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 top talents.

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 him.

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 the star.

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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