Featured Profile: Glenn Calder
Man of the hour
Glenn Calder shot into the spotlight when Viridian Advisory was revealed as the buyer of a slice of Westpac's advice books earlier this year. He spoke to Kanika Sood about the way forward for advice firms.

Viridian Advisory's acquisition of Westpac's financial advisers in March came as a breath of fresh air to the financial services industry after a continuous stream of bad news.

Here was a company with the conviction that financial advice is a viable business and with the appetite to take on more of what has proven to be risky business for the big banks.

The days of the alpha male financial adviser with shiny white shoes are over.
And the man leading the acquisition was chief executive Glenn Calder, a shy Victorian who came to a career in financial services much later in life.

"We've probably popped up in a lot of press lately, just because we brushed up against Westpac. They are still a lot bigger than us in numbers but we are probably the most differentiated," Calder says.

The numbers are still being finalised but most of the advisers transitioned to Viridian on July 1.

When the dust settles, Calder expects the firm to have added $4.5 billion in funds under advice and 73 advisers.

Not bad for a firm that set up shop just four years ago.

Calder was an adviser at Westpac for nearly 10 years before he and six other principal advisers branched out on their own in 2015 to start Viridian Advisory in a Collins Street office, just a few doors down from the big four bank.

"After 10 years in an institution, it's just time to do your own thing. Because we had such deep relationships with the clients, we struck a commercial agreement to take our businesses out of Westpac at the time. The clients had to all elect to come with us, which they all did," he recalls.

"It was a great exit, I would say."

While at Westpac, Calder specialised in portfolio management for clients. The other six advisers had their own areas of expertise.

About 15 support staff and $700 million of client assets crossed over with the seven advisers, who still retain management roles in the business.

The founding owners chose the name Viridian, which Calder describes as Latin for "bluey green, more green than blue" to stand for something that has "a bit of strength and empathy as well".

The newly-born firm had a revenue stream from the funds it was advising on but still needed to cover initial costs, for which it tapped into its client base.

"We could have gone to a bank and gotten a loan but the covenants may have been more restricting. So we went to our biggest clients and investors [through Viridian Investment Fund] at slightly higher interest and it took us just over a year to pay back the initial loan," he says.

The firm grew to 40 staff in its second year of operation, 70 in its third year and 130 in the fourth year. The Westpac deal has pushed up the numbers to more than 300.

One feature, that continues today, was that its staff had to take equity shares in the company, about a third of which were held in reserve as "sentinel shares" to foster long-term alignment towards the future of the company.

On the way, Viridian acquired six other firms adding a further $1 billion, through scrip for scrip offers.

Calder says it started off with singular people out of bigger institutions seeking to join the firm and then it morphed into other businesses wanting to join the firm as they realised they probably can't do it all themselves.

"They typically manage about $200 million across maybe five advisers and 10 staff all up. But they are usually trying to do everything themselves, whether that is being the responsible manager, adviser, controller, human resources, everything," he says.

"Typically, what has happened is they say I love what you are doing and I wouldn't mind joining you but I want to have my own business, it's like a try before you buy thing."

Then, in 2014 Westpac started to trial external advisers to provide advice back into its network. One of the firms it trialed under non-disclosure agreements was Viridian.

To acquire the books eventually, Viridian had access to several prospective lines of financing, including bank funding, its client-investors, and adviser equity stakes.

Viridian has kept the amount it paid confidential and Calder jokes it will probably be a "rounding error" in Westpac's reporting.

Despite the commitment, financial advice was not Calder's first love.

He grew up in a small farming community two hours south of Melbourne in Leongatha to a farmer father and a school teacher mother.

They still own the farm and Calder often goes back, saying it keeps him humble.

Finishing high school, Calder enrolled in a bachelor degree in education at University of Melbourne.

The next decade of his life was spent as a musician playing classical trumpet in orchestras and bands and teaching music.

When his self-improvement plateaued, Calder, by this time in his early 30s, headed back to university to start a second bachelors, this time studying business and eventually transitioning to a masters.

"I always loved mathematics and the stock market. So even when I was teaching music, I was trading stocks and then I learned about options which was interesting as well," he says.

With the new degrees came 18 months or so at AMP as a financial planner, working part-time before landing at Westpac.

"I was probably not a good fit for AMP," he laughs.

"I got a taste of it [financial planning] but it was probably not where I wanted to be."

Calder still plays music on special occasions. One of them is ANZAC Day, when he plays as a way to remember his grandfather who was in Papua New Guinea during WWII.

The father of three is also a keen reader, among his favourite books he counts Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Despite its recent success and the media attention piled on Viridian, the future is not without its challenges for the company.

"It's going really well. It more than doubled the size of the company so it presents a lot of challenges but I think the people who have joined are culturally aligned with our organisation," he says.

"We have three pillars that we organise the business on: commerciality, controls and culture. So we spent a lot of time speaking to them [incoming advisers] about our culture - what it means to be a shareholder and a part of Viridian and our shareholder duty."

Another challenge for Calder is restoring the gender balance of Viridian staff. The firm was 34% female financial advisers before the acquisition but is now down to 25%.

Setting gender targets are not something he has considered yet but Calder says some of Viridian's advice specialisations are led by women who can be more emotionally intelligent while doing business.

"The days of the alpha male financial adviser with shiny white shoes are over," he says.

"My prediction is that the industry is fractured into a thousand pieces and it is rapidly going to evolve into culturally-aligned groups and we are fortunate enough to be at forefront of that." fs

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