Featured Profile: Thomas Bignill
Ahead of the curve
Since launching in 2010, continuous innovation has been the hallmark of Mason Stevens' value proposition. Managing director, adviser services Thomas Bignill tells Karren Vergara how it's played out.

Tom Bignill has a keen interest in the ride-sharing phenomenon.

On one hand, he "drives an Uber" for three passengers on weekends - his energetic, sports-loving children Charlie (12), Oscar (10) and India (8).

We wanted to start Mason Stevens because we saw a huge opportunity in the wealth management and financial advice industry in Australia.
On the other hand, the managing director of adviser services at Mason Stevens and his team recently completed a transaction that would give clients the opportunity to invest in unicorn company Grab - the Uber of South East Asia - at its pre-IPO stage.

"We are an existing shareholder in Grab and were previously able to take a line of stock as one shareholder sold out for our clients," he says.

The significance, Bignill adds, is that US company Lyft listed on the Nasdaq on March 29 and that Uber will potentially announce its IPO soon.

The ride-sharing sector will increasingly gain interest, he says, noting that Mason Stevens has even written a paper about why it's a sector to be reckoned with entitled GODLUC is the New FAANG (GODLUC stands for Grab, Ola, DiDi, Lyft, Uber and Careem).

The continual pursuit of something different is what sets Mason Stevens apart and offering equity market IPOs and debt issuance are just some examples, he says.

The Sydney-based managed accounts solution and investment administration firm turned nine years old on 1 February 2019 and has grown to 68 staff members.

Bignill co-founded Mason Stevens with Chris Alcott, who is the managing director of investment solutions.

They were inspired to name the firm after their mothers' maiden names. Mason is the maiden name of Bignill's mother.

"We wanted to start Mason Stevens because we saw a huge opportunity in the wealth management and financial advice industry in Australia," he says.

After working closely with advisers and gauging what clients wanted from their investments, they could foresee imminent changes were about to take place across the industry.

Clients wanted to buy international shares or fixed income - assets that were traditionally accessed by institutional investors, Bignill says.

At the rate of change and pace technology was going, they knew this niche would become more mainstream and wanted to play a role in it.

In September 2010, when they put all these factors together the firm got its licence and began managing clients' funds. Advisers were also using the platform.

"From day one, our capabilities were multi-currency, multi-asset funds. There were not a lot of businesses in the industry in 2010 that could do that."

In 2012, the firm merged with 2020 Funds Management to comprise one half of Mason Stevens.

The platform, which is the multi-asset and multi-currency side, has about $5 billion of assets. The other arm manages fixed income investments worth about $1 billion.

The most meaningful aspect of Bignill's role is the ability to innovate and bring new ideas and opportunities that others haven't grabbed.

It's not in the firm's nature to be "boring" or do the same thing every day, he says.

Embedded in the firm's culture is encouraging staff to 'think outside the box' and provide solutions for clients others may have not thought of. Technology plays a key part in achieving these.

Mason Stevens went live from the first week of April with new front-end user interface financial advisers and clients can use. A project that began two years ago searched the world for the best technology partners.

"It is going to be a real game changer for clients in terms of how they operate their accounts and what they can do to operate their businesses on this new system."

Mason Steven's ability to gain a firm foothold of the managed account market is something Bignill is proud of.

"There is no doubt that we completely lead the market in terms of innovation, particularly in managed accounts."

He recalls the emergence of managed discretionary portfolios in Australia, originating from very ultra-high-net-worth family offices and institutions that offered IMAs in the US, but were not available to retail or wholesale investors.

That is now changing, he notes, because people want transparency and to see what they own.

"We have been part of witnessing this growth for the last five to six years. The clients on our system that run a managed accounts service are ahead of the curve or are seen as the first adopters."

The Institute of Managed Accounts Professionals estimates the managed accounts industry has $62 billion of FUM.

The local funds management industry however has been "a little bit slow to adapt, adopt and deliver to be honest" and is trying to play catch up, Bignill says.

He predicts the financial planning business model of the future involves managed accounts in some capacity - whether it be a scalable investment solution or discretionary portfolio running for a different client segment.

It's becoming much more mainstream and it is only the tip of the iceberg, Bignill says.

The firm is currently busy migrating clients and on-boarding new clients - this is on top of keeping competitors at bay - which he says is a "huge challenge."

"A lot of it is because the rate of change in technology is allowing them to catch up. What we were able to do three or four years ago that not many of our peers could do, some are able to do it now."

Bignill's first foray in financial services loops back to a four-week work experience with stockbroking firm BZW (it later became ABN AMRO) after high school.

He was placed on rotation across the equity, fixed income and futures desks.

"When people asked me what I did during my work experience I say, 'it gave me such incredible insight at an impressionable age.'"

That experience, together with an interest in business, finance and economics, ignited exactly what he wanted in a career. It led to a role in Bankers Trust's private stockbroking division in 1995.

Bignill moved to Merrill Lynch three years later to help grow its local wealth management business and eventually went to Bell Potter. He was then approached by ex-BT colleagues to work at boutique Next Financial, where he helped expand the business.

When Next was eventually taken over, Bignill had a short executive stint at Wilson HTM before leaving to help establish Mason Stevens in 2010.

It was at Next that Bignill realised the platform financial planners used had a gaping hole in terms of capability and could be improved.

But it was at Merrill Lynch, a world leader in wealth management and stockbroking, he says that opened his eyes to what a platform could be.

"Its global platform gave me the sense that anything is possible."

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