The Dutch pension asset manager's Asia Pacific head of real estate says his team has just had one of its busiest years ever and that 2021 is looking similarly promising.
What has three years in Asia taught you about the Asia region and AustraliaÆs place in it?
My time in Hong Kong and my involvement with 11 different Asian countries has given me a greater cultural understanding of the region and how deals are done in each market. In Asia, our clients are growing more sophisticated and as a firm we are adapting to serve these complex and international themes. I now appreciate the high quality of a lot of Asian corporates and how much substance there is to their businesses. This is something I probably underestimated in the past. I also gained an invaluable insight into the regulatory constraints in each market and how to work within these rules. Internally, my relationships with senior Merrill Lynch management regionally and globally are much stronger. That will help me develop closer ties between the Australian franchise and the rest of the Merrill Lynch global footprint.
When you left Sydney you were co-country manager with Kevin Skelton. Skelton is now focusing solely on client relationships within AustraliaÆs financial institutions sector. Why the organisational restructure?
Up until now the country manager role wasnÆt a CEO role. This new CEO position gives me the mandate to bring all of our businesses together under a common platform. And it gives me the ability to boost resources from a more strategic point of view. Up until now, the firm was product driven with Geoff Brunsdon running our Australian investment banking business, Dan Ritchie running equities, Vicki Binns in research and Tom Alexy running the wealth management side. Kevin wanted to be more focused on dealing face-to-face with clients and we decided that the country manager title had run its course. The change in the organisational structure is really a statement about how important Australia is in our plans and an endorsement by the firm that we can take the business to the next level.
How will you interact with other business heads in the region?
Cross-border opportunities in and out of Australia are going to increase. We want to be a part of that and this new role will facilitate better streamlining of management decision making, resource allocation and overall strategy. I have a direct reporting line into and personal relationships with senior management in the region. I remain on the Asia Pacific region executive committee, meaning I have access to top management on a regular basis. This will benefit the business in Australia.
The Merrill Lynch brand is not as strong as it used to be in Australia, why is this so?
Merrill Lynch has a much broader business in Australia than it is given credit for. The focus globally over the past few years has been on having profitable and sustainable businesses. Here in Australia, we have one of the most profitable retail businesses in absolute dollars and in revenue per head. Generally, though, we recognise the need to increase resources in our Australian business. We want to capitalise on some of the opportunities that exist in the market û opportunities that we havenÆt been positioned to capture in the past. The reality is that most of AustraliaÆs wealthiest people are our clients. We have a lot of strong relationships that we want to build on. Proof of the strength of these relationships is our annual Australian Investment Conference which happens in New York each year. Next week we will be taking 23 companies over to the US to meet with institutional investors. WeÆve been doing this for two decades.
So what is the crux of your strategy?
Merrill Lynch is all about providing solutions for our clients. Our natural market share in Australia is about half of what it should be and we can increase this significantly just by better leveraging the full capabilities of our existing platform across our client base. WeÆve had success doing this in Asia, particularly on the private client side, and this is a model we hope to replicate in Australia.
What products are at the heart of your strategy?
We can see opportunities for structured products, across the credit and equity, asset and liability and wholesale and retail spaces. We can do more in this arena. We want to extend the platform, by targeting both our institutional investor base and our retail clients. Insurers are increasingly asking for structured liability products, while corporates that have large sums of cash, are seeking higher returns from their surpluses. An example of this is on the financing side, where over the past 12 months we have introduced a newly integrated global markets financing and services business, which comprises a range of activities such as prime brokerage, stock loan, equity margin lending and third party clearing.
What about equity capital markets?
We are a top three player in Asia in ECM and in Australia we are advising Telstra on the sale of T3, which puts us in the middle of the biggest equity deal in the pipeline. Looking ahead I see a great opportunity for us to play a part in cross-border transactions between Australia and Asia. We have a good distribution network in Asia and can help Australian companies with placements in the region and beyond. An example of this was last yearÆs $1 billion IPO for Macquarie Korea Infrastructure Fund. We also see a trend in wealthy local investors increasing their exposure to emerging markets û and here we can help with our strong international network.
Does this cross border theme extend to your M&A advisory business?
More so than ever, given the commodity needs of China, India and Indonesia. The burgeoning economies of these three countries are benefiting Australia tremendously given the proximity. Australian companies have a history of buying businesses in Europe and the US, but many are underrepresented in Asia. There are also plenty of Asian corporates in India and China who want to increase their distribution and production in Australia, particularly in the resources sector. We recently hired Neville Gardiner as a Perth-based resources banker, and he will work closely with Shamus Hassan, the head of natural resources banking in the region, to help tap this market.
Do you want to be a top three player in Australia? How do you plan to tackle strong contenders like UBS and Macquarie Bank?
Yes, we do want to be a top bank in Australia, but it isnÆt going to be an overnight story. There are some very strong players in Australia that have dominated the league tables for several years, so it will take us time to match them. For Merrill Lynch, the cornerstones are profitability and sustainability û weÆre not going to buy market share.
What would you term Merrill LynchÆs deal of the year in Australia in 2006?
Clearly 2006 isnÆt over yet! Our advisory role to Telstra in the T3 sale is a standout role for us this year. Other important advisory roles include the successful defence of Wattyl in a hostile takeover bid and advising Queensland Rail on the joint purchase with Babcock and Brown of the assets of Australian Railroad Group from Wesfarmers and Genesee-Wyoming.
Will you be making any changes to your team in Australia?
No. IÆve been blessed with a very experienced team. All our business heads have extensive knowledge of the market and good contacts. The one area that we will boost is FICC (fixed income, currency and commodities) and we will probably be hiring some people in this discipline. The thing that continues to surprise me about the Merrill Lynch franchise in Australia is the strength of our ancillary businesses like margin lending and securities lending. We clear for 22 brokers, which is a fact that many people arenÆt aware of.
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