Featured Profile: Craig Lawrenson
Lifetime of leadership
From community radio host to BT Financial Group head of SMSF, Craig Lawrenson has always taken to leadership. He tells Jamie Williamson about never taking a backward step.

A long-held ambition to work for BT Financial Group manifested when Craig Lawrenson happened upon an empty meeting room and decided to take a chance.

Four years out of university and working for KPMG, ironically auditing BT's funds, Lawrenson walked into  the meeting room, pulled out BT's internal directory and called up the human resources team.

You can really find lots of variety in how you attack a career.
"I told them 'I really want to work here, so tell me how I go about doing that.' They told me to pass on my resume, which I did, and three months later they called asking me to interview for a position," Lawrenson explains.

That was 20 years ago and the position was a middle-office, portfolio accounting role which Lawrenson felt at home in, having studied a double degree in finance and accounting.

"From my perspective, the beauty of that position was that it was a strong accounting role but I got to liaise with fund managers on a day-to-day basis and that was the icing on the cake for me at the time. I was finally getting to experience the finance industry I'd studied for so long," he says.

From there, Lawrenson shifted to BT's Wrap platform where he worked his way through a number of management roles in the platform's infancy before becoming head of product management in 2005. At the time he joined, the Wrap platform had about $500 million in funds under management.

"When I left in 2008, it had grown to more than $40 billion. To have been a part of a business that grew that much while everyone else was still figuring out what a platform was, how they worked, and embracing them from a financial planning perspective, that was awesome," Lawrenson says.

Having spent the bulk of his time with BT working on Wrap, Lawrenson describes it as part of his DNA now, leading him into the role of heading up Asgard in 2010.

"I think everyone has a moment in their career where they feel like they've taken that next step and moved from running a function to running a business, and the Asgard role was exactly that for me," Lawrenson says.

The natural evolution for Lawrenson from there was to head up much of the operations side of BT's premier platform, Panorama.

"I was asked to lead the product development and service offer design for Panorama and did that for five years. All the lessons learned from BT Wrap and Asgard really helped me, taking all the learnings and experiences into this role," Lawrenson says.

Throughout this, Lawrenson played a key role in designing and building BT's SMSF solution for advisers, accountants and trustees. So, the transition to his current role, head of SMSF, was what Lawrenson describes as an organic development.

"It's kind of been a natural evolution. There hasn't been any sharp lifts or right turns, it's happened quite organically," he says.

Lawrenson concedes that spending 20 years with the one company is straying from the ordinary, but he's no stranger to doing just that with his first ever job being as a presenter for 2RDJFM community radio.

"In the late 1980s reggae and ska really wasn't popular, so naturally my best mate and I hosted a program devoted to reggae and ska between four to 5pm every Friday afternoon, much to the abuse of many listeners," he laughs.

While he acknowledges that there is a degree of loyalty to BT, he says the motivation to continue working there is equally because of its great business model, providing him with countless opportunities.

"I haven't hesitated to accept any of the roles that have been offered my way. I think it's always good to try something different, and I suppose that's kind of defined my career in a lot of ways," he says.

Lawrenson has been running BT's SMSF business for more than 12 months now, saying that while he has a relative amount of comfort in the role having his own SMSF, the task of building a business from scratch has been quite an experience.

"The SMSF business is one of the first core offers to come out of the Panorama development, so to be able to grab a piece of it and start to build a business around that capability and take it to market has been really exciting," he says.

He adds that, as with anything new, it hasn't been without its challenges, but to date things are panning out nicely.

"We're showing some early signs of success and getting quite a bit of usage. Advisers are liking it, trustees are starting to use it, and accountants are embracing it - so far so good," he says.

It's quite a stretch from the career trajectory he presumed he would take throughout the bulk of his formative years. When a strong dose of reality struck down his grand views of sporting prowess at a young age, Lawrenson figured he was destined to follow in his father's footsteps.

"Dad was a doctor, and I always thought I would probably head that way too, but he encouraged me away from it - told me not to go anywhere near it, in fact," he says.

"But then I landed an incredibly passionate economics teacher in high school who got me interested in the markets and investing, so after that any thoughts of what I wanted to do kind of just always deviated from the same theme, and luckily I found my home at BT."

The interest in sport never waned though. Between playing tennis and golf, and watching his two young sons run out for the Moore Park Tigers AFL team, Lawrenson also somehow finds time to coach their soccer team - though not necessarily by choice.

"All the parents were standing around on the sideline and someone asked who wanted to coach - everyone else took a step backwards so it kind of landed with me by default. We did win the grand final last year though, so I guess you could say I'm some kind of super coach," he says.

It's just another indication of Lawrenson's willingness to try his hand at whatever comes his way.

"I think if I was to reflect my career on a newcomer to the industry, I've traversed accounting, operations, distribution, marketing-oriented roles, product roles and transformation roles to now be running a business, so you can really find lots of variety in how you attack a career in this sector," Lawrenson explains.

"I've also had a lot of great mentors in my time that have helped me charter my destination within BT and I try to do that with people in my own team now, just to give back a little."

Lawrenson believes that the greatest thing about financial services, particularly the SMSF sector, is legislative growth on the back of superannuation.

"We are all in the superannuation business whether we think it or not. It's growing and customers aren't saying that whatever we did last year is good enough this year in terms of experiences and services, so the room for innovation in the industry is infinite - I think it's bloody exciting," he says.

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