CLSA CLSA Capital Partners

Times Online
Gary Coull
April 14, 1954 - October 26, 2006
The Times October 30, 2006

Flamboyant Canadian journalist who co-founded CLSA, an innovative brokerage for investors in the Asia-Pacific markets

GARY COULL was a former journalist in Hong Kong whose pushy charm, business acumen and natural nose for a story took him to the top of the financial world. An accomplished schmoozer with a tenacious eye for detail, he predicted the astronomic rise of China and created Asia's most successful brokerage house.

In his headlong lunge to sell the Asia story to the investment community Coull and his company, CLSA, transformed the often dryly mathematical science of equity research into a vibrant and original mixture of news-led themes, social analysis and applied demographics. Investors, he believed firmly, needed more than just spreadsheets and figures to form their opinions.

Coull's extraordinary skill at nurturing contacts and instinct as a showman shaped the company ethic, and CLSA's investor forums across Asia were the glitzy, almost excessive, manifestation of this. Presidents, business leaders and, on one occasion, Coull's own cancer doctor, would speak at the events. It was Coull who persuaded Alan Greenspan to address the Tokyo forum just two days after he had retired as chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. Later that evening the conference guests were greeted by a squadron of hostesses wearing specially commissioned sequined cowboy hats in the CLSA company colours.

Via the often irreverent, sometimes tangential, output of his lovingly nurtured research department, Coull encouraged fund managers to join him in studying the behaviour of everyday consumers and in pursuing the bigger picture. Coull prided himself on making Asia comprehensible to the outsider, and pushed remorselessly for better corporate governance at companies throughout the region. Unlike rival houses, he liberally hired journalists as researchers, hoping that, like him, they would reduce big issues to their essentials and give clients the all-important "angle" to each investment decision.

Coull wanted the research notes - printed in bright yellow and blue graphics - to be a cheeky, highly visible alternative to what he called the "dull mainstream" of traditional stock broking. One focused on the spending habits and ambitions of 20-year-olds across Asia; another looked at how Japanese children think about death. The CLSA notes on bird flu, "One flew over the chicken's nest", were among the only places investors could see the financial impact of the virus assessed in terms they could work with.

Even when he was serving in the supposedly hands-off role of chairman, Coull's influence was clearly detectable in much of CLSA's research. To show, for example, divergent consumer spending habits and the uneven spread of Chinese economic success, one classic Coull-inspired research note consisted largely of photographs of families from throughout the sprawling kingdom. The pictures required each family to stand outside their home surrounded by the entire contents of their house - everything from flat-screen televisions to cheap plastic cookware.

"Stick the story at the front, and leave the numbers at the back," was the order he growled to any analyst who had temporarily forgotten the company ethos of "blue and yellow" brokerage.

Younger researchers working at CLSA could hardly believe that it would be the chairman himself who would berate them for minor errors that he had discovered buried deep within their reports.

Coull's pursuit of the CLSA vision and tendency to micromanage research, though undoubted strengths of his company, attracted considerable criticism. Possessed of a legendary temper, he could be a fearsome boss, and he was an unforgiving stickler for detail. Just weeks before his death from colonic cancer, he upbraided a senior colleague over the cover illustration for a research report on "Chindia" - a trademarked concept devised by Coull himself to describe an economic bloc formed by considering China and India a single developing market of 2.5 billion consumers.

The illustration presented to him consisted of Chinese and Indian leaders staking their claims on a vast Monopoly board. "Rip it up," snapped Coull, "China and India's growth is not a game."

The greatest impact of Coull's work was naturally in Asia, where the cocktail of diverse emerging markets, vast populations and staggering economic potential first inspired him to settle as a journalist.

The middle-class son of a Vancouver auctioneer, he graduated from British Columbia University and travelled widely as a young man, working briefly as a dishwasher in the House of Commons in London, and on a kibbutz in Israel. But it was in Hong Kong that he settled eventually in 1977, using his well-developed charm to cajole his way into a job on the region's largest English-language newspaper, The South China Morning Post. He later moved to the Far Eastern Economic Review - the respected business magazine that gave him access to the boardrooms and corporate suites of Asia he would one day inhabit again as a company chairman.

But by 1983 the infectious entrepreneurial spirit of Hong Kong had fired Coull with ambitions way beyond the limitations of journalism. For four years he tried his hand at a number of precarious enterprises, including a stint as a wholesale mop salesman with a shipment of dud mops, before falling in with another ex-journalist, "Aussie" Jim Walker.

Knowing that broking was an industry where Coull's salesmanship and ingenuity would be well rewarded, Walker lured his friend into that world at the then tiny firm of Winfull Laing and Cruickshank. The minnow was later bought by the giant French financial group Credit Lyonnais, and the kernel of CLSA took shape. Coull and Walker, however, ensured that they personally held a substantial stake in the emerging firm - a stake that would secure what Coull saw as a vital degree of management independence.

In its early days, though, CLSA was by no means assured of success. Dozens of great brokerages had risen and fallen in Asia, and many more would eventually lose their independence in a market saturated with long-established players. But the pair clung determinedly to what they saw as CLSA's "added value": a process of educating global investors in the promise of Asia through the lenses of demographics and consumer behaviour.

The strategy worked. As the 1990s savaged and shook the investment banking scene, CLSA was the house carrying off the awards for its Asian research. "We have outlasted the brands of the 1980s, we are the single surviving name from that era," Coull boasted.

With the success of CLSA came considerable wealth, and Coull knew how to spend it: a lover of casinos, cigars and the races, he lived to see his own horse, Stable Mail, win the Hong Kong Peninsula Cup Trophy in 2005.

While the CLSA brand and the company's 1,000-strong staff survive as Coull's most obvious legacy, a research note he wrote himself in 1989 will perhaps endure as his greatest achievement.

From Wall Street to Hong Kong, there is no dearth of brokers and economists claiming to have foreseen the economic explosion of China decades ago. Coull was among a tiny handful of those with a document to prove it: a detailed prediction of Chinese economic success long before the mainstream political or financial community had envisioned it.

Coull is survived by his wife, Vicky.

Gary Coull, journalist and financier, was born on April 14, 1954. He died from cancer of the colon on October 26, 2006, aged 52.

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