Featured Profile: Michael Ohanessian
High tech returns
Praemium managing director Michael Ohanessian went from project management at Mobil Oil to running a biotech company and eventually spearheading the growth at one of Australia's most exciting investment administration groups. Alex Burke writes.

I­­t's fair to say Michael Ohanessian had an unusual trajectory towards becoming managing director at one of Australia's leading investment administration and managed accounts platform companies.

He began his career in project management with Mobil Oil before completing an MBA at Melbourne Business School, which then saw him take on a consulting role with the Boston Consulting Group in the US for about four years.

It wasn't about fixing a growing business here, but rather growing an excellent business.
"It's a chequered history," he says, noting that after returning to Melbourne he decided to enter the biomedical sector. He became chief executive of Vision BioSystems, which specialised in the design, manufacture and marketing of products aimed at diagnosing cancer and other diseases. After that, he spent a year as chief executive of ASX-listed biotechnology company Genetic Technologies, a molecular diagnostics company focusing on women's health.

It was actually through a colleague on the board of Vision BioSystems that Ohanessian got his first taste of investment management, taking on a portfolio management role at Melbourne investment bank and corporate adviser Lion Capital.

"I did a bit of investment management for a few years," Ohanessian says, "and while working there we actually took a stake in Praemium."

"At that point," he continues, "the board was going through a review of its strategy. We gave them some advice and out of that, Bruce [Parncutt] became chair and I joined the company. I do think it's useful having been on the buy-side, because you get to appreciate what happens on the sell-side; you have to understand a bit more about value and about institutional investors think."

Despite the "chequered history," Ohanessian believes the variety of operational and strategic roles he took on prior to Praemium put him in good stead to lead the company into its next growth phase.

"The role really appealed to me," he says, "because I generally look for companies that are tech-based to start with. And if a company has something special and unique, then you can be strategic about what you build around that. And for Praemium it was their reconstruction engine, where they can update every investor portfolio every night.

"That's a really cool idea, because if you think about the complexity in the finance industry, being able to bring things up to date can be quite a challenge."

By the time Ohanessian joined Praemium, the company was already expanding into the UK. But he says at this point the offshore business wasn't operational. So he and the team spent two years building UK operational efficiency.

"For that period," he says, "the business effectively flat-lined, but after that the growth has really come back. Most pundits looked at our international business and wrote it off as not being of any value. But if you look at it now, we have strong operating leverage."

The Australian business arguably had the opposite problem: operational excellence, but next-to-no growth.

"It wasn't about fixing a growing business here," he says, "but rather growing an excellent business."

Part of the solution was the acquisition of the BlackRock SMA. BlackRock had decided it wasn't a core business, so when members of the scheme voted overwhelmingly in favour of Praemium becoming responsible entity for the roughly-$600 million business, it was rebranded as the Praemium Customised Portfolio Service. Ohanessian says it has now grown to more than $5 billion in funds under administration.

He adds the business has been demonstrably bolstered by the growth of Australia's managed accounts sector, especially given that he sees Praemium as "the pioneer with the only real SMA, the best reporting and best rebalancing engine, which I think is still true today."

"Our lead on the market is so long now," he continues, "And if you look at how the industry is moving with the shift from wraps to managed accounts, and what's going on post-Royal Commission, I think that trend is definitely going to escalate."

Ohanessian believes the traditional unitised master trust structure will gradually be phased out in Australia. He justifies this pointing to recent adviser surveys, where the proportion of advisers resistant to switching over to managed accounts has dropped from about 50% to 30%.

"It's almost like a surrender," he says.

"A lot of younger advisers are already using this technology, but the whole market is going this way, too. You can see it in all the discussion around it. It's just a much better mousetrap in every way; better tax-effectiveness and a better experience for the end investor."

Of course, while Praemium's growth trajectory has been steady, there was one significant bump in the road when Ohanessian's employment was suddenly terminated in February 2017.

In a statement at the time, Praemium's then-board said that a chief executive with a "different skill-set would better serve the company's leadership needs for the next phase of its growth and development."

Ohanessian challenged the board's decision, requesting a general meeting of shareholders - supported by Paradice Investment Management and Australian Ethical - to discuss replacing board members Andre Carstens, Peter Mahler, Robert Edgley and Greg Camm and any person appointed as a director from 14 March 2017.

He was successful in his bid, removing the above directors and appointing Stuart Robertson, Daniel Lipshut and chair Barry Lewin in their stead.

One of the requisitioning shareholders was Abercrombie Group. Its chief financial officer Michael Smolders told Financial Standard: "We have full confidence that the newly elected independent board will govern in the best interests of all shareholders."

Australian Ethical chief investment officer David Macri praised Ohanessian's "leadership, drive and strategy which has transformed Praemium since he became managing director in 2012. We don't believe his termination was justified and believe he is the right person to lead the organisation going forward."

Looking back on the experience, Ohanessian says it was a "very encouraging example of activism in Australia, which has been reasonably subdued compared to the US. It was an example where the system worked and the board is there on behalf of shareholders."

Going forward, Ohanessian sees an increasing integration of the UK and Australian businesses, noting that "there are a lot of Australians over in the UK with stranded pension pots."

"The whole super pension problem. Imagine all those pension pots of Brits who move to Australia - there's a big opportunity there to make the process work a lot of faster, improve profitability of retirement savings globally," he says.

"We're in a great position to scale that exciting opportunity, because the UK needs managed accounts just as much as Australia. The impact of the tech will be just as powerful. I'm looking forward to it."

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