ASW General Manager, Dan Breese sat down with Koda Capital’s Co-Founder, Andrew Rutherford to discuss how Koda built a high performing offshore team and navigating the pandemic.
Andrew, you have a pretty stellar resume — Director of Sales Operations at Telstra, Director of Business Development at Reuters, Executive GM of Wealth Business Operations NAB, COO of Goldman Sachs JBWere, Managing Director of JBWere, and now Co-Founder of Koda. Can you tell us why you started Koda and how it kicked off?
Along with Koda’s other founders, we started Koda in 2013 after we all fell out of love with the big institutions. From a personal perspective, we each wanted to do something different. We also saw a market opportunity to provide high-quality financial advice services to wealthy Australian families and individuals, philanthropies and their other related entities.
What were the preconceived ideas about going down the path of remote staffing?
We had the same concerns that people have about any new staff working away from the office: Can we trust that they’re going to be working? Will our data be kept safe? Are they going to protect the company’s interests? But it was mostly the fear of the unknown – and so you imagine all these horrible scenarios where you’ve got staff working in a sweatshop, with little protection around our data and no quality control over the staff. But when you actually visit the offices, you quickly realise that your concerns were a tad overblown. The office, security, and the technology are all good – they’re all more sophisticated than I had expected and better than a lot of places we see at home. We didn’t go down a path of micromanaging and surveillance, and we didn’t need to. We got to know our staff really well and we trust them. But ASW’s ability to really lock things down and ensure tight security, certainly works for those firms that need that because of regulatory requirements or the work being performed in these offshore offices.
We have a remote team doing accounts payable, accounts receivable, management reporting, payroll, all payment preparation and treasury – and it’s worked stunningly well for over two years now.
Was data security first in your agenda? I imagine, with your clientele, that data security would obviously be the priority.
There are two dimensions to that. Data security is absolutely a priority – we are very sensitive around our client information and our own financial resources. But once we got to know our remote team as individuals, that trust and familiarity completely overcame that initial concern. Data security is still critically important and we continue to have stringent arrangements in place to ensure it is maintained – but those arrangements are the same whether a team member is offshore or onshore. Location is not the issue: the cyber world is already global.
What are some of the things that you guys think you’ve done well in respect of culture to help integrate the teams across Australia, Vietnam and Malaysia?
We were early adopters of Zoom for video conferencing. We’ve been using Zoom now for maybe three years. Initially, we used it to facilitate communication between our Australian offices and make sure everyone felt connected. And so having the teams up in Ho Chi Minh City and Kuala Lumpur come onboard, it really wasn’t a lot different to dealing with someone interstate – the methodology, the management style is exactly the same whether it’s Sydney to Melbourne, or Sydney to Ho Chi Minh.
How are your team leaders establishing the Koda culture over there? Have they had any role to play in that?
We have a weekly video conversation with our teams in Ho Chi Minh City and Kuala Lumpur. There’s no agenda, just a catch-up, the same as you having a bit of office banter or a coffee with one of your local team members. Having that more informal time to talk about family, what’s happening in their cities, and what’s the weather like, is important in building that rapport. And we’ve cemented that by making sure that we bring the teams down every year for our Christmas party and office events. You might think that involves a lot of money, but if you plan far enough ahead, it’s not a lot of money. And the depth of communication that visit each year adds to the camaraderie, culture, and retention rate outweighs the money spent.
Koda has been lucky to pivot well locally amidst the pandemic. What are you guys doing from a culture point of view with a fully dispersed team?
We’re certainly using Zoom a whole lot more now, to try to have a bit of fun and maintain the social connections we have as humans. We had April Fool’s Day, we have quizzes, and we have a whole-company Friday afternoon drink. We encourage people to bring their plus ones with them, so they bring their dog, their pet, their child. We’ve been giving away $50 gift vouchers each week for the person with the best Zoom background, or the best Zoom outfit. So we’ve had Chewbacca from Star Wars, we’ve had Captain James Piccard from Star Trek. We’ve had SpongeBob SquarePants. People are getting into it, and that’s been a lot of fun. We’ve had virtual yoga classes twice a week. We even hired a physiotherapist to do virtual ergonomic assessments. We took a photo or video of our working environment, then we engaged with that physio over Zoom to see how we can improve our home workstations.
We also make sure to touch base with people who might not be coping with their personal situations during the pandemic. So, every few days they get a call from one of the senior executives to ask how they’re doing and if they need help with anything.
How good! That’s wonderful. If you were to establish a team again abroad, how would you establish it this time?
The only thing I would do differently is I would’ve done it two years earlier. And to anyone who’s going through this for the first time, I would say, “Go and hire someone who’s 25% above what you need because they will then build a team around them. And the productivity benefit you get out of the total team as a result of having that strong team leader who’s got the English communication skills, who’s got the problem-solving skills, is way worth the small premium you’d pay for their services.
What is the professional dynamic between your local team and remote team?
So, basically anything with a dollar sign in front of it is done for us in Ho Chi Minh – accounts payable, accounts receivable, payroll, management reporting, all payment preparation. We still have a local firm doing the last 5% of the work because of local regulatory and reporting obligations. But 95% of everything is being done in Ho Chi Minh. And they’re also doing some of our client financial reporting. We help administer a whole range of fine assets and do some of the financial reporting. In Kuala Lumpur, they’re doing client admin, filling application forms, and completing client records. We have thought about using the teams offshore to directly engage directly with clients electronically as we continue to expand our offshore use.
It’s interesting you raise that point because prospects often think that they’re giving everything away. The way in which you structured your team meant that you still got ownership of the work.
What’s it meant for your local advisors here by way of productivity and time?
The level of administration support that we’ve needed to invest in onshore is quite a lot smaller as a result of having the teams offshore. And the time zone really works because we start our day and Ho Chi Minh is three or four hours behind, and so we will have work that needs to get completed before the end of the day. We go home at six o’clock, and we come in the next morning and it’s all done and dusted, and ready to go.
Having that time difference has been a huge advantage. We are very focused on the client outcome, and as a result of having the teams in Ho Chi Minh and Kuala Lumpur, a lot of that administration distraction is outside our line of sight, which is fantastic.
What is it about this partnership that you’ve found beneficial for you or that you enjoy?
The good thing about ASW – and the pandemic’s the perfect example for this – is that it’s agile. When we need high-level support, you guys are able to do that. But when we just needed to manage the team ourselves and just have complete transparency within the team, ASW has been able to adapt to that as well. I think it’s a slightly unusual construct to get your heads around, but the reality is ASW manages our teams in Ho Chi Minh and Kuala Lumpur despite the fact that they’re actually working amongst a broader ASW group. It’s very intuitive. ASW has been very, very effective in working out what was needed to make this work at a poignant time, whether it’s completely hands-off or really getting involved.
Tell me about the recruitment. What would your perception be as far as finding really good talent goes?
ASW’s ability to find people to get them onboard is just so much easier that it is in Australia. And the cost of recruitment is so much lower. But the way our recruitment approach ended up was fairly similar to Australian approach. We hire the manager, and then we let that manager hire their team. We’ll do a second interview, but more of a formality than a filter. Again, we have been very lucky in that our first hire is quite exceptional, and her ability to build, maintain and retain a team has been really good. Our team leader did high school in Canada and then did her online degree at Melbourne University. That clearly had some bearing on her excellent communication English skills. But also, when we’re talking about accounting concepts using Australian standards, she knows all about them. Communications is smooth because you are literally speaking the same language.
Do you have any parting advice or recommendations for people who are looking to start their own remote team?
Don’t dilly-dally, just do it. Don’t be held back by your fears because 99% of the time, they’re simply not real. Don’t wait for the next pandemic to take a leap of faith. Just go and do it, and if it doesn’t quite work out the way you want, then pivot and adjust. But don’t stop doing it just because you’re fearful. Our own experience has actually worked incredibly well, and way better than we could’ve possibly hoped before we started.