The Commonwealth Bank asked Barry Lambert to stay on as chair of Count Financial for two years following the bank's acquisition - he asked them for two years and two months. Confused, the bank asked him why. He told them, "If I stay on until January 2014, it'll mean I've worked at CBA or a wholly-owned subsidiary for exactly 50 years."
When Lambert left CBA on January 20, 2014, he did so as one of the most celebrated figures in Australian wealth management. 50 years (to the day) earlier, though, he was "burning seven-day-old garbage." That isn't a euphemism: Lambert's first job at the bank was disposing of old cheques, which had to be stored for a week before being incinerated.
"Back then," he recalls, "people smoked inside the branches, too, so you'd get a lot of that in the fumes. But that was my first job there: I joined when I was 17, and it was either that or the tax office. CBA and the tax office would leapfrog each other in terms of pay-rises, and back then CBA was on top, so that was the extent of my decision-making process as a teenager."
Lambert describes himself as "always being good at numbers," which he said made the finance - and later, more specifically, accounting - business a natural fit. After finishing up with garbage duty, he moved onto becoming a teller, which he says was a somewhat more hands-on process than it is now. "We used to calculate all transactions by hand," he laughs. "All the interest on someone's home loan was written out. Overdrafts, that kind of thing - all done by hand, on a daily basis."
Far from slowing Lambert down, though, he feels this methodical approach gave him a much better understanding of the fundamentals of the industry than some younger entrants. "We didn't have calculators," he says, "so I got a very good understanding of how interest rates work. Nowadays, when someone at a bank doesn't understand something, they pull up the computer and get that to work it out. But that's a limitation, because if there's something wrong with the calculation the computer's using, they won't see it. Whereas I can look at an interest rate calculation and tell you whether it's right or wrong. And they ask, 'Why, Barry?' And it's because I know it's wrong; I know what it should look like.
"Basically, the benefit of being hands-on in that you understand it, and people can't pull things over your eyes."
As Lambert "came up through the bank," as he puts it, CBA put him on a cadet program "to make this country boy move to the city." As a compromise, given he now had a wife, three kids and a "big mortgage," Lambert asked whether he could do a few tax returns on the side. They agreed, and Lambert began advertising his services in the Yellow Pages.
There was a problem, though - much as Lambert wanted the extra income, it was becoming impossible for him to travel all over Sydney to do the work, especially after spending a whole day in the office. Realising this, he hit upon the foundation of his future success: instead of trying to service each potential client himself, he would gradually build up a network of accountants, advertise their services through the one Yellow Pages ad, and the accountants would pay him a fee, which he says was "roughly half the cost of running the ad."
"Pretty soon," he says, "I had a bunch of accountants, they'd each pay me half the cost of the ad, and I was making ten times the value of that ad. So I'd just pay for that ad once a year, they'd keep the revenue of their business, and soon enough I was making more each year than I was getting paid at the bank."
The business which would become Count started off solely as a tax network, but when the "investment scene" came along, Lambert decided to broaden its service offering. "I had the view that professional accountants should be giving investment advice rather than salespeople," he says. "Back then it was life agents, friendly society people, unlisted property trusts ... The market as it was then has more or less disappeared, but it was pretty rugged and unprofessional."
The full article appears in the latest edition of FS Private Wealth - The Journal of Family Office Investment. You can access the article here.