Embracing a growth mindset and visioning the new quo
Luke Sayers, Founder & Executive Chairman, Sayers
Listen to Luke Sayers, Founder & Executive Chairman of Sayers, as he shares the philosophy of Sayers, a fast-growing investment advisory, named LinkedIn Startup of the year 2021.
Luke relates how his consulting career path took him from growing up in a small Victorian country town to becoming the youngest managing director at PWC, president of the Carlton Football Club and founder of Sayers. He explains what he means by the “new quo“ and why he believes in not just doing things better but in doing better things. Luke outlines the importance of visioning to transform an organisation, and even the country, and why his restlessness with the status quo led him to found Sayers.
Welcome to the show, Luke.
Yeah, great to be here. Thanks for having me.
An absolute pleasure. This is actually, I think our third time trying to do this. We've had a few technical issues along the way, so really excited about our conversation today.
Practise makes perfect, mate.
In fact, we got through about 40 minutes last time only to find out it didn't record, so we'll try not to cover too much of the old ground.
All good. All good.
We've a lot to get through. Clearly wanting to cover some of the great things that you're doing at Sayers Capital. We can touch on the Carlton Footy Club if we've got time.
But maybe for the listeners, if we can go back to the beginning, I'm fascinated to know how you went from growing up in country Victoria to running the largest consulting firm at the young age of 42, 43.
It's a long and varied journey, which I won't put all of the listeners to sleep with, but basically grew up in country Victoria. My mother and father were teachers. My dad went on to be a principal of a number of schools ,and then ran the education department, but moved us from country Victoria to Calgary in Canada when they went there to do their PhDs and masters.
So grew up between the age of nine and 13, loving all things Canadian, ice hockey, Calgary Flames, skiing. Being a Canadian kid is actually very similar to being an Australian kid in a lot of ways. They're big on their sports. They're big on their fun experiences, and it's just a great life experience that I reflect on very, very positively, and I think actually shaped me in a lot of ways.
Came back to Melbourne, went through high school, didn't really know what I wanted to do. Ended up at university doing two technical degrees, so an accounting commerce degree and a computer science degree.
At uni, as much as I enjoyed the more technical skills, I was also made the president of the Accounting Computing Society probably because I was probably one of the more personable people in the degrees and that basically gave me a scholarship or an internship into PW at the time.
So coming out of uni, went into PW. Had no idea what the big eight were at the time. Went into a division called IT Audit, and basically just loved it. Loved the people that I was working with. Loved the client challenges that I was working on.
And I was a 22 year old without really having big goals out there professionally. Just went on an amazing journey and a lot of people have asked me, "Well, Luke, how did you plan this and how did you plan that?"
I really didn't plan it. I just always had a perspective that whatever opportunities were there, you'd relish and you'd grab, and you'd try your best. And the worst thing you can do in life, for me, is not try your best. Try your best and see what comes of it.
So amazing journey at PwC.
Was here for about five years, then went off to the US for about five years. Lived in Washington D.C. Worked quite a bit in New York through that period, and actually worked in about 52 countries around the world.
Made partner of the US firm, and then we had our first child in the US.
And the life as a consultant in the US is you leave on a Monday morning, you come back on a Thursday night, and Kate and myself both wanted four children and so that wasn't going to work.
And so basically we moved back to Australia and had an amazing journey back in the Australian partnership and was very, very humbled and fortunate back in 2012 to be voted in to be the CEO of the Australian partnership.
So, amazing journey. Loved every minute of it.
We might come back to that in a moment, but you mentioned earlier that the time while growing up in country Victoria, but also in Canada really shaped you as an individual. I'd actually forgotten that you played hockey with one of my colleagues, Damian Holland for a while, for Australia I think, was it?
Yeah. No, that's right.
What were some of the key aspects or attributes that you think you took out of that time that you've managed to roll into your career?
I think there's probably a lot of leadership attributes you build from playing team sports. I was always a team sport person, and whether that be the relational side of leadership and building the trust and the camaraderie with your teammates, through to the communication and alignment part of team sport, which also flows through, obviously, to business and to life. I think there's a lot of leadership attributes that you pick up.
I was fortunate to captain a number of teams when I was young, which again, refines your craft. But it's definitely shaped me in a lot of ways.
There's actually a great photo of you floating around from back in the day that we might have to post with this podcast.
I'm nervous. I'm nervous.
And moving forward, you did rush over it and glossed over a little bit, but to become or be voted in as the youngest ever managing director of PwC, you must have been doing something right. And think thinking back through that time, is there things that you would give us advice to anyone starting their career, working through a consulting firm or more generally?
Look, when I think back, I probably had some pretty simple philosophy. I was courageous enough to try different roles, and so I call this out because a lot of people in the big firms, they come into the audit business or they come into the consulting business, come into the tax business and they become subject matter experts at a certain thing."I'm the transfer pricing guru," or, "I'm the financial audit for FS clients guru," or, "If I'm the supply chain guru," but they're very, very niche oriented.
I always believe that to be the best advisor and the most relevant to clients, you needed to be broader and deep.
So I put my hand up for different roles. I ran the tax and legal business and all of my mentors said, "Don't do it Luke. The lawyers and the tax people will kill you. You're not from that profession."
And so I went in. I think they were probably worried about me and I was worried about them, but honestly, I learned so much and they learned so much because we were able to bridge that gap even though we had very fundamentally different backgrounds.
So probably the first piece would be try different things. Get outside your comfort zone. Push yourself to learn, and relearn, and relearn, not just get on the tram line and just do it for 25, 30, 35 years.
Second one is, and I think unfortunately in Australia this has really deteriorated over time, the relational elements of client service. The world has become overly transactional. The world has become people wanting to just quickly do a deal, quickly do a project, quickly crunch the chargeable hours, if you will.
And the ability to actually really build trust and understand what the client or the customer needs, even if they may not know what they need, you can't do that unless you're really able to, yes, intellectually, but also empathetically, be able to put yourself in their shoes.
And so I used to spend a lot of time coaching and encouraging people to, yes, build the IQ muscle, but you've got to build the EQ muscle, and you've got to build that trust muscle between yourself and the market more broadly.
So I think the holistic skill sets of an advisor, I encourage and I spend a lot of time trying to be the best that I could be on that.
And probably the third one is just follow your passion and have fun along the way.
I love my time. I love trying different things. I scraped my knees plenty of times and I would put a dot dot dot on this, that.
If you're having a go and you're trying things, and you're really trying to push yourself, you're going to stuff it up and stuff it up is all right and learn from it. But make sure you build that resilience such that you don't lose the confidence or the courage to go again.
And I think there's a lot of professional people that are overs on perfectionism and overs on avoidance, and the rough and tumble of screwing it up and having to go again and reset is something that they don't handle so well. And so I'd really encourage people to build that layer of resilience because shit always happens in life. You can't control everything and you just got to be able to bounce back bigger and better.
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The concept of fail often and fail fast is, as you say, critical in today's business environment. When you took over at PwC, clearly that's going to be a cultural aspect. It would've been at odds with the way that the firm operated. A huge team, I think it was 5,000 plus employees at the time. How did you go about implementing or encouraging people to adopt some of these principles?
It was a really, really difficult first six to 12 months because there are 800 partners, about 8,000 staff, and we had been underperforming.
And as much as the organisation didn't like underperforming, they weren't really change-agile or change-ready. And so I literally spent the first six months laying the seeds and spending a lot of time engaging around vision, values, strategy, and then how we were going to measure success.
And that was from the top all the way through the organisation.
That engagement, that conversation took hours and hours, and hours, and hours, six months basically, full time on vision, value strategy, and then our strategic priorities, and KPIs or measurement.
But it was the best investment I could have ever made. And off the back of that, we had a group of people that provided input into all of those elements, bought into all of those elements for the first time.
However, we did a values jam where the staff actually, created the values for the organisation, not the partners.
It doesn't seem a biggie today, but back in 2012 it was massive because it was a big partner hierarchical organisation. So engagement in that vision, value priorities and then bringing the organisation on the journey as you made tough decisions. And we had to get rid of a number of partners and staff, but also where you're investing for growth and how you're fueling growth and what you're trying to do in the community to make sure that you're really seen as a social brand as well, were all important parts of that change journey.
That's a huge undertaking and I love the fact that it was a real bottom up process. Have the values that the staff came up with stood the test of time?
Yeah. They actually have. So to my knowledge, there's still the values that are there today, and actually it was the catalyst for, in 2016, what became the global values for our organisation globally.
So I think we came up with five or six values here. We got global buy-in and then a global process was run and then we morphed our four or five or six into the global values and very much played a key role in rolling out to 157 countries around the world, a set of values for PwC globally.
Amazing. And of those five or six that you came up with during your tenure, how many of those have you taken into your new venture? And maybe before we go there, do you want to just talk a little bit about what you've set up and what you are hoping to achieve?
So it was an interesting time as I approached the end of my two four-year terms. So the most that you can do as a CEO of the partnership here is two four-year terms.
So I always knew that when I got to the age of 50, I was going to have to make some decisions on kind of what's next. And for anyone that knows me, I'm not the guy to just head to the golf course at 50 and spend the next 30, 40 years, hopefully, knock on wood, playing golf.
So what happened was, as I approached the end part at PwC, I spent a lot of time with Egon Zehnder going through a process for Kate and myself on what was going to be best for us as a family, best for me, best for her, best for the kids. And it became perfectly clear that I loved Melbourne.
My life was in Melbourne. I loved my football club. I loved my friends. The girls were all in great friendship circles at school here, so the idea that I was going to go off overseas and do something globally, not going to happen, so got rid of that.
Then it became, "Okay, do you want to go and run a large listed company?"
To be honest, I'd run a large bureaucracy. I'd run a large organisation where there was tonnes of, for me, non-motivational things that you had to do in your role.
I'm a market and growth guy. I'm not a compliance regulation, class action litigation, all of those sort of guy. And so the thought of going into a big corporate and spending my time on a whole bunch of regulation, and class actions, and litigations, and disputes and so on, just didn't excite me.
So I said basically no to going that path. And then I looked at, I knew straight away I wasn't up for doing multiple boards. That wasn't something that interested me at the age of 50.
And so I started talking to some clients that have been friends and clients over a long period of time and they said, "Luke, this is easy. Just back yourself, and set up your own shingle and get going. And we'll help you along and it's going to be a great next 10 to 15 years and it's something that you should just relish. It's a real privilege to start your own thing."
So probably gave me the confidence to give it a go.
When you're in a big global system and everything is there and you've been successful in that context, it's so fundamentally different to suddenly say, "Okay, well I'm on my kitchen bench and I've got a blank sheet of paper and I'm trying to figure out what the hell I do, and who I do it with and how do I win, and what's the cost and what's the revenue, and so on and so forth.
But they gave me a lot of confidence to go for it. And so we've opened up a business. It's called Sayers Advisory and Investments. It's focused on strategy and deals. It's focused on infrastructure and major projects. It's focused on wealth. It's focused on branded marketing, and it's focused on technology.
And we're not trying to compete with the top end of town, if you will. We're trying to compete in the private to public sphere.
And it's been amazing. We've made some good decisions. We've made some lousy decisions, but we were able to ink out a small profit in year one. And we were also fortunate enough to win the LinkedIn Startup of the Year, number one startup for last year, which was quite an honour, and now we build out the revenue profile and the EBIDA profile.
And I do call out that we've had some amazing customers that have come to us and we've loved working with, and some amazing people that have left cushy environments to have a crack and to see if they can build something from the ground up.
That's a very serious undertaking, and I think it's easy to forget that you started pretty much as COVID hit. So as you're trying to get the business up and running, bring clients on, not being able to have that face to face relationship, which you've already called out is so important, to turn a profit in year one, that's incredible.
We pushed hard in those last two months and it was a whopping $12,000, but we'll take it, and onwards and upwards.
But what it's shown to me is that, one key learning is in a big business you can make mistakes or decisions that are poor decisions and you can really get away with it because of the size and scale of the organisation. When you're in a small, 50-person, 100-person organisation, every decision really matters.
And so we've made a number of decisions which have been terrible decisions. "Okay, what did we do wrong? What do we learn from it? How do we make sure we don't repeat it?"
But on the flip side, also, some great decisions with clients have really led to some amazing, amazing outcomes for our clients, but also for us. So that decision making piece in a small organisation is just so important.
As part of the roll out process, you came up with a new term with Russell Howcroft, new quo, which I absolutely love.
When you were scribbling away on the napkin or the back of the bit of paper, you've mentioned that you are moving into a different part of the market, but what were some of the other big opportunities where you felt you could make a difference?
Well, like any startup, I don't think you guys, and certainly not us, there is no clear end game.
We came up with some ideas at the start. The new quo was basically a byproduct of Russ and myself being frustrated with how complacent and conservative, for the majority, business was in Australia. And we had this overarching philosophy that we wanted to challenge the status quo. We should be really trying to push and prod the status quo, and we want Sayers to be new quo, because we are restless with the status quo.
So we are coming with fresh eyes, totally conflict free, independence, objectivity. "All right, what's the business problem? How do we really push and prod the sides here to try and come up with a better outcome?"
So as much as I said those areas that we went into, we were also very opportunistic. And the Metricon situation happened, largest residential builder here in Australia. There's a whole bunch of forces at play with regard to supply chain, rising costs, fixed price contracts, and that put a lot of pressure on Metricon.
And so Metricon came to us to be the turnaround specialists. And so we've worked with them, the banks, government, their organisation for the last three months to turn them around, and to get them focused on Metricon 2.0.
So did we ever think we were going to be in the turnaround space? No, but they came to us because the family that has a 75% interest in Metricon, they had incredible trust in the relationship and knew that we would absolutely do everything that we could do within our power, and our skill sets, and our experience to be able to turn this around and get it pointed in the right direction, recapitalize it, and get it rocking and rolling.
So we're opportunistic based on our experiences. We're mostly focused on big private, and private moving to public.
As to whether we can say we're going to only do this, this, or this. No, we're figuring this out as we go.
A question I haven't asked any of my guests before, but I'm going to ask you, if you were in the hot seat and running the country, what would you do to move past status quo and create new quo?
Gee whiz. Well, I wouldn't go to Hawaii. That didn't end well for the last guy who did it.
What would I do?
I'll tell you what I'd do. I'd follow actually the same playbook. I don't know what our vision for the country is. I don't.
Now, I'm a 52 year old. I'm probably halfway through life. We should have a vision. I don't know what it is. My children have no idea what it is. There's certainly no plan to achieve a vision or an outcome.
And so I'd start off focused on engaging far and wide on that vision and then what are the priorities and then what are the investments? And I would continue to come back to what we are trying to do here as Team Australia.
We have an awesome brand overseas still, even though we're a country on the other side of the world, have gone through some of the harshest lockdowns through the COVID period. But our brand, for the majority, is amazing. How good could it be? So that's what I'd do.
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And if you are having the conversation with the PM about what your vision of Australia could be, what would it be?
I'd probably say that I'm one for growth. I'm one for immigration to fuel certain industry sectors, and I'd probably play to the strengths that we do have.
And so I think the strengths we have is health. I think the strengths we have is agriculture. I think the strengths we can have is renewables and everything green.
I think the strengths we have, but we could have so much more, is technology and innovation. I think the strengths we have is education. So off the cuff, I call out a number of plays there that I would be standing back and I'd be looking at the things that we absolutely want to be famous for globally, and I'd be channelling resources and investment and so on, and so forth into those areas.
It's fantastic to see the premier here just yesterday or over the weekend, talk about free degrees for nurses and other areas that they've got to get people and skills into.
It's no use building hospitals if you don't have the skills to actually fulfil what needs to happen in a hospital. And so how do you supercharge those areas?
So as I think about your loaded questions there, totally off the cuff, I'd be visioning it. I'd be lining up the priorities. I'll be balancing the books investment versus areas that we'd scale back. And then I'd go like a bat out of hell.
Hopefully the PM one day listens to this podcast because I think there's some great thoughts there.
A couple of the other areas that you are passionate about, impact investing. I see you're a director of Sentient. I'd love to get your thoughts on the impact environment and where you see that going in the future.
So I think impact investment is, probably over the last decade or so, it's been seen as all about having a societal impact but not a commercial return. That's not right. You got to find both.
And so when I talk about impact investment, I talk about it's got to throw off a commercial return and it's got to have a sustainable impact to the environment, or to the country, or to whatever it is.
So probably the first piece is don't think of impact investment as a whole slew of people that just want to change the world. We should be looking at it as both.
And I think Sentient is doing a very good job positioning itself as not just deep impact but looking at how do we also throw off commercial returns that are commensurate with other returns.
I think more and more of the next generation are seriously focused on legacy and seriously focused on a whole heap of thematics that we all should be worried about.
And I think here in Australia, because we are so lucky in so many ways and our education standards are so high in so many ways, our children are very educated and are very pro environment, diversity, underprivileged, and so on and so forth. And so being able to follow that wave, that generational wave that is happening, I think is where you need to be.
By chance, I'm doing a podcast actually next week with Kilara Capital and I noticed that you've just done a fantastic piece with them, which I think is probably available on the website?
Yeah. No, we're absolutely, and Ben Cresenstein, another good Carlton man, but fantastic organisation, very focused on the both, the commercial return and the impact and you'll have a lot of fun on that podcast.
If you can find the document on the Sayers website, well worth the read. Got some fantastic tips and things to think about for founders of startups, but I think of business in general as we work through some pretty challenging times.
And last question for me, Carlton Footy Club. Now, other than recruiting Bryan Cook from Geelong, I don't think a lot of people probably have an appreciation for the business of football.
We understand the game, but maybe just some thoughts on running a football club and what your objective there is as president?
Again, the playbook that I used at PwC, but also what we've talked about here as far as the country goes or at Sayers, it's an organisation and you got to be clear on the vision, the values, the strategy, and then your balance scorecard of what success looks like.
A lot of people would say the only goal in a footy club is to win a premiership. And I get that, but that doesn't need to be an end because football clubs have such a community outreach and a community impact that it is absolutely an end for all big branded platforms like the AFL clubs are to be able to do both.
And so basically, at Carlton I put a new board together. We had four new board members come on board. We got a new CEO. We got a new head coach. We got all new assistant coaches, and we changed about 19 people within the football department.
So a full overhaul of football. All the other parts of the football club with regard to membership, commercials, HR, finance, technology, etc, all of those were pretty much performing well and we kept those in place. And so that's a big change programme.
In my head, some presidents believe that they're hands on running the organisation. I'm a firm believer that, you get an awesome CEO like Cookie, and he's got the experience, he's got the time, he's the paid person to make it work, and I'm there to provide confidence, counselling, sounding board, etc. But it's not a hands on role. You're more on the balcony. Cookie and the others are more on the dance floor.
So we've gone about a massive 12 months changing all of the people. I'm really proud of how it's all come together so quickly.
We had an amazing start to the year. I think we had eight wins and two losses in the first 10 rounds, but then we faded off towards the back end and just missed out on the eight.
And so as much as we're gutted on not playing finals, you step back from that emotional side of real hurt for the players, for the coaches, for the organisation, for all of us, but you feel really good about the building blocks that have been put in place, the people that are in the roles, the talent you've got, building that trust and that relationship and that game plan with one another.
And I'm super excited for what Carlton can do over the next five years. And that's, again, vision, values, strategic priorities, alignment, and then accountability to make sure that we all hold each other accountable and drive towards being the best we can be.
You may have answered the question, but footy unlike business is very binary. You either win or you lose. How does the team now pick itself up off the floor and get focused on what needs to be done next year?
It's funny, it is binary to a lot of fans and a lot of members and a lot of supporters, but it actually it isn't binary also because there are so many things that go into building momentum, and building confidence, and building belief, such that those outcomes in the future can be more favourable.
And so I get it. As a fan, you look at it and go, "Shiz, lost by one point in the last round. Oh shit, lost by three points in the second last round to Melbourne." But you've got to be able to step back from that and see all of the good things and the momentum that will be built for the future.
The team is gutted. They've all go away for four to six weeks to burn with what has happened, but they'll come back and I think that that hurt and that pain, because they so much wanted to play finals, will really motivate them for a great pre-season. And then away we go.
Wonderful. Luke, we're about to run out of time, unfortunately. It's been a great conversation. You're clearly an incredibly busy man. How do you separate work and life, or don't you?
I think work's a big part of life. If you're doing stuff that you don't want to be doing, don't do it. I feel like I'm the luckiest bloke ever. I've got a great wife. I've got four amazing daughters. I'm passionate about the new business. I'm passionate about Carlton Footy Club. I'm passionate about my wife's charity and our foundation, and they all intermingle, and that's life. And so couldn't be happier, couldn't be luckier.
Fantastic place to leave it.
Luke, thanks again. Been an excellent conversation and look forward to watching all of your success in the future.
Thanks for having me.