Everyone has their own take on what makes the perfect business partnership. We’ve all seen high-stakes, high-profile pairings crash and burn, and we’ve all thought about how we could have done better.
Break it down even further and there’s an air of inevitability surrounding any pairing that involves millions, or even billions, of dollars. How can two minds ever arrive at the same place when the stakes are so high?
– Allan Zion
The pressure to present a united front in the pursuit of success has undone some of the best of the business world, hence the prominence of the ‘solo CEO’ archetype. But one Australian wealth management firm isn’t just bucking that trend, it’s rewriting the rules.
Earl Evans and Allan Zion are Co-CEOs of Shaw and Partners, a leading Australian investment advice company. Born from the ashes of an earlier incarnation, Shaw and Partners has grown far beyond its original purpose as a stockbroker to enjoy a multi-billion dollar asset portfolio in eight offices across the states and territories, thanks in no small part to the dynamic duo at the top.
With the backing of Switzerland’s EFG International, Shaw and Partners provides an investment service that’s fiercely client focused. Whether it’s individuals, institutions, corporates or charities, Shaw and Partners treats money management like a gift.
“It’s a general principle Earl and I both have,” Zion says. “We come from a position that it’s an absolute privilege to manage people’s money. In our case, this privilege is an asset portfolio worth more than A$30 billion [US$20 billion].”
– Allan Zion
Evans is quick to agree. “Just as you’d entrust only the best physician to your physical wellbeing, the same goes for your financial health,” Evans says. “People work hard, pay their taxes and what’s left over they save and accumulate. They’re entrusting you with that money to nurture, preserve and grow it.
“That’s nothing less than a privilege, and it’s something Allan and I have embedded deeply into the business. Our cautious and thoughtful approach stems from this responsibility.”
It’s a textbook example of the crystalline alignment of these two men’s approach to business that may well be Shaw’s secret sauce.
“Typically, business partnerships don’t work,” Evans says. “They’re notoriously difficult to manage when someone feels they’re earning less for doing more. It usually ends in a fallout.”
At Shaw, this has never been an issue, despite the seniority of Zion, who began his journey with Shaw in 1991.
“There are certainly two sides to it,” says Evans, who came to Shaw and Partners in 2015 at Zion’s behest, after a 12-year stint at Macquarie Bank.
“I’d personally tried to buy Shaw in 2009. I was on a six-month sabbatical from Macquarie, and I was looking for something different,” says Evans. “When I came across Shaw, I saw an opportunity. I felt I had a skill set that could benefit the business.”
The deal fell through and Evans returned to Macquarie as the CEO of Macquarie Banking and Financial Services in North America. But as the years passed, his mind began to wander.
“I was getting weary of the bulge bracket mentality, and I wasn’t as excited by it anymore,” Evans admits. “I’ve got a huge amount of respect for Macquarie – they’re a fabulous organization – but I just felt that change was necessary.”
– Allan Zion
Evans admits shifting his attention to his own private property, share and business investments. “To be perfectly frank, I thought I was done with the industry at the time,” he recalls.
Then came the call from Zion. “I told him, ‘Come and have a chat,’” Zion says. “I wanted to go halves with him and take a large stake in the business.”
The only risk seemed to be whether the partnership would endure long enough to execute the plan. “As luck would have it, Allan and I were hand in glove,” Evans says.
A typical front-of-office person, Evans handles the revenue side of the business: institutional, capital markets, research, mergers and acquisitions and private wealth. The more conservative Zion looks after the back end, including human resources, IT, real estate, payroll, compliance/risk and the all-important balance sheet.
“We take care of our areas, obviously with lots of consultation,” Zion says. “And we very rarely disagree on anything at all.”
Such was the connection that when Evans first took on the role, Zion gave him carte blanche to reshape the front end of the business as he saw fit.
“It was a 35-year-old firm, and it just hadn’t moved with the times,” Evans says. “I love building and growing. I love reshaping, re-creating and rebranding things, so it was a perfect fit for me. I could see the value I could bring to the table.”
The big changes Evans envisaged hinged upon his relationship with his new partner. “As luck would have it, we didn’t just get on very well, we got on extremely well,” Zion says. “I value his skill set and vice versa, so I gave him complete freedom to make the changes he wanted to make.”
The first point of order was a change of name. “The Shaw name was recognized across the industry, but the word stockbroking had become, I felt, a bit behind the times,” Evans recalls.
Thus, Shaw Stockbroking became Shaw and Partners. “It was a big decision, but Allan stood back and let me handle it.”
Next was a company-wide consultation process. “I had one-on-one meetings with all 120 staff we had at the time and asked them what they liked about their role, what they didn’t like and what they’d change,” Evans says.
“Once I had all their feedback, I put together a plan, discussed it with Allan and communicated with our staff, ‘This is basically the direction we’re going in and how we’re going to get there.’”
That journey took place in short bursts with plans developed for durations of 90 days, 180 days, one year, three years and five years. While the changes at the front end indicated a significant shift behind the scenes, Evans says that back-end work was even more intensive.
“The key was letting go of all that had been,” he says. “We let go of people we thought just couldn’t modernize and maybe had fallen behind where they should have been.”
– Earl Evans
In their place came a stream of fresh new faces, representing some of the best talents in the business. “This is a people business. You only do as well as the quality of the people you employ,” Zion says.
Handling difficult conversations with longstanding members of Shaw wasn’t simple, but Evans attributes his approach to transparency. “We’d set a course and we were on our way down a particular path,” he says.
“I told everybody, ‘You’ve got a right to be here, but you’ve also got a right to leave if this course is not for you.’ Ultimately where we’re going is non-negotiable, so people have to be either in or out.”
Evans believes the swift and efficient implementation of initial changes fostered an environment free from uncertainty. “It was key that I could come into the business and not create fear,” he says. “Being transparent and open and ensuring everyone understands our direction and the mechanics of our approach eliminates most fears and creates an environment of trust.”
Once Shaw and Partners set sail, it embarked upon a journey Evans and Zion call a “fantastic success story”, and one that reinvented the company for an era where financial stakes are higher than ever.
“It’s been absolutely phenomenal,” Zion says. “But even after eight years, we get together on a weekly basis to work out what we can do better.”
– Earl Evans
Evans concurs, adding that there’s never a true sense of satisfaction. “There are plenty of moments along the journey that have made me think ‘I’m thrilled at how we’re going’, but there’s always something else to do,” he says.
“We’re always moving forward, and while there’s great joy along the way, which is very important to celebrate, there’s just always plenty to do.”
Shaw and Partners is in a strong position. “At all levels, it’s a business admired by many in the industry,” Zion says.
“It’s a very profitable business with an extremely robust balance sheet. Our track record in compliance and the regulatory framework is an industry benchmark.”
Achieving such heights requires relentless effort, and Evans credits the success to Shaw’s partners.
“We’re all constantly working on that every single day, because we understand how important it is to offer stability, to let clients know we’ll be here tomorrow, that we stand for respect, honesty and ethics,” Evans says. “At the same time, we look at it from the client’s lens and service their needs to the highest industry standard.
“At the end of the day, we’re only as good as our clients. If they’re not looked after, we don’t have a business.”
This philosophy underpins the unique Shaw approach to business.
“I don’t particularly like the word culture, but we’ve nurtured an outstanding environment in our offices around Australia,” Evans says. “Though we all share the Shaw name, every office has a local quirk.
“Adelaide is tailored to South Australians, while we allow our Melbourne team to run the business the way Melburnians want it. Western Australia is different from Queensland, so we emphasize flexibility over bureaucracy, maintaining a flat management structure. Each office has a strong sense of independence.”
– Allan Zion
That flat structure even applies to the top tier.
“There’s no fiefdom here, no one’s sitting in a big office with a lounge, basking in their own success,” Evans says. “In fact, we don’t have offices around the country. All of our real estate footprint across Australia is designed with an open plan and open architecture.
“We have beautiful premises, some of the best I’ve ever worked in, but I sit on the advisory floor, the same as everybody else, surrounded by advisors. This promotes an open and transparent environment.”
That’s the Shaw style. “We don’t think we’re any different to the person that gets the mail every day,” Zion says. “That’s the style that’s made the business the success it is, and that’s why we have a very low staff turnover. A lot of people have been here for years, and they love it.”
The approach has also served to attract clients and partners of all sizes.
“We put a lot back into the community,” Evans says. “In the last eight years we’ve donated upwards of A$10 million [US$6.7 million]. That is driven by contributions from staff and advisors, not decisions made by Allan and I,” Evans says.
The Shaw and Partners name can be seen attached to a variety of high-profile sporting events and teams.
“We sponsor things from supercars to football teams to women’s basketball,” Evans says. “We’re heavily involved in Ironman and Ironwoman racing and we sponsor four Surf Life Saving clubs. We’re very proud of the fact that we brought equal prize money for men and women to Surf Life Saving carnivals around the country. Decisions around who we get involved with are all based on the staff’s input.”
Zion adds: “The Shaw and Partners logo has been on the Sea Eagles jerseys for seven years.” This has led to some amusing situations in the office for Evans and Zion, both die-hard Manly Warringah Sea Eagles National Rugby League fans.
“We got involved because we thought it would be fun to do, but every week of the competition we hear from staff whose teams have beaten us. It’s great banter.”
Look for a portrait of Shaw and Partners’ benevolent namesake in any of its offices and you won’t find it: Shaw doesn’t exist.
“The business was founded 35 years ago by three partners who left over two decades ago, Shapiro, Hannah and White, so that’s where the name comes from,” Evans explains. “It was purely a stockbroking firm with a long equities-only mentality and very traditional. It never touched financial planning and many other parts of the business that now exist.”
While that model has evolved significantly over the years to become more inclusive, rounded out and global in nature, Shaw Stockbroking had not.
“What happens with businesses that are under-invested over time is they erode,” Zion says. “Our industry is littered with firms that just didn’t survive, and whether this firm would have survived or not, who knows?”
Evans agrees: “It was definitely not what you’d class as a place of choice as an employer. Once upon a time it was top of the pops. However, by the time I came on board, that had been many, many years earlier.”
When Evans first started in early 2015, the business was akin to an old house, he says. “The bones of the business were very good, excellent in fact, but the rest was like a tired, rundown house,” he says.
In other words, it was a perfect opportunity. Today, according to Evans, the ‘Partners’ in Shaw and Partners are in fact every member of staff.
“The ‘Partners’ are symbolic of partnering with staff, clients, service providers and the like,” he says. “We wanted to keep the tradition of the Shaw name, but empower our people at the same time.”
Most of Shaw and Partners’ sponsorships are, according to Evans, grassroots in nature.
“It has to mean something to us as a business. We have to be passionate about the partnership,” Evans says. “We don’t judge an opportunity by the exposure it might bring. If there’s no connection within our staff, we wouldn’t pursue it.”
It was a staff member that suggested an alliance with the Adelaide Lightning Women’s National Basketball League (WNBL) team, while a mutual acquaintance brought about the Erebus Motorsport opportunity.
“The four Surf Life Saving clubs we sponsor are in four different states. That’s because staff are passionate about those particular clubs within their community,” Evans says. “We take pride in showcasing our brand, and we pay meticulous attention to detail, especially concerning our partnerships.”
At the heart of these philanthropic efforts is the Shaw and Partners Foundation, which was established in 2015 with a clear and compelling motto: have fun, live life and give back.
“That’s how we approach work every day. Giving back to the community is very important. Our staff can take paid time off to work for foundations and charities they are passionate about. We offer pro bono consulting services to charities and it’s our staff who decide where donations should go,” Evans says.
“We’re very proud of the fact that it’s not simply up to the board, or Allan and I as Co-CEOs, to decide where the money goes. All decisions are driven by staff input.”
– Earl Evans
When selecting charities, Shaw and Partners focuses on the ones that generally fly under the radar.
“Some charities find it hard to get recognition and raise money, and those are the ones we look for,” Zion says. “Mental health and working with the disadvantaged are especially important to us. Regrettably, these topics aren’t discussed as frequently as they should be. We’re all affected by them in one way or another.”
Shaw and Partners actively encourages all staff and advisors to support causes they are passionate about. Through its fundraising matching policy, every dollar raised by staff is matched by the Shaw and Partners Foundation.
To date, the Shaw and Partners Foundation has contributed to nearly 200 charities and backed over 400 charitable initiatives.
“We don’t concentrate our efforts in one state; our support is evenly distributed nationwide,” Zion says. “In the last 12 months, we’ve volunteered over 1,200 hours and, since the Foundation’s inception in 2015, we’ve donated nearly A$10 million [US$6.7 million] to charity,” Evans adds.
Both leaders believe that one of the reasons Shaw and Partners enjoys such a high staff retention is because it operates more like a democracy than a conventional partnership.
“At Shaw, it truly feels like a happy home,” Zion says. “We work hard throughout the year, but always make time to celebrate together. Whether it’s a company milestone, a fundraising event, hosting a team of Shaw and Partners brand ambassadors or celebrating annual festive occasions, there’s always a reason to come together. We take every opportunity to appreciate and engage our dedicated team.”
Evans, a firm believer in the effectiveness of communication, holds regular morning meetings.
“Allan and I are very visible. We’re easy to reach, and we both visit all our offices across the country every couple of months. We’re all about keeping things moving without getting stuck in the details,” he says.
“I think our staff appreciate that. They seek prompt feedback, definitive direction and swift resolutions. We’d never tell someone we’d get back to them in a week with a decision. Rapid decision-making keeps the momentum going, but it necessitates a strong trust in one’s intuition.”
– Earl Evans
“We’ve got a great national footprint, but big isn’t always best. We know all 400 people working in the business personally and by first names. We always want to preserve that boutique nature and feel,” Evans says.
“I like to think of Shaw and Partners as a great bottle of red wine. We’ve done all the work to manufacture the glass and the cork, we’ve grown the grapes and now the wine is maturing inside. With constant care, over the next three or four years, we’ll continue growing, maturing and evolving.”
All of this is thanks to a workforce that, as Evans puts it, truly sweats the brand.
“Everyone receives Shaw and Partners apparel, which we regularly update. We have brand ambassadors and we organize world-class client events to which the entire company is invited,” he explains. “It’s inclusive; not just for advisors and their clients, but for our middle and back-office staff as well.”
Such inclusivity is rare in the industry because of the costs, but the pair believes it’s worth it. “We don’t see it as a cost, it’s an investment,” Evans says. “We know who we are and what we stand for, and so do our staff.”
The approach is indicative of the leadership philosophies both men bring to the table and where these perspectives meet.
“When dealing with others, always step into their shoes,” Zion advises.
“How would I want to be treated by my direct report? How would I want to be perceived? That’s how my style developed,” Evans adds. “I believe you can never over-communicate. That’s my style and I think Allan’s the same.”
But the success of the business can’t be built on the ideas of a select few; at Shaw and Partners, most of the solutions come from people on the front line.
“We actively seek input from our staff when considering changes within the business,” Evans says. “Just because you’re the CEO or a senior manager does not mean you’re always right, or that you have all the answers. That’s simply not the case. Our role is to assemble the pieces of the puzzle, regardless of where they originate.”
With a team of approximately 400 staff, there’s a wealth of ideas and talent at the Co-CEOs’ fingertips. “You sit in a room with half a dozen of them and you quickly realize how lucky you are to have them,” Zion says. “Frankly, giving them the freedom to execute their job is one of the key areas of being a good CEO.”
– Earl Evans
And that, adds Evans, is the very essence of success. “Without a doubt, it’s the exceptional individuals at Shaw and Partners who make the real difference,” he says.
“Every success we achieve, whether it’s winning a significant corporate transaction, providing best-of-breed research or offering superior platforms, is directly attributed to having such high-caliber individuals on our team.”
At Shaw and Partners, team members truly represent the company’s ethos. “It’s incredibly rare to see any of our staff on weekends not wearing a Shaw and Partners shirt, cap or some other branded gear,” Zion says.
“They understand they’re ambassadors for Shaw and Partners, both within the office and out in the broader world. Life’s too short to spend so much time on something you’re not deeply passionate about,” Evans says.
“If that passion is missing, it might be time to seek a different path. But for us, that enthusiasm is palpable. We genuinely love our work, and it’s evident. Every one of us truly sweats the Shaw and Partners brand.”