Cover Story: Susanne Dahn
From the ground up
In the late 1990s, Sue Dahn marched into a mid-tier accounting practice and did the unthinkable; taking a blank canvas and transforming it into a $5 billion wealth management business. Jamie Williamson writes.

In 1991, Pitcher Partners was the first new accounting and advisory practice to be established in Australia in more than 20 years.

Despite the financial turmoil gripping the country at the time, the firm - established by 14 founding partners, including two former KPMG leaders - achieved billings in excess of $14 million in its first year.

Always be curious, always be questioning, and always try to understand the world of money and how everything works in financial matters.
At the same time, Sue Dahn was in the early stages of a career in accounting.

"Financial advice wasn't really a thing when I graduated university so I gravitated toward the next closest thing," she explains.

She was also attracted to the professional, ethical culture of the industry and dedicated close to 15 years of her life to commercial and tax advisory.

"I wanted to be a part of a profession, but I came to hate being an accountant. It was boring and it was mostly backwards-looking. What I wanted was to be looking ahead and to help people and institutions reach their goals," Dahn says.

One day, she says, she had an epiphany; she would get her ticket to become a financial adviser.

"The cowboy industries of insurance and stockbroking never really held any appeal to me at all. What I like about advice, and still like today, is that you can reach a certain degree of expertise but it's imperative you keep learning," she says.

"No two days are the same. You have to keep up with current events, what's going on in the markets, in legislation and in politics. It's endlessly interesting."

It was the late-1990s and all of the big four accounting firms had just closed down their wealth advisory functions as a result of conflicts with the listed companies they audited, Dahn says.

Considering her options, Dahn saw the second-tier Pitcher Partners as the next most logical option. However, the firm also didn't have a wealth management business - it never had.

So, with her newly-attained graduate diploma in applied finance and investments in tow, Dahn knocked on the door of Pitcher Partners in Melbourne and asked whether they'd ever considered having an "independent, radically transparent, client-centric investment and wealth advisory practice".

"No? Well, can I build one for you?" she recalls asking.

At the time, Pitcher Partners had a number of clients requiring estate planning and investment advice that the firm had never been sure of who or where to refer them on to. Doing it all in-house simply made sense, Dahn says.

"So, that's what I did and not long after I became a partner in the firm, so I get to be a business owner as well," she says.

In the 22 years since, Pitcher Partners' wealth management business has provided hundreds of talented individuals with the opportunity to stake their claim in the advice world. As of today, about 60 people work across eight offices in five states.

The business grows more than 10% per year, with all new business coming via referral, Dahn says.

Today, about 70% of Pitcher Partners' client base is comprised of private families and individuals while the balance is institutional; not-for-profits, religious groups, educational institutions and professional associations.

The average family client has between $5 and $10 million in assets. Overall, Pitcher Partners boasts more than $3.5 billion in funds under management and a further $1.5 billion under advice.

Having put in the hard yards for more than two decades, Dahn personally looks after just 20 accounts now.

In determining which clients benefit from Dahn's expertise, she says the thinking is partly strategic.

While many are among the firm's most important clients, it is also in response to generational changes whereby the private family would be better off with a younger adviser, she says.

"Then part of it is simply chemistry and fit; clients that wouldn't tolerate me leaving and that I'm equally fond of," she laughs.

"I've had the good fortune to be able to keep a personal involvement with many clients."

She's also had the good fortune to enjoy some personal recognition over the years. She has featured in the Financial Standard Power50 two years running and, in 2018, was recognised as the top female adviser in Australia by Barron's. In June of this year, Dahn topped the list.

But none of it would have been possible without the clients and the hard work that has gone into gaining their trust, Dahn says.

"It's all about earning the trust of the clients that we've had the privilege of interacting with over the years, and knowing you're going to be part of their and their families' financial planning into the future and honouring that trust," she says.

Needless to say, trust in financial advice and the financial services sector at large has taken quite a hit in recent times. With engagement levels already low, the Royal Commission did little to endear the industry to consumers.

Pitcher Partners has managed to dodge the negativity however, with Dahn saying the exposure of industry misconduct has gifted the business great commercial success in recent years.

"If I were to map it out, I'd probably say we've had two major growth spurts in our business over the years. The first was the Global Financial Crisis where clients' investment portfolios hadn't been properly prepared; we won a lot of clients out of that," she says.

"Equally, we've won a lot of clients throughout the Royal Commission period because our characteristics are such that we've become even more attractive."

The characteristics she refers to are being fully independent, non-aligned and transparent about fees and how they're calculated.

However, Dahn recognises that these characteristics are no longer unique to Pitcher Partners.

"We were unique 20-odd years ago, but I don't think we're as unique anymore. We're still at the top of the pyramid in terms of doing all that - though purely because it's the right thing to do - but there's many competitors now," she says.

Now, where advice practices require a unique value proposition is in how they establish and develop their client relationships, with Dahn saying she often comes across new clients with chronic financial problems because they've never worked with someone they can really trust to act in their best interests.

"A genuine fiduciary; it's been quite rare. I think more and more practices are orienting themselves towards that but not having it is like going through life without a good doctor or teacher - we can't know it all," she says.

Having cultivated her client relationships with this in mind, many of Dahn's clients consider her family. She is executor of a number of clients' wills and the co-trustee of many testamentary trusts. And her expertise is such that she sits on a number of different investment committees and boards, and has done for a number of years.

Dahn is currently a director on the boards of AIA Australia, MTAA Super and Victorian Traditional Owners Funds Limited. She also sits on the investment committees of University of Melbourne's Trinity College and Australian Communities Foundation.

"I think I'll wind back as the years progress but I'm going to be active in financial advice for decades yet. It'll probably just be at a slightly slower, more agreeable pace," she laughs.

"The time will eventually come for me to fully step aside and let others lead the business. I'm gradually moving into the role of the wise elder."

But why has she dedicated so much of her life to helping others secure financial freedom and security? Well, it just comes naturally.

The daughter of migrant parents, as a child Dahn often found herself assisting her mother and father with the basic household administration, translating letters and bills for them; one of her earliest memories of money is sitting at the kitchen table with her father, helping complete an annual tax return.

Her passion for figures was inherited from her mother. Dahn remembers a time when her mother, who was convinced the family was paying too much interest on their mortgage, took her down to the local bank branch to demonstrate they were being overcharged.

Dahn walked into the bank and requested to speak directly to the manager, acting as translator throughout the meeting. She was 10 years old.

While the manager repeatedly assured them there had been no mistake, her mother was able to demonstrate the calculations the bank had done were wrong and the family received a significant refund.

"I suppose that has influenced me because it probably makes me question a lot more than I otherwise might have," Dahn says.

"Always be curious, always be questioning, and always try to understand the world of money and how everything works in financial matters. That was a lesson learned very early on that I'm very grateful for because it's led to this career now - a very happy and successful one."

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