How equity trustees turned up the trust factor

Trust is a many splendored thing. It is the foundation on which great relationships are built. It is the glue that holds connections together.

Trust is neither something that should be undervalued nor underestimated and can often lead to a greater good. For Equity Trustees, trust is just one value that ensures success for the business and its clients.

Core values are what separate good businesses from great. They can be the difference between a 10-year lifespan and a company that prospers for a century or more.

Equity Trustees was established as an independent Trustee and Executor company in 1888 and in the almost 130 years since has become one of Australia’s largest specialist trustee companies.

Its success is based on a set of core values that it has held dear for all this time and has maintained as the company has evolved into something more modern.

Current Managing Director Michael O’Brien is very cognisant of Equity Trustee’s history, but is also tasked with bringing what has been a fairly conservative company into more contemporary times.

One thing that works in his favour in this regard is the company’s values.

“I’ve never been in an organisation that can make such a difference to people’s lives,” O’Brien says.

O’Brien is determined to continue this trend, however he is also of the understanding that he must help the community and the markets recognise the sort of things Equity Trustees do and what can be achieved with a bit of forethought and planning.

He says the company certainly has all the capability to be able to manage the needs of clients, both corporate and private, but it is also important to expand beyond current clientele without losing sight of the values that brought Equity Trustees to this point in the first place.

Looking at the numbers, it’s not a bad place to be: Equity Trustees has 1,000 clients with services being delivered. Then there’s approximately 55,000 potential clients sitting in the company’s will bank, waiting for estate planning and other services when the need arises. There are also about 40,000 members across the superannuation funds Equity Trustees holds trusteeship over.

In total organisational funds, Equity Trustees has about $70 billion funds under supervision.

“That’s a lot of assets that we’re safekeeping for people,” O’Brien says.

Those assets are in good hands.

O’Brien has had more than 30 years in financial services, 20 spent with AXA Group. He is an actuary by training and qualification and spent his first 15 years in superannuation, spending a lot of time developing AXA’s businesses in Asia. He sat on the board of AXA’s joint venture Aliiance Bernstein in Australia.

He was also CEO of a global funds management firm called Invesco, one of the top 20 global financial firms. He was the CEO there for six years, right through the GFC and steered the company successfully across what could have been very choppy waters.

O’Brien joined to the Board of Equity Trustees in 2014.

“It wasn’t my plan to be here as the managing director of the organisation, but that’s what’s transpired. I’ve been Managing Director since July last year, and it’s really one of the best jobs I’ve ever had in my career.”

Not only was he attracted to the position by the people on the Board who include JA Killen OAM, and former Victoria Premier Jeff Kennett amongst several other highly experienced leaders in their own right, O’Brien was also interested in what the business stood for.

“I liked the diversity of the business and what it stood for in terms of looking out for our clients,” O’Brien says.

This of course is a core value. “The values for Equity Trustees, really, are based on looking after clients. We’re put in a very privileged position to look after people, perhaps when they can’t look after themselves or if they’re no longer here to look after their legacy effectively, and look after their various beneficiaries.

“It is a very privileged position that comes with an enormous amount of responsibility to carry out people’s instructions properly. It requires a high level of trust, and I think it’s rewarding to know that you’re doing a job that really is needed by your clients.”

No matter what the generation, those needs will never change.

However as we alluded to early, when O’Brien joined Equity Trustees, he felt the company needed to become more contemporary.

“It has this rich, incredible history, which I don’t want to lose and won’t lose, but it needs to become more contemporary for today’s clientele and today’s society and the issues that people are dealing with. That goes from everything around some of our management practices, to our client engagement, as well as the way we position the company and brand. That’s what I’m looking to do, and, with that, being able to just move forward into new markets.”

Equity Trustees brand is wrapped up in its values.

“The brand really is one that’s built around trust. I try to extend that out to having real empathy and a caring approach to our clients and be able to look after them in a very transparent way.

“In terms of making the business more contemporary, we need to make sure that it appeals to the broader demographic without being too focused on age. It’s is also a matter of altering the wholly conservative legalistic view of what we do.”

Equity Trustees has entertained some great legal minds on the Board, including a couple of Prime Ministers and a number of Premiers of the State of Victoria, many of them were judges. And while that is a strength, O’Brien wants the company to be recognised not only for its history, but also its caring values.

“It’s subtle change, but it is an important change in the way we view ourselves and the people that we need working here,” he says. One of the primary purposes of the business is to care for its client’s needs, especially in times of difficulty and duress. This is particularly valuable within the estate planning and administration sectors of the business.

Equity Trustees has highly experienced people working in will & estate planning, estate administration, as powers of attorney and in Trusts. These roles require extraordinary empathy.

The people in the business are very experienced and have seen so many different scenarios unfold, that they understand how to deal with people and the process and the timelines they go through including when they’re grieving and when they’re planning, effectively, to transition their estate.

“People will tell us more information about their lives than they are probably telling many members of their family. It’s ethereal in a way. So, again, we’re put in this privileged position to be able to carry out their wishes.”

It’s an important position because as O’Brien says, generally by this point in many people are actually starting to lose quite a lot of interest in their assets, because they’re not going to take them with them. In this case it gives the role of any trustee a great deal of gravitas.

Of course this is just the client side of the business.

Equity Trustees has a very significant corporate trustee business, as well.

Interestingly many of the same principles apply and certainly the same values are adhered to.

“It’s not as emotional for these corporate transactions, but it’s the same thing. We’re being put into a position of trust and governance that is in the centre of a whole range of different types of services. Again, trust is paramount because we have subject-matter experts in very technical, complex areas of funds management who understand the fiduciary nature of the position we’re taking.”

Equity Trustees has an in-house investment team managing equities and bonds, primarily and they take an approach to investments that is a very long-term. It’s fit for purpose for clients, but primarily Equity Trustees deliver income with a good deal of capital stability. That’s the prime investment objective for most of their private and not-for-profit clients.

“There is a lot of volatility in the markets. There’s a lot of uncertainty going forward across a whole range of things, but you will find with our investment approach that we stick to a course.”

Another commonality between private and corporate is that Equity Trustees prides itself on extensive client engagement over a long period of time.

“In many cases, the arrangements that we are agreeing to are long-term arrangements.

When I say “long-term,” these aren’t one, three, five years. These are 15 years, maybe going out 50 years, and in perpetuity in some cases. No one calls us, on the basis that, ‘I’ll have this for three years, and then I’ll do something different’. That’s not really what we do. It’s more a high-touch, deep engagement.”

As Equity Trustees transitions into the future, they are further trying to understand their clients’ needs and look at the breadth and complexity of the things that they need to put in place. It is then a matter of determining whether they can actually deliver.

“That process of investigation and discovery is really important. In some services we offer, there’s a very formalised way we go about things; in others, it’s a little bit more flexible. Then we can put in place solutions that meet our clients’ needs.

“It’s a different process with private clients instead of corporate clients, but, to some extent, it’s designed around the same thing. We need to be very, very clear about what the objectives are for the client and then put a structure and arrangement in place to suit.”

Equity Trustees has just embarked on its first client satisfaction survey. It all comes down to once again fine tuning the values and putting clients first. Not to mention it’s a great way to build further trust.

“Now we know what our clients think of us, and, pleasingly, they think very highly of us. We have a very high satisfaction rate with our clients, but there’s also areas where we can do better. Bear in mind, some of our clients come to us not because they choose to come to us, but someone else chose for them. They had no choice in it. So we’re going to use that survey to inform how we can improve the way we engage.”

As you can see there is a theme here founded on the back of strong client interactions: engagement, empathy and trust and all the values that clients hold dear in what is effectively a very personal relationship.

Equity Trustees is a company that works in many facets to make the lives of its clients, better, easier, less distressing and certainly in the long-term rewarding.

It can only do this, if it has the trust of those it is looking after.



Business First is a peer-to-peer magazine: written by CEOs and other high level executives, with interviews with some of the country’s best leaders.