Chat with Steve Beland from Unity Fund Services
Dan: Hi Steve, thanks for having a chat with me. Can you tell us a bit about Unity Funds, about yourself and your role in the business?
Steve: Unity Funds Services is an Australian based fund administration business. We provide accounting, tax compliance, and registry services to investment managers. We look after in excess of $12 billion covering all asset classes and investment strategies – including infrastructure, private equity, real estate, private debt, fixed income and listed equities and bonds.
We commenced in 2010, after the global financial crisis, establishing ourselves in the distressed asset space and shortly thereafter in the emerging managers market. Due to our track record, and success in delivering our solutions, we’ve been able to support large well-established managers. Our largest client is a trillion-dollar investment manager, with a truly global footprint. We administer $2 billion worth of their real estate for them here in Australia, providing fund accounting and tax compliance services.
Our value add proposition continues to be servicing those investment managers with $50 million to a few billion under management. We’re able to service them very well and support their growth strategies to help them get to the next level by making sure that we look after the typical operational and non-value-added tasks which allow our clients to focus on those that are important to their business being investment selection, distribution and capital raising.
You’ve spent some time at Ernst & Young, Brookfield, then Head of Tax within Unity and now you’re Managing Director. Tell me a bit about that. What were the initial challenges that you saw and how did you fix them?
I’ve been fortunate that the leadership team I’m working with – the founders, the Board, our shareholders, are open to new ideas, and will support you to execute too. Their willingness to empower providing freedom and control, have meant we can learn from our mistakes which has been very positive.
There are potential cultural issues when you instigate change in an organisation, and some people think the best way to change people is to “change the people”. We don’t necessarily agree with that. If you make guarantees around maintaining the right headcount and create goals focused on improving their roles and developing peoples’ careers, you’re going to get better outcomes overall. Those who chose to stay with us on this journey have grown being promoted and developed along the way. The most important part for us is providing the pathway for developing the skill sets that are required for the changing and evolving workplace whether it be implementing new technology to improve efficiencies or navigating our way through the COVID environment.
It’s been over 2.5 years since implementing the offshore team in Ho Chi Minh (HCM), growing the team to 15 and we’ve now been able to transfer the growth journey to the offshore team. The HCM team are now part of the daily operation of Unity Fund Services. The key is to ensure Unity’s culture and values are being communicated offshore so there is consistency on how we move forward and deliver our services as a unified team.
Consistent communication is the key here, regular video conferencing via Zoom or Teams as a group and in small teams has meant that we can resolve issues quickly as they come up. Unfortunately, the COVID environment has meant face to face contact is reduced, however increased communication is on the rise as we resort to other methods.
What was the rationale behind your decision to offshore with ASW?
We all know office accommodation and labour costs in Sydney are expensive – they increase as you expand with minor opportunities to scale and it didn’t make sense to keep going that way. We investigated operating in different CBDs here in Australia, like Parramatta and Chatswood, but it was ultimately a band-aid approach, and so we looked into offshoring and partnering for long-term growth.
The last two years with ASW we haven’t really hesitated at all, we’ve just kind of gone with it, and just made sure to succeed. I think it’s definitely been successful for us. The challenge for us now is how to keep it going. We’ve been fortunate that we haven’t had any staff losses in that two years which has meant staff retention has helped us be successful.
You’ve started with a team leader and now you’ve got a few team leaders. Tell me a bit how and why you did that. Do you think that’s directly attributed to the swift growth of your team?
Definitely. The first person we hired was Ava. She’s mature, she’d worked elsewhere – including PWC and those type of firms beforehand. In her interview, she clearly communicated what she wanted out of her role – she said to us, “One day I want to be the future CFO.” And we thought, “Brilliant! we know what you want,” And so we’re working towards achieving that next level for her. From there we hired another mature person as well, and then once we were comfortable with the two of them, we were able to have the resourcing available to hire people in one division.
Do you think that the growth trajectory would have been much quicker otherwise?
We believe that structure we’ve put in place was a significant contributor to our growth. Once we got the two mature hires settled in and then brought junior-level staff in, we were able to grow a lot quicker. We hired another three very quickly within about four or five months, and then nine staff by the end of that year – three team leaders and six junior staff. And now we have 15 in our offshore team.
What are the kinds of functions your team is delivering for your business each day?
The team is made up of all fund accountants. They’re using our cloud-based accounting system for processing accounting entries, maintaining books of record for managed funds. They’re producing financial statements and monthly reporting packs. All the financial statements that we produce comply with Australian accounting standards. The team are now experienced with all types of managed fund structures. Training and quality control from the Sydney office has been instrumental in allowing us to achieve the deliverables on a daily basis.
What was your perception prior to going to Ho Chi Minh in a professional capacity and to meet your team there?
We chose HCM because the offshoring capabilities in Vietnam were developing fast. Based on research we carried out, China and India are more mature markets, and it might be harder to get our ideal employees there. Everyone had experiences with China and India, but you couldn’t get as many tales or stories about HCM, so we thought, “Why don’t we take advantage of that and get in and make some head way on our own?”
That was my initial perception. But when I went to HCM, we realised, that they have a very high standard of education, the access to technology is probably on par, and as accessible as ours. There’s a lot of offshore investment coming into Vietnam and in particular HCM.
We think it’s a great time to be in HCM. It’s great talking to people in Vietnam who were born and raised in Sydney and Melbourne but of Vietnamese heritage and they’ve returned to participate in the nation’s growth.
How would you characterise Vietnamese staff by way of their general attitude and work attitude?
They’re always very friendly, accommodating and always in harmony with us – they want to get the work completed without compromising quality. They’re all very career-focused, so if you set career goals for them individually and as a team, they respond to that very well. They are very ambitious too. If they don’t verbally share their ambition with you, it’s because you’re not sharing your company’s strategy and goals for the business with them. Again, it comes down to maintaining communication.
What does that mean for your local staff now that you’ve got your Vietnamese team acting as your engine room and delivering the functional day-to-day requirements?
It’s meant that our Sydney team have had to lift their game. They’ve been challenged, and they’ve had to learn how to manage and communicate as the roles have been redesigned into account managers who now have to focus on how to solve problems. They’re helping manage the team in Vietnam, but they’ve had to improve how they deal with clients. There’s a lot more focus on managing, planning and problem solving.
Process improvement is now one of our main focal points and we are always looking at how we involve technology too.
How did you handle your local Sydney team and your Ho Chi Minh-based team during the pandemic?
Initially, like everyone else there was anxiety. However, we learnt you’ve got to trust your people, and we did that, and now we’re reaping the rewards. We haven’t missed any deliverables and any delays have been minimal. The offshore team similar to the Sydney team are agile and this has been demonstrated.
One of the things I thought was amazing in your remote team was their willingness to help support the Australian team when the pandemic really hit its peak. Do you want to give some insight as to what that looked like?
ASW turned that around pretty quickly. We put out request in to have staff work slightly different hours so as not to burden our IT and our technology here in Sydney. And ASW agreed straight away and turned it around within 48 hours. Our request was accommodated and there was no push back. This provided us with the opportunity to upgrade and implement new cloud-based systems.
And a couple of the other guys are working Sydney hours. I think it’s a three-hour difference at the moment, and they’re consistently delivering. I log on at in very early hours most mornings, and there’s one of the team members logged on as well. He lets us know that he’s there and he’s looking for work to do, or if he’s got a couple of questions. They’ve worked out what hours are best to contact us, rather than waiting for us to contact them.
How do you guys manage that time difference?
Initially, we would give them a list of requirements, a list of tasks to do. And we would expect those tasks to be completed for us the next morning when we got in. And that worked for a couple of months, but then we also have to handle urgent client requests and extended projects. But our offshore staff said, “Well, we’re happy to come in earlier because the traffic in HCM is so bad. We’re happy to come in an hour or two hours earlier, and then go home earlier.” So, some of the team members are taking advantage of flexible working arrangements while increasing productivity.
How did you find the recruitment process, given that you had a clear idea of what you want your team to look like?
The recruitment process was great from my perspective. I really enjoy that ASW screens all CVs, then the first interview is conducted by two of the offshore team members before the candidate even gets referred here for review. It’s a worthwhile feature of the recruitment process that before we interview the candidate, you’ve got our team’s buy-in in HCM. This has worked well for us. As a result there have been no performance issues.
Your team obviously loves working with you. You guys spend additional money on team building activities as well. And I know you get across to Vietnam every year or whenever you can. Do you think that holds a lot of weight in terms of integration?
Communication’s paramount. It’s important that the team knows that you’re going to be there physically at least once every six or 12 months. We’ve got an energetic team in Sydney that want to get across as well, which happens at least once every six months, except for this year until the travel bans are lifted.
On top of that, we’re using Slack, Zoom and Teams. We talk to the team on a daily basis, as the more you talk to them, the better results you’re going to get from them, and the better they’re going to blend into your culture and the way you operate.
How important was the facilities of the provider that you went with?
It is important and, I must admit, I didn’t get across there as earlier on as I should have. But it was pretty easy to get my head around what you guys have showed me upfront. You can tell by how quickly they respond to emails, how quickly they log on and access the information we give them. A lot of the interviews we did initially over Zoom, you can see in the background, that it is a professional office. It’s absolutely what you’d expect an office would look like in Sydney.
Cyber security and DRP/BCP are very important to us and ASW have shown us that it’s the same for them too.
Tell me about the partnership with ASW as we’re not considered a traditional outsourcer. What are some of the benefits that you feel can help other businesses?
For us, because we started at the smaller end of the scale, we needed to be flexible and nimble. With ASW we’ve found that if we’ve got anything needed to be done, we’ll put in a request by phone call, text or email, and it’ll be actioned very, very quickly – most of the time, within a couple of hours.
The challenge for us was managing the performance reviews of the staff, because your approach and your way of doing it is consistent with a large, global organization, like an accounting firm or bank. Our existing staff performance program is quite informal. We appreciate that ASW has a good mix of formal HR-type systems in place and that there’s no or minimal bureaucracy.
If you were going to give any recommendations to people trying to grow their business, whether locally or remotely, what tips or suggestions would you give them?
Stop thinking about it and get it done. Stop procrastinating. The cost of failure or thinking you’re going to fail is not as significant as waiting another year to take the leap.