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Alternative asset management has become a lifeline for those looking to make their money work harder. Whether it’s to mitigate the risks associated with traditional methods of investment or simply diversify an existing portfolio, alternative assets can help provide a firmer pathway to a financially secure future.
But alternative assets aren’t typically as well understood as the usual means of investment, making it harder for the average would-be investor to take matters into their own hands.
That’s when it pays to turn to an asset management firm for guidance and security.
And in the world of alternative asset management, there’s perhaps no greater guide than La Trobe Financial, one of Australia’s most well-known and trusted alternative asset managers.
“We’ve got close to 100,000 investors, including major banks, fund managers, global institutions and everyday investors,” CEO Chris Andrews says.
“The asset management story is one of macro themes, aging populations and a greater need for retirement income products. We understand that, and we’ve put in the hard work to build a platform to provide for those needs.”
Much has been written about Australia’s baby boomer investors, who are often financially sound but advancing in age. This demographic has, in recent years, aged itself into an “investment megatrend” and investment firms are rushing to provide support.
“Even in the very earliest days here at La Trobe Financial, I could see there was the potential for the team here to build an asset management platform that was so well suited to serve the needs of our aging population,” Andrews tells The CEO Magazine.
“The sorts of investment strategies La Trobe Financial has been managing for 70 years are perfectly suited to produce consistent monthly income-generating outcomes that these investors need.”
“We’ve put in the hard work to build a platform to provide for those needs.”
For Andrews, the early days were in 2006, when he was a lawyer at MinterEllison.
“The company was quite small then, however I could see that it had enormous latent potential,” he says.
“It had a long history, deep, deep asset-class expertise, and what you might describe as an emerging management team and corporate structure.”
Enticed by the opportunity, Andrews joined the team, first as Senior Legal Counsel before joining the Funds Management Department as Vice President in 2009.
“When I took over our asset management operation that year, I had to come to grips with what we were doing, and what emerged was a sense the story had never really been told,” he recalls.
“The products hadn’t been positioned appropriately to meet these markets.”
Accepting the challenge, Andrews and his team set about developing new products, building new distribution channels and ultimately pioneering a new way to invest.
“We launched one of Australia’s first digital investment platforms to give investors an alternative way to make their money work,” he reveals.
“And most fundamentally, we focused on relationship-based distribution, which meant lots of very long conversations with investors and financial advisors.”
This part of the business – the strong focus on relationships – was a deliberate choice by La Trobe Financial.
“The sense was that this was a very long-term play and we would be consistent in the way we described ourselves to investors,” Andrews says.
“We would focus on being there, meeting investor expectations and being true to our word day in, day out.”
“We have enormous faith in the validity of our methods, of the benefits they can deliver to investors.”
Consistency and transparency proved to be the successful twin pillars of this strategy, he adds.
“We have enormous faith in the validity of our methods, of the benefits they can deliver to investors, so the sense was to keep getting out and telling our story in a consistent way.”
Investors are, understandably, given to taking their time in order to make an informed decision about how to put their money to work.
“We said, ‘Let’s give them that respect’,” Andrews says.
“We’ll just be there. We’ll provide as much information and transparency as we can, and if these strategies are as good as we think they are, over time investors will come to see that. And that’s exactly what happened.”
During that time, Andrews progressed from La Trobe Financial’s Chief Investment Officer in 2015 to CEO in 2022, a move that’s allowed him to galvanize his vision of alternative asset management.
“La Trobe Financial has always been a wonderful place for great people to come together and work. One of the great assets I have as CEO is an entrenched, aligned, long-serving expert management team,” he explains.
“And over the years, it’s been a tremendous journey of collaboration, cooperation and truly disciplined focus on this common vision we all share. It’s been wonderful in that way.”
Backed by a highly aligned senior leadership team that enjoys national recognition as subject matter experts across their relevant disciplines, Andrews has made the CEO role his own.
“It’s really a privilege and a pleasure to be able to lead this team and to work with such an incredibly smart, engaged and supportive board,” he enthuses.
“We’ve got so many expert staff with so much deep experience; we have to put it to use.”
La Trobe Financial has made a point of investing heavily in its staff. Relationships are a crux of its approach, so putting the best face forward is a winning strategy.
“The thinking is, we want to unleash the capabilities of the management team,” Andrews says.
“As the business has grown, that’s imperative. We’ve got so many expert staff with so much deep experience; we have to put it to use.”
Under Andrews’ leadership, La Trobe Financial has strategically increased its headcount with a quality-over-quantity methodology.
“As a general rule, you can come into La Trobe Financial with all sorts of backgrounds and experience, but we value ability and character over skills. We can always train for skills,” he points out. “A good-quality, intelligent, low-ego person with good judgment will be a wonderful part of the team.”
Getting top people in the door is one thing; keeping them happy is another. That’s why Andrews has prioritized creating a supportive culture at La Trobe Financial that helps its people flourish.
“We’ve put a lot of time into training and retention programs,” he confirms. “If strategy isn’t everything, it’s almost the only thing. It absolutely matters. If you get culture right, you’ll attract the right type of person, and that person will feel comfortable in the environment and they’ll stay there.”
Andrews believes the creation of such a culture starts at the top.
“The CEO’s actions matter. Divisional leaders’ actions matter. The actions of leaders across the business matter. We all need to model consistency of standards and clarity of vision.”
How this is achieved varies from industry to industry, but Andrews explains in the case of finance, the sense of trust and integrity is, to an extent, baked in.
“The fact is, we’re managing other people’s money,” he says. “We only serve if we’re trusted by our customers, our partners, our staff, our shareholders, the regulators and the broader community, so we’ve got to start with integrity.”
“We only serve if we’re trusted by our customers, our partners, our staff, our shareholders, the regulators and the broader community.”
But to maintain the right kind of culture, he adds that hard decisions regarding people and process must sometimes be made.
“If we allow those decisions to be driven by the need for us to retain trust, to exemplify integrity, that will be a wonderful north star for all of the decisions we make.”
With relationships such a high priority at La Trobe Financial, it’s no wonder the firm has a deep and multifaceted network of partners and investors all over the world.
“That spans everything from the world’s largest financial institutions, three of the Big Four banks, the World Bank, all sorts of global investors right through to retail investors, moms and dads and borrowers here in Australia,” he says.
La Trobe Financial’s fundamentals in terms of these relationships share the DNA of its approach to building culture.
“Successful relationships are built on trust and integrity. If you display integrity, you build trust,” he stresses.
“I don’t want to oversimplify, but truisms are truisms precisely because they’re true. It’s certainly the case for trust and integrity, and that’s the way we foster and maintain our relationships.”
Having the right team in place is one thing; giving them the tools they need to get the job done is another matter entirely.
La Trobe Financial offers seven separate product offerings to retail and institutional investors, which are backed by pools or exposures to loans secured by registered first-ranking mortgages over real property in Australia.
With so much on offer and more than US$11.6 billion in assets under management, having the latest technology is essential. Don’t call La Trobe Financial a fintech, however; Andrews insists the team’s approach is much more disciplined.
“Fintech is a popular way for businesses to describe themselves and there’s usually a cost attached. We’re not looking to go down that path,” he explains.
“We know we’re an asset manager, we know we’ve got more than 130,000 customers Australia wide. So we think about tech as an enabler to be the best possible partner for those customers.
“The focus there is on service, on efficiency and on quality.”
“The focus there is on service, on efficiency and on quality.”
La Trobe Financial has seven separate tech runways, or work streams, in flight, covering everything from cyber risk to leveraging data gathered through the business to transformation at an operational level.
“We’ve adopted a wide assortment of new tech tools, low code and the like, to accelerate and de-risk the deployment of our tech strategy,” he says.
Doing so has allowed La Trobe Financial to relaunch its marketing and distribution strategy.
“We’re incredibly excited about the the new capabilities that we’re bringing into the business on a monthly basis,” Andrews says. “It’s been an incredible lift by the team and there’s so much more we can do.”
Above all, however, La Trobe Financial has approached new corners and avenues with great discipline.
“We think our results are vindicating that method,” Andrews reflects. “We’ve got the fastest-growing investment fund in Australia.”
Growth means expansion. This year alone, La Trobe Financial has launched a stream of new investment products designed to build its position in the alternative asset management space.
“We’re seeing the market really respond to that,” he says. “We spend a lot of time in different parts of the markets with institutional investors and retail investors, and we’re really hearing the resonance of what we’re doing.”
“Delegation doesn’t mean abdication.”
Such feedback is so easily forthcoming when a business is as people-first as La Trobe Financial.
“Business is a contact sport,” Andrews says. “As I’ve said, we put people above all else. That’s the way we treat our staff, and that’s the organization we want to be with our customers.
“Leaning into tech the way we are enables us to provide a better, more efficient and more human experience for our customers.”
La Trobe Financial’s team of wealth professionals is used to having long, detailed conversations directly with clients, allowing for a steady flow of feedback.
“It’s a relationship model, which means some of our staff will be talking to customers they’ve been speaking with for years, talking about everything from their investments in the credit fund right through to their grandson’s baptism and everything in between. You can’t put a price on that kind of hands-on contact.”
There are two common themes that regularly find their way back to La Trobe Financial: a love of the personal service model and an appreciation of the company’s tireless performance.
“We do what we say we’ll do on the box, if you like,” Andrews explains. “We meet their expectations month in, month out. They also love the fact they can pick up the phone and speak to someone who knows them, knows our products and can give a sensible answer to a reasonable question.”
The human focus seems at odds with the current trend of creating apps that put the power of investment straight in the hands of customers. While Andrews can see the benefits, he understands investing is a big decision.
“We do what we say we’ll do on the box.”
“The folks who are making investment decisions, the people thinking about borrowing to buy a home or an investment property, or to withdraw some equity to invest into their business, they’re contemplating some of the biggest transactions most people will make in their entire lives,” he says.
“These choices will have a lasting impact on their quality of life and that of their family. So people still need expert advice around those really big and sometimes complex decisions.
“At La Trobe Financial, we love – and personally, I’ll always support – a strong independent financial advice industry and also a strong independent broker industry. They’re critical to the future, not just of the financial services industry, but also the lives of so many Australians.”
This kind of expert collaboration minimizes the risks inherent in investing, risks Andrews is all too aware of.
“We don’t believe in taking big risks with client money, period,” he states.
“To use a cricket metaphor, we want to hit ones and twos every single day, and over time that will deliver consistent, reliable outcomes for our investors. After all, getting rich slowly never goes out of fashion.”
La Trobe Financial’s offerings, and indeed the company itself, have been showered with awards and accolades over the years.
“We don’t believe in taking big risks with client money, period.”
Arguably, the jewel in the La Trobe Financial crown is its Credit Fund, which has been named ‘Best Credit Fund – Mortgages’ in Money magazine’s annual Best of the Best Awards a whopping 14 consecutive times.
Andrews credits this acclaim to La Trobe Financial’s keeping things in perspective.
“You must never forget you’re managing other people’s money,” he asserts. “That insight was critical to me when I was embarking on my journey first as Chief Investment Officer and then as CEO.
“Finance comes with the risk that people can find it a bit too exotic or outside the ordinary, and they really aren’t thinking in those terms day-to-day. But if you get your finances right, it potentially transforms the quality of life for you and your family.
“We never forget our important role in that whole process, and I think that comes across in our products and services.”
Another boon is La Trobe Financial’s knack for wisely focusing its energies on places that matter.
“We think about the twin north stars of asset management, which are: get your asset quality right and manage your liquidity appropriately,” Andrews says.
“These are the pillars of successful asset management in any asset class. Get those right, and you’re serving your customers well.”
This must, he adds, all be underpinned by a focus on risk management, compliance, transparency, strong corporate governance and culture. “They’re the three pillars, I believe, of the success of our credit fund.”
These pillars form part of a foundation that’s strong enough to bolster La Trobe Financial as it heads into what Andrews believes is an exciting future.
“It’s so exciting. Our organic opportunity set – the disciplined execution of the product range we have in the market today – is growing steadily,” he reveals. “And the business is going to do terrifically well over the next two decades through disciplined execution of existing strategies.”
A certain pair of factors fall in its favor: Australia’s aging population and the rise of increasingly complex high-quality borrowers looking for solutions-based lenders.
“We’re very well positioned to assist both those investors and those borrowers with our offerings,” he says. “We’d like to think we have the best offerings and outlook in the market in that respect.”
What La Trobe Financial also has is an adjacent opportunity with its 93,000-plus existing investors.
“We’ve got to bring new products to them and to the advisor networks across the country,” he reflects.
“We’ve already got perhaps the best and most recognized alternative asset management brand in the country, so the opportunity to leverage that further to bring new solutions to these investors is enormous.”
“We’ve already got perhaps the best and most recognized alternative asset management brand in the country.”
How that happens is down to the La Trobe Financial formula of culture, focus, tech, data and disciplined execution, which Andrews believes will also help to improve the business in the years to come.
“La Trobe Financial will always be a people business, but the opportunity to improve our service, the efficiency with which we meet our customers’ needs and the quality of their outcomes is there. It’s an exciting journey we’re on.”
With Andrews’ clear-eyed leadership at the helm, it’s sure to be a steady and successful one.
“As CEO, you’ve got to set the standards and you’ve got to live those standards,” he says.
“That’s just a critical, non-negotiable cultural piece for any leader. But then, the CEO has to paint the vision and align the business around it.”
That means not simply empowering people, but also sitting back and letting them make mistakes so they can learn quickly.
“A colleague once said to me, ‘Delegation doesn’t mean abdication’. You’ve got to be there ready to lean in and help when needed. Every day presents a different challenge in respect to where you need to do that.”
A CEO must also remind the team what’s important, Andrews adds.
“The team can do anything, but they can’t do everything,” he admits. “You have to be able to separate the signal from the sound. For me, that means keeping the focus on the customer.”
Communication is the key to making that possible. “Across divisions, across business units, you have to keep the lines of communication open,” he says.
“It’s easy for people to get so stuck into the work they’re doing that they become a bit siloed in their view. The risk, if that’s allowed to happen, is that the business isn’t able to keep up with the pace of change in the world.
“In investment markets especially, you cannot afford to fall behind.”
“Hard work over many years focused on a specific set of challenges does generate authentic expertise, and that just can’t be faked.”
Just as investment carries its own weighty failure, it also breeds a unique brand of success. In Andrews’ experience, that comes from the tried-and-tested partnership of hard work and focus.
“It’s perhaps less fashionable to say this in an age when people are often encouraged to switch tracks, but hard work over many years focused on a specific set of challenges does generate authentic expertise, and that just can’t be faked,” he explains.
Success is also the prize for a commitment to integrity and trust.
“You have to do the right thing by folks. If you can embed that homespun wisdom into your business processes, your business strategy and your business model, I’ve got a deep conviction that your customers will reward you over time.”
As La Trobe Financial continues to generate that reward, Andrews points to the fact that as CEO he’s content to continue doing the things that matter.
“That’s what I’ve always tried to do, which doesn’t necessarily mean the headline-grabbing things or the things that are easy to execute,” he says.
“If you do things that genuinely matter, you’ll find that in the long-term, they’ll produce more value for the business, more value for the staff and, most importantly, more value for the customers.”