Stephen Au: Stable guidance

2019 BC CFO Award winner was part of the team that kept the firm solvent during the tough times of the global financial crisis

Stephen Au, CFO, COO, chief compliance officer, Genus Capital Management | Rob Kruyt

Genus Capital Management’s CFO, Stephen Au, helped his company weather the global financial crisis while helping to raise money, keep clients whole and put the company on track for fast growth ahead.

Not only is Au the CFO of the 35-employee investment house that manages more than $1 billion in investor money and has more than $1.5 billion under management, but he also carries the titles of chief operating officer and chief compliance officer.

That means that it is no longer just the financial department that reports to him. He also oversees IT and client services staff.

“If you give him a job, he gets it done,” said Genus Capital CEO Wayne Wachell, who co-founded the company in 1989 and has watched Au’s progress at the firm since he was hired in 2001 as a fresh University of British Columbia (UBC) commerce graduate.

“Another strong point is that he is totally unflappable. I consider myself to be pretty calm, and I can deal with adversity, but he gets the job done and is very neutral. He doesn’t get excited.”

Wachell said that Au also has solid interpersonal skills that help him forge good working relationships with the many “strong characters” in the financial world.

Au really earned his stripes, Wachell said, during the 2008-09 global financial crisis, when asset prices were plunging and Genus owned lots of asset-backed commercial paper in its money-market funds.

Those financial instruments were thought to be safe but instead became near worthless, prompting huge losses.

Genus guaranteed to its money-market clients that it would indemnify them against the firm’s losses.

“It was a lot of stress for the firm – to step up and put more money into the business and to stand behind our clients, which we did,” Wachell said. “The team I have, in terms of we went though – to hell and back – it was a real test for the firm, and [Au] was with me through that whole thing.”

Au started at Genus in a role that carried what he says was a bit of a glorified title: assistant controller. Essentially, he was the most junior person at the firm, he said.

His job was to carry out client trades and ensure that transactions in the firm’s mutual fund were all allocated to the right accounts at the client level, and to make sure that the money was also moved correctly between funds at the firm.

By 2006, he was Genus’ controller and he oversaw a four-person team. The role shifted in 2008, making him manager of corporate and client accounting, which he said was more of a change in title than in job responsibilities.

When he took on the role of CFO for the first time, in 2010, he understood the firm’s accounting well enough to initiate a structural change toward having the firm outsource its back-office functions, such as executing the client trades.

That also enabled the firm’s mutual funds that were calculated weekly to be calculated daily. Had the firm not outsourced that work, it would have had to radically increase its staff count, Au said.

“I encouraged the rest of the executive team to consider outsourcing our back office,” he said.

Shifting to mutual funds that were calculated daily helped attract wealth management clients. As time went on, the firm became well known for having a fossil-fuel-free fund that avoids investments in companies with large carbon footprints. It also has funds that include some fossil fuel investments.

Au said that he can also be what he calls “the anti-sales department” at the company.

“I remind people that fossil-free investing is great – it’s probably the most competitive-advantage thing that we’ve developed, but we also manage a lot of assets that are not fossil-free,” he said. “Just from a business risk point of view, we can’t neglect the non-fossil-free assets.”

Some other initiatives that he has championed include recommending and implementing a living-wage policy at the firm so that everyone makes at least $40,000 annually. A few of the firm’s workers were under that level when the policy went into effect.

Another of his initiatives has been to encourage the company to move into a new, and smaller, office as a way for it to minimize its carbon footprint.

The move meant that Genus’ employees worked elbow to elbow instead of having larger cubicles or offices. It also meant that the firm could be in a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Gold-certified space – sending a clear message that the firm stands behind energy conservation.

The newly 40-year-old Au and his wife, Erica Cho, have a six-month-old daughter, Lauren.

Lauren’s birth has prompted a change in lifestyle for Au, who said that years ago his life was largely taken up with work and golf.

Outside his work and family responsibilities, he is on the board of directors at Responsive Capital Management, which is a financial technology company that counts Genus as one of its investors.

He is also a mentor to students at the UBC Sauder School of Business, where he has been teamed with a different student each year for the past few years. •

Business in Vancouver and the Chartered Professional Accountants of British Columbia will honour the province’s top CFOs at the BC CFO Awards gala dinner, being held June 6 at the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel. For more information or to register, go to biv.com/bc-cfo-awards.