CLSA CLSA Capital Partners

Memories of a stockbroking trailblazer who saw the big picture
Thursday, November 2, 2006

My homecoming to Hong Kong after 10 days leave abroad was not a happy one. I returned late on Tuesday to read that an old friend had passed away.

Let me tell you of my memories of Gary Coull, the co-founder and chairman of CLSA, from the time that we worked together more than 30 years ago on The Ubyssey, the University of British Columbia's student newspaper.

The Ubyssey was no small effort. It was published three times a week and it ran to at least 16 pages an issue.

It did for Gary what it did for me, captured us when we had only intended to dally with it, made us its willing slaves, taught us clear thinking and writing and gave us a background in political and social affairs as no university courses could ever do.

Friends made on The Ubyssey are friends for life.

Gary decided one slow day to brighten things up a little. On the front page he ran a photograph of the clock tower at the centre of campus with a caption that said that this landmark building was reportedly located on campus but we on The Ubyssey were much too busy to identify it.

The first reader to come up to our newsroom and tell us where it was located would get a free bottle of Scotch.

No sooner had that issue been distributed on campus than people came through the door - "Look out of that window there. Just look. Where's my bottle of Scotch?"

Gary would then rush to the window, peer out and, in fake astonishment, say, "You're right! You're right! But too late. We've already given that bottle away." It was the sort of prank that people on The Ubyssey enjoyed playing.

The year that Gary became editor, I made the mistake of being elected president of the students' council (silliest thing I ever did). Gary then got up a cartoon of the student union building with a windmill on top - "Jake's master plan for a van der Campus".

It was Gary who convinced me to leave Vancouver and come to Hong Kong. I spent my first few nights here at his flat and he helped get me a job on this newspaper.

We both went on to other things within a few years, I to a job in stockbroking, he to several innovative business ventures that perhaps led the times by too wide a margin and did not always satisfy him.

And then one day, a stockbroking firm for which I was working along with Gary's best friend in Hong Kong, Jim Walker, suddenly disintegrated when the owners refused a profit share to the people who generated the business. Jim went off to set up what later became CLSA and invited Gary to join him.

I don't think a job and a hire for that job were ever a better match. For Gary it was like strapping a rocket on his back. His career soared from the moment he stepped into that dealing room.

I think I did reasonably well in my own broking career but it was a business I had to learn. Gary was a natural. He could sniff a share price, say "No, but for one cent a share less we can do it" and be absolutely right.

He had a good deal more than this going for him, however. For one thing he brought a vigour to his job that raised the game for all stockbrokers in Hong Kong in those easier days of the 1980s.

The big annual investor conferences for which CLSA has become known are an example.

Many other stockbrokers wanted to do it but were reluctant to tackle the central risk - Do we first get the investors to come by promising that the companies will come or do we first get the companies by promising that the investors will come?

I asked Gary about it once and he said that you just had to stick your neck out and take one or the other, the investors first in CLSA's case I think it was, and then work yourself to a shrivel to make it come together. It did for CLSA and the success of those conferences was Gary's achievement.

He also saw where journalism and stockbroking were similar - look for a good newsworthy story on a company, research it well and then tell it well. Clients thronged to CLSA when he taught his brokers how to do it properly. He raised the standards of the entire industry that way.

And then there was always Gary's human side. A friend of mine who was working for him in a relatively senior position was having personal troubles that affected his job.

He knew he wasn't doing as well as he could and he was a little fearful when Gary called him into his office one day. But the conversation took an easy track rather than shape-up-or-ship-out tenor my friend had feared.

After this had gone on for some time, he could no longer resist asking the obvious question - "Why have you called me here?"

"Well," said Gary. "It seems to me that you've been a little unhappy recently and I thought I'd just call you in and cheer you up."

An old Ubyssey colleague of ours, Berton Woodward, who spent many years in Hong Kong as one of the driving forces of the now lamentably defunct Asiaweek magazine, put it best in an exchange of e-mails yesterday morning - "I was hit very hard by this, too. I can't even tell you fully why, although of course he's an old friend. I think maybe Enid had it right - just such a good, good man."

Gary, my life is the fuller for having known you. Rest in peace, old friend.
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