Featured Profile: Kate Farrar
A top act to follow
LGIAsuper hopes to stand out in an increasingly competitive superannuation market. Chief executive Kate Farrar tells Harrison Worley how she leads a super fund treading a lone path.

Kate Farrar is a performer at heart, and it shows.

Within her first days at the $12 billion
LGIAsuper, Farrar - whose undergraduate degree in music was awarded with first class honours - was quite literally handed the moniker 'Karaoke Kate' by the fund's staff.

I think Queensland super funds generally have a different experience of super than the Sydney and Melbourne funds. And consequently, I don't actually think that super, generally speaking, is tribal. But I do think it's geographically specific.
"When I started they actually printed me a cup which says 'Karaoke Kate' on it," Farrar says.

"So yeah, I've certainly demonstrated my love of singing and dancing to them."

Farrar is far from a one-trick pony however.

Her 30 year career across wealth management, energy and consulting owes to a tough decision to shun her passion for music at the completion of her undergraduate studies at the University of Sydney.

Beginning as a clarinetist, Farrar completed her honours in Aboriginal women's music, which she was fascinated with, for combining a love of music with her "real interest in social outcomes."

While Farrar recognises the value of that experience - the chance to follow a passion, be curious and continue "learning how to learn" - she realised it might not be the best option for her long-term career.

"I did get to the end of it and wonder how I was going to make money," she says.

"And that was when I went across into the financial markets."

Upon that realisation, Farrar took a graduate traineeship with the NSW Treasury Corporation, an experience she describes as "life defining".

"I spent a reasonable period of time there as a bond quant," Farrar says.

And while the jump from music to math might seem jarring for some, Farrar says the fundamental processes underpinning the two are relatively similar, making the transition to TCorp easier.

"I do actually agree that there are the same set of processes and structures in music as there are in mathematics," she says.

"Because I have observed that a lot of people who are musical are also relatively numerate, which I think stood me in good stead."

Comfortable with her new direction, Farrar studied a Masters of Econometrics and Finance at full load while working full-time at TCorp. Despite the difficulties, she says the juggling act was entirely worth the effort.

"It totally paid off," Farrar says.

"I completely love econometrics. I'm a bit of a modeling junkie, I love data. It just gave me an academic framework which I could put around all of the stuff that I was learning, and had learnt, on the job at TCorp."

After some more time as a bond quantitative, Farr moved to Queensland - where she has spent most of her life since - to run fixed interest at Suncorp Investment Management.

But bonds are relatively stable, and arguably lacking in excitement.

So in 1999, Farrar made a significant move, to Ergon Energy as chief operating officer, attracted by the industry's infamous volatility.

"I moved across from bond trading because the energy market looked like it was a whole lot more interesting in terms of volatility," Farrar says.

"It can go from $35 to $14,000 per megawatt hour in a five minute period, and it is actually the most volatile market in the world."

Farrar says the transition was "incredibly interesting", given the new role saw her responsible for the entirety of an organisation for the first time.

"Reasonably quickly, I started to manage the whole organisation. Not just the trading area," she recalls.

This introduced Farrar to "all the wonderful elements of organisations that serve customers", including how to build an organisation.

"Particularly one that's going into a more competitive market," she notes.

"How you build the capability in that organisation to deliver exactly what the customers want and really become an excellent experience both for the customer and for the business itself."

Stints at RBS Morgans - where Farrar worked on the firm's back-office wrap platform - global consultancy McKinsey and Queensland-based energy startup QEnergy all followed.

At QEnergy, Farrar is credited with having completely transformed the organisation's fortunes.

"QEnergy was incredible and another formative experience," she says.

Starting with no customer base, Farrar took the firm to 21,000 customers, and grew its revenue to around $140 million by her final year.

She says the experience taught her how to focus on the things that matter when an organisation's capabilities are stretched.

"If you're growing an organisation, you only have the time and the resources to do the most important thing," Farrar says.

"And so it does make you really focused on working out what those important things are, developing a plan to organise that, marshaling the resources and actually delivering on time."

An opportunity to deploy her newfound skills arrived in April 2018, when Farrar joined the super fund serving Queensland local government employees, LGIAsuper.

Farrar says the fund - which recently announced it would buck the trend of consolidation in the sector and standalone - spent her first three months developing a new strategy for the fund.

"We put a cross-functional scrum team together, and we did a very rigorous review of our customers," she reveals.

"And what arose from that was a real understanding that LGIAsuper has a unique connectivity with our local government members."

While the fund's options in terms of
a successor fund are fairly limited in any case, Farrar says the fund and its members have a symbiotic culture with one another, making a merger a less appealing decision.

"At the time we looked at a merger and we said, 'what we should do is really capitalise on our integration with those members and be as good as we are now for those members and get other members like that'," Farrar says.

"We don't have a necessity to merge now. We have good performance. We have good cash flows, we have a great size of funds, which we can invest in the mid-market and harness returns which other, bigger funds can't do.

"And it didn't make sense to us to be not focusing on all of those fabulous attributes and making them as good as they can be right now."

As for how she's found the transition to the notoriously tribal world of superannuation, Farrar says it's hard to tell from way up north.

"I think Queensland super funds generally have a different experience of super than the Sydney and the Melbourne funds. And consequently, I don't actually think that super, generally speaking is tribal. But I do think it's geographically specific," she says.

Funds based in Queensland simply aren't attached to the same senses of identity adopted by funds south of the border and beyond,
Farrar believes.

"If you think about it, Melbourne is very much the industry fund home and Sydney is much more of the retail fund home," she explains.

"Whereas Queensland doesn't have an identity like that," she says.

Consequently, Farrar says, each fund creates its own identity.

"And that allows us really to build something slightly unique, I think, around our members."

Link to something 3NEI58nS