A star falls in Hong Kong
A tribute to Gary Coull
SCMP October 31, 2006
The cutthroat financial services industry is not the sort of place
where one expects to find exemplary citizens. I mean people who are
humane as well as creative, who maintain intellectual honesty in the
face of the pressures of a demanding marketplace. They are individuals
who evidently enjoy what they are doing and for whom making money is
merely a by-product of enthusiasm, innovation and ability to identify
I have in mind a person who had a showman's instinct, without being
in the least showy as an individual.
The death of Gary Coull, 52, chairman and co-founder of CLSA (Credit
Lyonnais Securities Asia), is a tragedy for his family, friends and
company - and a huge loss for this community. I can think of very few
expatriates who have done as much for Hong Kong's business development
as Gary. His company may bear the name of a French bank, but CLSA was
very much his creation. CLSA - a brokerage, investment banking and
funds-management business - punches far above its weight not merely
in Hong Kong but around the region.
It did that partly because Gary was almost always ahead of the curve,
surviving through perception and good management more than good luck.
It did so, too, because Gary's journalistic instincts - and the journalist's
preference for facts over hype - never left him. He even married a
journalist, his former South China Morning Post colleague Vicky Wong.
Gary hired independent-minded researchers - several from a similar
journalistic background - who told things as they saw them, rather
than as salesmen liked to have them presented or as politicians would
have you believe. His broad and liberal view of the world never deserted
I got to know him in 1980, soon after he joined the Far Eastern Economic
Review from the Post. He quickly made his mark, moving off the sub
editor's desk to write cover features on subjects ranging from tycoon
Li Ka-shing to Hong Kong horse racing - a passion that never left him.
But, good journalist though he was, Gary was not entirely happy working
for other people. He was soon in business with fellow ex-journalist
and long-term colleague Jim Walker.
The timing was propitious. As the ripples of London's 'Big Bang' financial
reforms reached the Hong Kong market, Gary and Jim became the Asian
operation of Alexanders Laing and Cruickshank - an old London firm.
When that was acquired by Credit Lyonnais, the pair continued to be
the leaders of the operation.
It grew and grew, on the basis not so much of its parentage as by
differentiating itself from peers that were increasingly driven by
the relatively easy money to be made in corporate finance. Gary focused
on the interest of investors looking for high-quality information and
independent research. He was always on the look-out for new opportunities,
new regions where Asian entrepreneurial talents were flourishing. The
35-per-cent stake in CLSA held by Gary and Jim helped CLSA sustain
its unique flavour and considerable independence: other houses were
controlled by their overseas parents.
His showman instinct was evident in the CLSA forum, which became the
single most important annual event in Asia for international brokers
and fund managers. He mixed pop stars with high-profile speakers, partying
with hard-headed research presentations. He was the impresario, not
But the good fortune attached to the name CLSA was not to follow its
founders. Jim died of cancer two years ago. Now Gary has gone to an
early grave after a long battle against the same affliction. But his
work and spirit will live on.
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