Future Generation chief executive Louise Walsh isn’t the kind of person who waits for an opportunity to fall at her feet; she creates them herself. Ally Selby writes.
Louise Walsh, chief executive of two impact investment companies, has enjoyed a varied and successful career, with an impressive resume that boasts roles with law firm Allens, the Sydney Olympics, Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Artsupport Australia and Philanthropy Australia.
Despite this illustrious list, Walsh has never responded to a job ad; her resume has relied on the “fire in her belly” and her valuable network.
“Pre-social media it was a very different world and I was fortunate enough to build a very extensive network across business, academia, sport, and the arts,” she says.
“I’ve always thought that you can create opportunities if you’ve got the right network and you do a good job. Life’s a bit of an adventure; you should try different things along the way.”
She’s refreshingly frank and humble for a woman who last year helped donate nearly
$10 million to youth charities.
For Walsh, it’s about finding passion with purpose.
“You hear sports stars say ‘I can’t believe I’m getting paid to do something I’m passionate about,’ and in some ways, I feel the same,” she says.
Future Generation has two listed investment companies, one focused on Australian equities (Future Generation Australia) and the other on global equities (Future Generation Global), both of which donate 1% of their assets to charity.
It currently has just over $1 billion in assets under management, with plans to triple in the next seven years.
“Our plan is to take Future Generation to $3 billion by 2027, which would mean the annual donation to charity would be $30 million,” Walsh says.
“We will end up being the second biggest funder of the nonprofit sector in Australia, other than government and second only to the Paul Ramsay Foundation.”
It’s a far cry from where it all began; a small town girl from Albion Park on the south coast of New South Wales.
But Walsh says she owes her success to her family.
“My father had more hide than anyone I know. I’m very at ease doing presentations and I get that from him. My mother is a very wise woman with a good eye, and I probably inherited a bit of that too,” she says.
“I was very fortunate that I had parents who really believed in investing in their kid’s education.”
Moving to Sydney to study economics and law, Walsh started out as a graduate lawyer at commercial law firm Allens, but she never had a “love of the law”.
What she did have, however, is a love of sport.
She convinced the law firm to send her on secondment to work on Sydney’s bid for the 2000 Olympics, catapulting Walsh into a new role that would change her life forever.
“Working for the Sydney Olympics changed my career,” she says.
“I knew I had to do something else with my life; it wasn’t going to be creative enough for me to go back to law.”
When the Olympics wrapped, Walsh was approached to be the head of fundraising at the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. After four years in the role, she realised professional fundraising for nonprofits wasn’t for her.
That’s when the little black book of contacts comes in handy; “Don’t be afraid to ask for help,” she says.
She went straight to David Gonski, who she worked with briefly at Allens, asking him for advice on how to get back into the corporate sector.
She came out with a job, with the then chair of the Australian Council for the Arts locking her down to lead ArtSupport Australia.
“We coached and mentored arts organisations on how to better raise money and we brokered funding options for philanthropists,” Walsh says.
The next career opportunity also came through Gonski, who Walsh says “with just one phone call” helped her land the chief executive role at Philanthropy Australia, where she worked for nearly three years before deciding that New York was the next step.
But veteran investor Geoff Wilson got in the way.
“My husband and I turned 50 and we decided to have a crack at New York – so I resigned from Philanthropy Australia,” she says.
“Geoff Wilson rang me the day of the announcement and asked me what I was doing next.”
Wilson had the “perfect role” for Walsh, convincing her to work on the IPO for Future Generation’s second investment company, Future Generation Global while she searched for roles in New York.
The day before Walsh was meant to find out if she landed a role in New York, Wilson “threw a spanner in the works” with an offer she couldn’t refuse.
Walsh says she’s come full circle.
“In some ways this is a bit of a dream job. I started my career in the corporate sector as a lawyer at Allens and now I’m back in the corporate sector – but doing good, so I really feel as if I’ve found my true home,” she says.
With just over 15,000 shareholders across the two Future Generation companies and 22 charities receiving hundreds of thousands in donations, Walsh says investors love the model.
“Shareholders love the fact that it is delivering investment returns but also that there is this charitable return going on too,” she says.
Impact investing has drawn widespread acclaim of late as younger investors begin demanding more from business leaders. It’s making headwinds globally, already worth over half a trillion US dollars.
Impact investing seeks to generate positive returns as well as positive environmental and social outcomes.
“To me, it’s about that dual purpose,” Walsh says.
“It’s about delivering investment returns but also delivering a social, charitable or environmental return.”
Future Generation encourages its partnering funds to be ESG aware; however, it doesn’t demand it.
“We don’t mandate it [ESG], but we actively encourage it. In the next 10 to 15 years it’s pretty likely that Future Generation will be 100% ESG; it will evolve into that,” Walsh says.
Key investors in Future Generation are self-managed super funds (50%), ultra-high net worth families (30%) and mum-and-dad investors (20%). There is no minimum investment and brokerage fees are waived too.
Future Generation Australia has outperformed the S&P/ASX All Ordinaries Accumulation Index by 0.7% since its inception in September 2014, however it underperformed in 2019.
Future Generation Global has underperformed when compared to the MSCI ACWorld Index by 10 bps since its inception in September 2015, also underperforming in 2019.
That said, Future Generation Australia increased 20.7% in 2019, while Future Generation Global increased 20.5%. Since inception, the companies’ portfolios have increased 9.5% per annum and 10.2% per annum respectively.
Those are exciting figures, but what comes next for the woman with fire in her belly?
“Life’s a bit of an adventure; it’s a journey. I’ve been very fortunate that it’s been an incredible ride up until now,” Walsh says.
“I would love to keep doing what I’m doing for the foreseeable future and do it as well and build on that.”