While the popularity of robo-advice platforms grows, one Australian advisor has taken the unique step of making personal what can be a very impersonal process.
Australian start-up robo-advice firm Clover was founded in late 2014. Harry Chemay was at that time a consultant to a profit-for-member superannuation fund and had spent the previous year designing a new-generation retirement income product.
“I wanted to do something similarly innovative, but for a younger audience,” he says. “I was already aware of digitally-enabled advisors in the US who had been operating since the mid-1990s, so knew it was only a matter of time before robo-advice technology would be in Australia.”
Between Harry and two former colleagues from global asset consulting firm Mercer, they had expertise in financial planning, portfolio construction, asset management and technology venture capital funding, which established a solid foundation from which to create an Australian-built robo-advice solution.
This inspired the founding of clover.com.au.
“I’d been a financial planner in a former life, and knew the advice industry all but ignores younger Australians, purely because they don’t have enough investible funds to warrant an adviser taking them on.”
As with most start-ups, it requires a great deal of self-investment to make sure all the cogs in the wheelhouse turn properly. When you’re dealing with other people’s money the stakes are exponentially higher. Which is why Harry ensured that he was Clover’s first client.
“We had the whole team gathered around me in our meeting room as I engaged with Clover in ‘beta mode’, answered the questionnaire and hit ‘proceed’.”
With an audible sigh of relief from those gathered around as the system did exactly what it was designed to do, a customised piece of investment advice was generated for Harry.
It was this successful test and “milestone moment” that garnered the future for the company. Lined up and patiently waiting behind Harry and his fellow co-founders were a selection of friends and family, many in technology themselves, eager to try out Clover, plus several others who had been hoping a robo-advice solution would one day be available to them.
It was these users which formed the “family and friends” beta testers which helped Clover make their automated investment service available to the general public in mid-2017.
“Our clients have been wonderfully loyal to Clover since our inception,” Harry says. “They totally get that we’re working for them, and no-one else.
“We zealously guard our independence from product providers, and we feel it’s our job to protect our clients from the investment ‘dross’ that pervades the industry. In some ways, it isn’t surprising that our Clover community is so tight-knit. Many of our clients are diligently saving for a first home deposit, something we know will take the average Melbourne or Sydney couple at least six years to do.”
Harry and the team from Clover recently received the news that one of their first clients had passed away from cancer. This took Harry and the Clover team by surprise, and spurred them into taking a unique, and altruistic change in their approach to business and profits.
“When you run a robo-advisor you may not directly interact with every single client. Consequentially, we are rarely privy to the health of individual clients unless they choose to inform us of their health status or other non-financial matters. In the case of the client who recently died, we received an email from his brother notifying us. Until that time we had no reason to suspect that he was unwell.”
The fact that the team had no inkling of this client’s illness meant the news came as quite a shock.
“We then received a copy of the death certificate from his estate. Seeing the almost clinical way in which his death—from an aggressive form of cancer at barely 40 years of age—was noted, it certainly did cause me to stop and think about the scourge of cancer.”
It is expected that some 144,000 Australians will be diagnosed with cancer this year, and that near-on 50,000 people will die as a result of it.
Harry, like many Australians, has been personally touched by cancer. In 2012, an aunt of his in Malaysia passed away from an aggressive form of brain cancer. To honour her memory, Harry did a charity bike ride in early 2013 while raising funds for Cure Cancer, a charity which funds Australia’s best and brightest young cancer researchers.
“I chose Cure Cancer because their focus is on cutting-edge research into ways to diagnose and treat a range of cancers. And they do that by funding early-career cancer researchers. These are some of our best and brightest minds, dedicating their lives to tackling one of the hardest problems in medicine.”
In memory of their client, Clover donated all his Clover fees to Cure Cancer, and then matched them dollar-for-dollar.
“One aspect of Clover that we had to respond to in our very earliest days was a strong desire for investment options that take environmental, social and governance considerations into account,” Harry says. “Our clients care deeply about issues that impact on society, not just their hip-pocket.
“If we want to keep calling ourselves an advanced, scientific nation, we need to give young researchers every incentive and assistance to stay in Australia and be able to conduct ground-breaking research here. That takes funding, where charities like Cure Cancer have become an even more important part of the scientific landscape in Australia.”
It’s this course of action which Harry hopes will inspire other, similar corporate initiatives.
“I do what I do because I feel moved to do it. I’m not asking or expecting others to replicate, mirror or match it. It’s got to come from the right place, and for the right reason. I do however think that the business community needs to look at the world through a prism that captures the totality of our impact on society, not just the financial dimension of profit and growth.
“Growth for the sake of growth is, if you allow me an analogy, what tumour cells do, and ultimately this hyper-growth overcomes the entire being within which it resides. That’s just a lose-lose outcome.”
Dealing with the first death in their client base has, in some ways, provided Clover with a sign that their business is maturing. Death is, after all, just a part of life. Clients will pass away from time to time.
“From a personal perspective, it was humbling to go through the process, particularly viewing that death certificate. It’s surreal that the essentials one’s entire life can be distilled into a single A4 sheet of paper.”
Clover is considering several initiatives to give back to the community. The main consideration from their perspective is to remain engaged with their community of clients and supporters, and be aware of, and sensitive to, expectations of what a “humanist” robo-advisor might be.
“Sounds like an oxymoron, I know, but it’s anything but.”