CLSA CLSA Capital Partners

By Tom Hawthorn

Gary Coull arrived in Hong Kong as an unemployed journalist. In time, he built one of Asia's leading investment houses, creating a fortune for himself and his associates, as well as investors who trusted his insights.

The qualities that made the Mr. Coull a terrific reporter - charm, cheekiness, an incisive mind, an independent streak - served him well as he turned his attention from covering business to doing business.

Possessed of an unlimited curiosity, he believed in the power of storytelling, promising potential investors a clear-eyed evaluation of business opportunities.

The Vancouver-born Mr. Coull was co-founder and executive chairman of Credit Lyonnais Securities Asia, a brokerage, investment banking and private equity group. CLSA earned a reputation for producing reports featuring quirky cartoons and jazzy writing.

While the firm launched with far fewer resources than its rivals, it was the founder's contention that when it came to ideas he was competing at least as an equal. Over time, a small, single-market broker became a regional player.

The firm's inaugural Asia Morning Line was released on Jan. 31, 1987. In anticipation of the 20th anniversary, Mr. Coull recently noted CLSA began with the Hang Seng Index at 2,568. It is now around 19,000.

"No one gave CLSA much of a chance of succeeding in what was then considered a highly competitive market," he wrote. "Looking back on the early days, it is hard to believe that CLSA has grown so far and wide and, modestly, so high. Having outlasted the brands of the '80s, we are now the single surviving name from that era."

Among those rivals to which he bid adieu from Hong Kong were "James Capel, Hoare Govett, Barings, Jardine Fleming, BZW, WI Carr, Smith New Court." His firm survived an era counting among its potential calamities the Asian debt crisis and the Communist takeover of the capitalist bastion of Hong Kong.

Globe columnist Marcus Gee was one of several Canadian reporters to follow Mr. Coull to Asia. He remembers the electric atmosphere in the colony in the 1980s as the outpost of the British Empire rose from backwater to economic powerhouse.

"Everyone wondered: If this could happen in little Hong Kong what if it happened in the rest of China?" Mr. Gee said. "Gary believed it would, bet his career on it and won big."

Gary William John Coull was born in Vancouver, where his father provided a comfortable but not extravagant life from ownership of an auction house. Both Coull children worked at Tyldesley's Auctioneers in eastside Vancouver, daughter Leslie operating a coffee stand, son Gary moving furniture and running bid sheets.

At age 13, Gary became batboy for baseball's Vancouver Mounties at Capilano (now Nat Bailey) Stadium. He held the coveted job for three seasons, wearing uniform No. 1 as he retrieved bats and balls from the field during Pacific Coast League games. The Mounties in those years included such players as Blue Moon Odom and Tony La Russa, who managed the St. Louis Cardinals to a World Series victory this year. The batboy job ended when the team folded after the 1969 season.

After attending Eric Hamber Secondary, he graduated with an English degree from the University of British Columbia.

During his first week on campus, the freshman walked into the untidy offices of the Ubyssey student newspaper (circ. 13,000) to volunteer as a reporter. He was elected editor in 1975, responsible for the publication of three issues each week during the school year.

Mr. Coull helped produce two notable parodies. The engineering students' puerile Red Rag had a reputation for being offensive in intent and pornographic in content. The student reporters produced a Red Rag in which all the stories followed a Maoist political line, pointing out the error of the engineers' ways. The final edition of his year as editor was a joke magazine designed for lawyers, entitled Torts Illustrated.

The unpaid years at the Ubyssey offered a priceless education in interviewing, writing headlines, and producing bright copy on deadline. The Ubyssey's collegiate style - sarcastic and sophomoric, at its best owing more to Mad Magazine than the New York Times - would later find expression in the CLSA's cheeky reports.

Mr. Coull's campus experience also earned him a part-time job as a crime reporter for the Province, the city's morning daily. Vaughn Palmer, a university colleague who worked for the afternoon Vancouver Sun, recalls covering a standoff at the B.C. Penitentiary. He arrived on the scene only to discover his rival had "already talked his way inside the place, persuaded them to let him use their typewriter and was three-quarters of his way done on the story," Mr. Palmer said. "I was still trying to muster up the courage to ask a question." (It must be said Mr. Palmer is no slouch in the reporting department. The political columnist recently received a lifetime achievement award from the Jack Webster Foundation.)

Mr. Coull did not stay with the Province after graduation, instead embarking on a European adventure with his friend Ted Dunfee. They bought a pop-top Volkswagen van in Amsterdam which they drove to Turkey, before ferrying across to Cyprus. They arrived only months after the island had been divided in a bloody campaign, although the two aspiring reporters crossed easily from the one side to the other.

Determined to see war, the pair decided to fly to Beirut, abandoning the van to wire-service reporters in Nicosia. Days later, they were exploring a bombed neighbourhood in downtown Beirut when arrested by a handful of Syrian soldiers.

"The captain, a runt of a man, asked us what we were doing," Mr. Dunfee said. "We said that we were journalists researching our stories. He was clearly skeptical and asked us our ages. When Gary said that he was 22 and I was 23, the captain told us, 'You're kids.' We were both bearded - clearly the ruse did not work. 'You're too young for this. Go back home to America.' "

They returned to their travels, but not before causing an incident in front of the international press. Lebanese prime minister Bashir Gemayel was answering a question in Arabic when Mr. Coull began scribbling furiously in a notebook. He nudged his friend to show his mastery of Arabic script.

"It was just gibberish," Mr. Dunfee said. "I burst out laughing.

"An unamused Gemayel stopped the press conference and, addressing me with his stern, less-than-amused glare, asked me in English, 'What is so funny?' "

Mr. Dunfee was ushered out of the briefing.

The pair crossed the frontier to labour at Kibbutz Yifat in northern Israel, earning $1 per day, plus board.

Mr. Coull tried unsuccessfully to win a newspaper spot on Fleet Street in London, where the notion of a young Canadian with the audacity to work with the cream of the British press corps was more often than not dismissed with laughter. He survived on odd jobs, including a brief stint as a dishwasher at the House of Commons.

His fortunes changed after buying a one-way airfare to Hong Kong. For a young man seeking adventure, the British colony offered a surplus of exciting enterprises. Not the least of these were the delights on offer in Wanchai, a sleazy nighclub district where gamblers occupied smoke-filled rooms serviced by silent waiters in white coats. In Hong Kong, the only limits were on imagination and Mr. Coull had plenty of that.

He was hired as a reporter by the South China Morning Post, an English-language daily where he would meet his future wife, Vicky Wong, as well as Jim Walker, the Australian who would later introduce him to the brokerage business. "From the first day we met," Mr. Coull once wrote of Mr. Walker, "I thought of him as an older brother."

Soon promoted to deputy business editor, Mr. Coull had a front-row seat to Asia's economic boom. He jumped to the Far East Economic Review, lasting three years at the magazine before leaving to set up his own consulting business. He had been infected by Hong Kong's entrepreneurial spirit.

Mr. Coull traded the newsroom for the boardroom because he "had the sense to see that he was smarter than most of the business figures he was writing about," the Review, his old employer, noted in 2001. By then, he was a prominent business figure.

After iffy ventures in property and business publishing, Mr. Coull was lured into broking by Mr. Walker, known as Aussie Jim. Mr. Coull joined him at Winfull Laing and Cruickshank. Credit Lyonnais acquired the small broker later that year, only to decide two years later to pull out of the market.

The two friends flew to Paris where they expected to be dismissed. Instead, the French agreed to their suggestion of buying 35 per cent interest and operating under a management agreement. The result has been profitable for all concerned. Credit Lyonnais has since merged with Credit Agricole, which remains the major shareholder.

Mr. Coull was a hard-driving, sometimes impatient leader who always thought of his company as an underdog. His concept for creating a successful brokerage was basic. "If you got good information before the other people," he said, "presented it in a format that was pleasant to read, and then sold the hell out of it, somewhere in that mix was a business."

In 1994, the CLSA held its first forum for global equity investors. The annual gatherings attract prominent speakers, as well as some of the biggest names in pop music. Alan Greenspan, the former U.S. Federal Reserve chairman, and former U.S. vice-president Al Gore were among speakers at this year's forum in Hong Kong, which was attended by more than 1,200 institutional investors from 30 nations representing US$30 trillion in funds.

Through the forums, Mr. Coull befriended the likes of Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela.

Mr. Coull "had a showman's instinct, without being in the least showy as an individual," wrote the journalist Philip Bowring.

A gregarious character, who bestowed nicknames on friends and revelled in his own joking moniker as The Big Cheese, he embraced the pleasures afforded him for having survived the tightrope walk of Hong Kong finance. A passion for cigars, casinos and horse racing was indulged. He was a day steward of the Hong Kong Jockey Club and owned several thoroughbred racehorses, whose rare triumphs were celebrated with a hearty, "You beauty!" Having arrived at the colony cap in hand, he was later photographed at the track in tails and top hat.

Mr. Coull never lost a reporter's appreciation for the pithy quote.

"If journalism paid better," he said, "I might still be in it."

Asked about the British colony's pending handover to China, Mr. Coull

said: "Hong Kong is too driven, too enterprising, and, frankly, too greedy not to survive and prosper."

During the debt crisis of the late 1990s, Mr. Coull echoed critics who felt the World Bank and International Monetary Fund were ignoring the current mess in favour of a debate over future problems. "These guys are at 100,000 feet, and the crisis is at 3,000 feet," he said.

"The problems here are very structural and very deep," he once told the author Peter C. Newman. "It's not one homogeneous Asian flu, it's 10 or 15 strains. To date, China has been relatively immune to the really deep problems that have turned the situation in South Korea and Thailand into complete disasters."

In 1991, Mr. Coull consulted a trio of feng shui masters to determine the outlook for the upcoming Year of the Monkey. His whimsical initiative resulted in a prediction almost exactly mirroring subsequent developments: a rise when the United States approved most favoured nation status for China, a decline when China threatened not to honour existing contracts.

"I wouldn't advise any of our clients to buy stocks based on the feng shui index," he told the correspondent Ben Tierney. "But if they had, they'd be the best-performing fund managers by a country mile."

Mr. Coull was diagnosed with cancer of the colon seven years ago. He underwent many surgeries, often scheduling the operations so he could recuperate during bank holidays.

Although he had removed himself from the day-to-day operations of the broking business, he retained an intense interest while building a management business for private-equity funds.

Mourners at a memorial service in Vancouver dined on his favourite foods - strawberry milkshakes and Triple-O hamburgers from the White Spot, a chain opened by the man for whom the baseball park in which he once worked as a boy is now named.

A final farewell service was held at the Sha Tin track in Hong Kong on Nov. 15. In the last race on the card, Stable Mail won by nearly three lengths, Mr. Coull's Irish-bred sentimental favourite paying HK$37.50 ($5.52 Canadian). Even after his passing, Mr. Coull was making money for his friends.

Gary Coull was born on April 14, 1954, at Vancouver. He died on Oct. 26 at Farmington, Conn., where he had been undergoing treatment for colon cancer. He was 52. He leaves his wife, Vicky Wong, of Hong Kong; his mother, Kathleen Coull, known as Kay, and, a sister, Leslie Coull, both of Vancouver. He was predeceased by his father William Coull, who died in 1998.

Special to The Globe and Mail
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