisting with the testing and evolution of a new tool being developed by the Australian Government’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO)  to help farmers make their farms more sustainable.

The tool was developed by the CSIRO, but we were involved in the pilot program. It will allow grain farmers to better understand their emissions and efficiency profile and the potential opportunities from carbon-reducing activities, and to use that information to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions."

This coincides with Macquarie Asset Management’s broader commitment to investing and managing its portfolio in line with global net zero emissions by 2040, 10 years ahead of the deadline to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement.


A background in STEM

Catherine has been surprised by the range of opportunities she has experienced in her first year with Macquarie, and says that her background in engineering has given her a strong basis to capitalise on them.

“The engineering side of my degree has really come in handy - and not only for the maths. It has also helped give me a conceptual framework for taking a large amount of information, breaking the data down, and restructuring it, while retaining a clarity of focus. Data analysis skills are incredibly useful in this field.”

“I enjoy learning from watching my managers,” says Catherine. “The way they can take the detailed data and research, identify the key message in it and then communicate it to the client. It’s an impressive art.”

She’s also enjoying being involved in new and interesting projects and challenges.

“I chose the financial services industry because I wanted to move forward, learn and build skills, and I enjoy looking back and seeing that growth.” says Catherine. “The flipside is that you need to be patient. It takes time. But once you get the results it’s rewarding.”

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