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Featured Profile: Karyn West

Back yourself

Apostle Funds Management managing director Karyn West believes in putting her money where her mouth is. She invests in every product she sells, and she's built a career out of fearlessly backing herself. Elizabeth McArthur writes.

Karyn West describes herself as always having been independent. As soon as she finished high school she moved out of home.

Determined to support herself, she went to university part-time to complete a business degree while working. Her first exposure to the corporate world came during this period, when she got into the undergraduate scholarship program with oil company, Shell.

I always invest in every single thing I recommend to a client.
Working for a huge corporation like Shell at a young age had twin benefits. West gained steady work with paid time off to study and she got to learn a valuable lesson - what she didn't want to do.

Despite appreciating the experience at Shell, West knew it wasn't the industry for her.

"I've always been an independent person. My parents had six children so there was also a bit of an expectation that we would be independent," West says.

That independence would serve her well when she eventually found her way into the world of funds management.

After a brief stint in banking, at the National Mutual Royal Bank on the bond and cash desks, West got the role that would set her on her career path - with Rothschild.

"At the time, there were really only a handful of large funds management businesses. And Rothschild was one of the premium brands. And it was back when all the super funds really just had balanced funds," West says.

"You didn't have what you have today where people were going into very small specialist investments. They usually picked two or three balanced funds, and there was well over 500 super funds in Australia then. It was a fun time to be in the industry and Rothschild was a great learning ground for me."

West started seeing the landscape of superannuation and funds management shift around her while she was at Rothschild.

She left just before it was acquired by Westpac and recalls that at the time, she noticed super funds were increasingly hiring specialist managers for various asset classes.

"It became clear to me that fixed income was a really tough place to be. At the time, the best performing manager on the league tables for Australian fixed income was the benchmark. The index outperformed everybody," West explains.

"I started thinking about where alpha was coming from and looking at offshore fixed income and seeing the opportunity set in credit."

It was at this point that West's fierce independence would come in handy again. She set up the Australian business for Loomis Sayles, the Boston-based investment manager owned by Natixis.

"Working for Loomis Sayles, I was kind of on my own here in Sydney even though they're a big firm in Boston. I had to organise the office space and start from the ground up," West says.

The experience would eventually give her the confidence to go out on her own all together. In 2008, West did a deal with Natixis to acquire the distribution rights for Australia on a seven-year basis.

She grew the assets and could include non-Natixis managers too. Then in 2015, West sold the business back to Natixis, at the time it was Apostle Asset Management, and post-sale West's firm became Apostle Funds Management as it is today.

"Once you've done it once, it's actually pretty easy. And once I did it, I realised I could probably quite easily do it again," West says of setting up shop alone.

"There are always people to help you. I think you do have to be entrepreneurial and ready to take risks, but the rest of it is just hard work. You have to be ready to do the work."

And she does acknowledge the help she had along the way. West says she is often asked for her perspective on being a woman in the traditionally male-dominated funds management industry.

But she doesn't share the complaints that are often voiced by women. She thinks it's actually a supportive industry, one that perhaps unfairly gets a bad rap.

"Shortly after [starting with Loomis Sayles] I had a baby. The company was really good, and we'd already started winning mandates," West says.

"About a month after I had my baby there was a presentation we had to do for a pretty large account. It was in Melbourne and I just couldn't do it. I rang my lovely boss over in Boston and asked him, 'is there any chance you could do this presentation?' He said, 'yes, I'm going to make it work'. He got on a plane, flew to Melbourne, did the presentation, got back on the plane and flew all the way back to Boston. He was on the ground for maybe three hours. We still joke about it."

Since 2015, West has been adding managers to her Apostle offering after starting with just Dundas and Mark Carnegie's firm MHCC.

Traditionally, West has focused on distribution and building products. But now, Apostle is launching its own ethical product - something the firm and West have been part of the production process for.

West says she's also working with Kayne Anderson on credit products for the wholesale and independent financial adviser markets.

"It's a big change for us," West admits.

For West, it is essential for entrepreneurs to adapt with the times. In Australian funds management, that means considering the ongoing consolidation of super funds.

"The number of participants in the institutional space has shrunk significantly with all the mergers that are going on. And, on top of that, a lot of the large super funds are managing assets in-house," West says.

Having focused on institutional investors her whole career, West is now building out product offerings for the wholesale and IFA markets in response to this.

"I see [the consolidation in super] as a continuation of something I've observed over 25 years. It was a bit of a cottage industry at the beginning, and it's been maturing and evolving over the entire period," she explains.

"This is just part of that maturation, obviously it's been impacted by the regulators needing to strengthen regulation - you can't regulate over 500 super funds. It's just an evolution and you can't, as a businessperson, rail against evolution."

West is clear, she plans to move with the times. Her independence allows her an agility other businesses don't have.

"You just have to adapt and move. If you don't adapt, you'll be sitting there in a few years with only a handful of clients to sell to. It applies to any industry, there's always going to be disruption and it's up to you to adapt," she says.

Asked whether West has any advice for others in funds management looking to tread their own path, she is blunt: "Put your money where your mouth is."

"The only advice I have would be to look after the clients, then everything will be OK. You should really make sure the product is appropriate for them, you've done all the due diligence yourself and you should be happy to invest yourself," she says.

"I always invest in every single thing I recommend to a client."