There’s plenty of talk about the need for ‘resilience’ these days, but WA Super CEO Fabian Ross learned that lesson long ago.
Mr Ross acknowledges the opportunity created for him by his family’s decision to move to Australia in the early 1970s, but said it was tough for a young, India-born boy growing up in a house crowded with extended family, and a father initially forced to work in the Pilbara due a lack of recognition of his skills and qualifications.
“You know, dad did it tough, he worked for a long time with two jobs,” Mr Ross told Business News.
“He’d finished his qualifications here in Australia, got a great job as an engineer, but still we didn’t have enough money so he worked in a plastic factory at night, and I guess what that taught me was resilience.
“So it was a pretty difficult environment to grow up in and I think I didn’t fully appreciate that either … but you, you get through it eventually.”
Mr Ross said he attempted university study more than once after leaving school but did not find it to his liking. After trying a sales role, Mr Ross’s father convinced him to sit the exam for the post office and the Commonwealth Bank.
He was offered jobs with both and decided to choose the bank; and thus a stellar career in financial services was started.
“I spent 12 months working at the North Perth branch, and then thought, ‘You know what? I wouldn’t mind going up and having a bit of a look at the country’,” he said.
“And I just did the country circuit for a while.
“I still remember going to Carnarvon, I didn’t know how to iron, wash up, mum did everything for me.
“I got up there and the bank in those days, it was fantastic when you went country, I think it cost you about $4 a fortnight in rent.
“They paid for everything and I met my wife out there actually.”
His cultural experience in regional WA – including Kununurra, Wagin, Esperance and Bridgetown – was very different from his upbringing in Perth’s then outer suburbs, especially in the important role of local bank manager.
“The things that I really fondly look back on – going out to those visits on the farms, you know, talking to the farm owners about what the next few months looked like for them, doing forecasting with them, then sitting down with them for a nice warm lunch, then spending the whole day on a tour of the farm.”
Staying in the country also had career benefits, with a rapid rise that led to him running his own branch, at Wagin, in his late 20s.
However, rural life ended abruptly when the bank decided to rationalise its service and Mr Ross had to shut the Wagin branch. He decided to quit the business but was convinced to move to Fremantle to be a business banker, although he eye started to wander towards a new field – financial advice.
“I thought there was an opportunity for me to start to think about what’s next in my career. So, I started to get my qualifications in financial planning,” Mr Ross said.
“At that point, I switched from business banking at the Commonwealth Bank and crossed to the financial advice business, and picked up a small team and ran with that for a few years.
“They said ‘what’s this banker doing coming into run us qualified financial advisers’,” he said.
“You know, I think you always take the approach when you walk into an environment where you are not as familiar as you actually should be, you take a learning approach to it.“
That was the start of a period when his career shifted increasingly to the east coast.
“We started that from scratch, really, and grew the business from nothing to having quite a substantial national presence,” Mr Ross said.
“I moved to Melbourne for a few years and really enjoyed that time.
“That was probably one of the most fun times I had. I worked really hard, but in terms of the growth environment, I just got so much out of it, it was a really great time. Probably about five years I spent there.
“We grew from zero, to when I left it was about $3-3.5 billion in size, in terms of funds under management and probably a couple hundred staff. It was a significant enterprise.”
A fortuitous call from state superannuation fund manager GESB came just as Mr Ross was considering returning to Perth, as his kids were reaching their mid-teens and the family’s support network was in Western Australia.
GESB was planning to commercialise its business and mutualise, and his experience in growing businesses made Mr Ross an ideal fit.
After four years, however, the state government abandoned its plan to privatise the business. Just as he started thinking what next, Mr Ross was asked to run WA and South Australia for BT-owned Securitor, a financial planning business.
He soon took a national role assisting financial planning business owners develop leadership skills to go with their great technical expertise.
After dodging university as a young man, Mr Ross ended up doing an executive course at Wharton Business School in the US, and then was invited by BT to do a fellowship program, which involved everything from an extended trip in the desert to a global study tour of office innovation.
Again, though, the national role based largely on the eastern seaboard was taxing, both in terms of travel and for family, who remained in Perth during this period.
“Once again, I was lucky enough to get tapped on the shoulder for a CEO role here at WA Super and I jumped at it as soon as I’d spoken to a couple of people about where the board wanted to take it,” Mr Ross said.
As the only public offer fund that has its head office in WA, Mr Ross thinks WA Super has a big opportunity to expand through acquisition – as it is doing with the merger with $500 million fund Concept One – and organic growth.
Initially, his leadership has focused on ensuring the business has the right back end in place; now he’s looking at building the brand, including in the business community, where Mr Ross wants WA Super to be seen as the local financial services authority.
“It’s around really focusing on business leaders in WA, and getting them to understand how superannuation can walk away from being just a product in the market to actually being a big component of the employee value proposition,” he said.
“You know, senior business leaders, we’re all going to be okay in retirement, but our employees are not.
“Only 20 per cent of Australians are on track to make their retirement dreams.
“So we all have a responsibility, it’s not just the super funds, it’s not just financial advisers; senior business leaders all have a responsibility to make sure their employees get the best outcome they can.”