Rob Morrison leaves CLSA

The CLSA chairman will be replaced by CEO Jonathan Slone, who will also retain his current position.
 Rob Morrison
Rob Morrison

In an announcement that has shocked the market, Rob Morrison, chairman of CLSA Asia-Pacific Markets, an Asia-based independent brokerage and investment group, said yesterday that he will retire on June 30 after nearly 10 years at the company in the roles of chairman, CEO and COO.

Morrison will be replaced by CEO Jonathan Slone, who will also retain his current position to which he was appointed in January 2008. Previously head of broking, Slone manages CLSA's global operations and has been instrumental in the company's expansion into new markets in the US and Australia, and for the launch of new business lines, such as BlocSec and SetClear.

"My view, and admittedly it's a biased view, is that I've had the best job in the industry, so I have no interest in going back into it again," Morrison, 48, said yesterday in a phone interview from New Zealand, where he currently resides.

Morrison joined CLSA in January 2000 and was promoted to chief executive in 2002. Following the death of CLSA founding chairman Gary Coull in October 2006, Morrison was appointed chairman. Under his leadership, CLSA has expanded its client base, geographic locations, product offering, headcount, and investor forum franchise, and strengthened its relationship with majority shareholder Credit Agricole. The firm is profitable in 2009, and Morrison says that April was the best month for the year so far -- a sign, perhaps, that business may be looking even better.

Morrison has already expressed some of his opinions on the state of the financial industry in FinanceAsia's pages. Last October, after a month of bank collapses, government lifelines and rescue takeovers had drastically changed the financial landscape, Morrison pointed out that some of the major banks that did equity capital markets and debt capital markets work in Asia did it for league table credit, which they leveraged to gain clients in the US, where fees on such work have been higher. As he said then: "The great irony is that we've been criticised over the years for following an old-fashioned and irrelevant model, and now we are being told how smart we were, and people are saying we look prescient."

Yesterday, Morrison's views were even more strongly put: "Some of the actions that the investment banks have taken have been disgraceful. They reaped all the profits when things were up, and now that they've gone down, they don't want to take responsibility. I remain of the view that the Fed should have let more of them go under."

"CLSA is not in that camp. We are investor driven. We were never reliant on leverage or proprietary banking. And we most certainly didn't need a government handout," says Morrison. Indeed that latter point is one that the firm has taken great joy in underscoring -- witness its T-shirt at the Hong Kong Rugby Sevens which advertised "Brokers Brew" as being "free of taxpayer's money, conflicted advice and credit...100% original".

While competitors may have been surprised by the announcement, Morrison says that over the past year "I have bit by bit removed myself from the day-to-day running of the business" and focused instead on the bigger picture. So this transition is "seamless".  "I've always thought it's important to refresh ideas, refresh management. And it's best if you can do this when you're in a strong position," he adds.

"Rob's leadership and drive have led to the modernisation of all the parts of CLSA. While it is with regret that we see Rob retire, we can thank him for our enviably stable financial position, robust management team, strong culture and leading market position," Slone said in a press release.

Commenting on his departure, Morrison said in the same release: "Although the investment climate will be difficult for at least the next two years, CLSA is fantastically well placed to benefit from its leading position as Asia's No.1 independent broker. CLSA's business model has always been differentiated from the models run by the global banks, based as it is on independent management, agency broking and independent research. The behaviour of the global investment banks, with their highly leveraged proprietary-based models, in the lead up to and during the financial crisis, has focused further positive attention on CLSA's differentiated model."

So, if Morrison doesn't want to work in the financial industry, what does he want to do? He says he intends to focus more of his time on climate change and environmental conservation, as well as spending more time in his native New Zealand with his family. As a founding member of the Copenhagen Climate Council, a global collaboration between business leaders, scientists and policymakers, he will play an integral role in the World Business Summit on Climate Change to be held in Copenhagen on May 24-26, where he will be chairing a few sessions. He will also head back to Copenhagen in December when world leaders meet to vote on a plan for a post-Kyoto world order.

Indeed, in the past, FinanceAsia has also published some of Morrison's views on Kyoto and climate change. In a December interview he said: "You wouldn't need organisations like Copenhagen Climate Council if everything was going swimmingly, which obviously they're not. The Council tries to bring groups together and eliminate the excuses. One government excuse not to sign up to targets is that costs are too high. But businesses can adapt and governments can spend money -- as indeed they are doing right now in the financial crisis. If governments spent on climate change as they do with firms that should be left to go bust, the situation would be radically different."

Morrison also sits on the Asian Advisory Board of The Nature Conservancy, a leading conservation organisation working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. In addition, he is an advisory professor at Nankai University in Tianjin, China.

After being asked a second time -- really, are you sure you're not going back to work in the finance industry? -- he chuckles and reiterates: "I had a fantastic job in the finance industry. There's simply no other job in the finance industry that appeals."

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