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Featured Profile: Keith Cullen

An entrepreneurial spirit

WT Financial Group managing director Keith Cullen has established multiple companies, overseen nine acquisitions and had his fair share of ASX dealings. Through all of it, he maintains a simple mantra - business is just business. Cassandra Baldini writes.

Australia's vast terrain offers endless exploration to those seeking wanderlust. Carried by an oceanic breeze, travellers can dip in and out of varying climates for months if not years.

When Keith Cullen was six years old his family decided to leave their home in Wagga Wagga and explore the "lucky country".

If I have a criticism of our industry, it's that there has tended to be this delineation between the entrepreneurs and the executives and their compliance and risk management functions. But that is what this business is: it's risk management. So, if you're not involved in that, what are you involved in?
Bundled into a caravan with his siblings, the family lived on campsites and Cullen received an education that was delivered in large yellow envelopes. Cullen recalls his mother using a post office phone booth to speak with the Department of Education which would enquire as to the family's next stop to ensure the envelopes kept arriving. His mother, never too sure herself, would reply 'Wherever the fishing is good, and the sun is shining', he says.

After almost two years on the road, the family settled in Canberra where Cullen would finish his schooling and entered the workforce.

Cullen was hired by the Albert Family's Australian Radio Network as an advertising sales account manager.

"We were a bit like footballers in suits, well-paid young people having a lot of fun," he laughs.

"You're managing clients and relationships and helping them with their marketing, which fits that entrepreneurial spirit. I ended up running the sales team across the two radio stations in Canberra, before setting up a PR consultancy firm."

Established in 1990 alongside Steve Williamson, Media Productions Australia specialised in government departments and industry associations. The duo conceived and produced the 1991 National Energy Management Forum for the Department of Transport and Energy.

Another contribution was helping the lobbyists behind the Road Transport Industry Forum successfully launch what was to become Australia's peak road transport industry association.

After a hectic two years, the open road enticed Cullen once more, he farewelled Canberra and took on a new position.

"I went back into radio with the ASX-listed Wesgo Communications, initially on the [New South Wales] Central Coast," he says.

"I made a name for myself pretty quickly and ended up working at one of their flagship stations, 3MP in Melbourne as the general manager of sales."

Amid the turbulence of the 90s recession, Cullen moved away from media.

"Some people I knew had invested in a tech startup, they asked if I could check it out because they weren't sure if they would see a return; 12 years later I was still doing it," he says.

The small tech start-up morphed into eBet Limited which later changed its name to Intecq Limited.

He became the founding director and shareholder of the gaming and wagering-focused company, saying he realises now he was on the bleeding edge of technology.

"We were the first anywhere to put TAB racing and sports services on the internet with NZ TAB, and the first to sell land-based lottery tickets, which we did for Tattersalls," he recalls.

In 1999, the company went public, giving Cullen his first foray with the ASX.

Needing to pivot due to legislative changes he oversaw four acquisitions of gaming tech competitors; "I got pretty good at it."

After 10 years, Cullen was replaced as chief executive and while he stayed on the board for some time, he ultimately decided to leave. A short stint as chief executive of WPS Financial Group - now Anne Street Partners - followed before he decided to take a break and focus on a variety of passive investments.

His endeavours sent him northwards beyond Newcastle to a pretty patch of regional Australia.

"My brother and I own native Australian Hardwood farm forests and product saw logs on the Mid-North Coast... We went from selling timber at the farm gate on a royalty basis, to contract logging, milling, and freighting finished timber to a variety of buyers," he explains.

It wasn't long until a gap in the market drew Cullen back to a corporate gig, co-founding Spring Financial Group in 2010 with Chris Kelesis.

With insurers, banks and product providers dominating the advice networks, Spring was an alternative, offering consumers a non-institutional approach to holistic advice.

In its first year, Spring turned a profit and in its first few years paid out about $7 million in dividends.

"Necessity is the mother of invention, and we built some fabulous consumer marketing tools, created 100 handbooks and manuals on financial literacy topics for consumers while continuing to motivate client seeking out holistic advice," Cullen says.

Listing on the ASX in 2015, the group grew to nearly 70 staff across its planning, real estate advisory, accounting, and mortgage broking operations. In two years, it paid more than $6.8 million in dividends to shareholders.

And then the industry started to change.

"The Royal Commission hit, and banks ran for the hills," he says.

"We knew the unravelling of the vertically integrated model was coming but I don't think anyone thought banks would shut up shop so quickly."

The significant industry disruption and regulatory challenges continued to confront the group, leading to its restructuring.

While retaining Spring, the decision was made to move towards a more business-focused model. In late 2017, the company acquired Wealth Today and reemerged as WT Financial Group Limited (WTL) in 2018.

The reason for the name change was to alert advisers that the focus was now business to business licensing services and supporting independent practitioners. However, Cullen adds that maintaining the direct consumer businesses was an important way of "keeping it real".

"When you talk to independent financial advisers that run practices, a lot of them will tell you that their dealer group or licensee has either lost touch with what it's like to run a practice or to sit in front of clients, or they never knew it. But that's not us, we know exactly what it's like," he says.

It's acquisitions like these that have been central to its success.

Following Wealth Today, the business went on to acquire Sentry Group in mid-2021 and in March of this year acquired Synchron.

Each provides dealer group or licensee services to advisers while enabling WTL to capitalise on industry disruption. They also add scale.

"It's imperative to genuinely support advisers across a diverse range of needs and, to do it right, you need scale," Cullen explains.

"Once you've got the intellectual property in the business to provide broad support services, whether you've got 50 advisers or 500 advisers, that knowledge is scalable across them."

He says it's not possible to have the necessary IP in a business if you're building from scratch, one practice at a time.

"If you want to attract a lot of practices, and you don't want to run at a loss, then you need to have some serious scale in the business," he says.

Between the three B2B brands, Cullen says there are now around 600 advisers and 400 practices and underscoring them all is a comprehensive risk and compliance architecture.

"If I have a criticism of our industry, it's that there has tended to be this delineation between the entrepreneurs and the executives and their compliance and risk management functions," he says.

"But that is what this business is: it's risk management. So, if you're not involved in that, what are you involved in?"