Britons Austen Hempstead and Greg Morris began their expat-focused advisory business in Dubai, but hit their stride after expanding into Asia.
Journalist Tom Pattinson – an Austen Morris client when he lived in China between 2005 and 2016 – finds the company has become the best-known expat advisory firm to needy expats in many key Asian outposts that few Homelanders have even heard of, let alone could find on a map…
In 1994, Dubai was booming. The Westerner-friendly Gulf state, which had long been a shipping centre, was shrewdly seeking to position itself as the new centre of financial services in the Middle East. Even as skyscrapers rocketed from its sandy coastline, a wave of expats had begun arriving to get rich in the sun.
It was here that Austen Hempstead and Greg Morris, sensing a business opportunity amid the half-finished office towers and sprouting shopping malls, first got together to launch Austen Morris Associates (AMA), with an eye towards helping these expats to look after their growing personal fortunes.
Not rocket science
James Colclough, AMA’s managing senior partner, wasn’t there at the very beginning, but he’s familiar with the story of the firm’s origins.
“The goal was simple,” he explains. “To provide international clients [in the Gulf] with a complete spectrum of wealth management and financial planning options, and to supply them with independent advice, with an emphasis on continual guidance and support.”
Earning the trust of these clients, most of whom would have found Dubai – as many still do – a surreal place in the beginning, was a priority from the start, Colclough adds. As was ensuring that they earned solid returns on their investments.
As Dubai grew, so did Austen Morris Associates, and before long, Hempstead and Morris were eyeing China, amid talk of the coming “Asian century”, as the Millennium approached.
Certainly by the late 1990s, China was on the radar of many other companies, large and small, many of which were setting up offices there, or in Hong Kong – the former British colony (as of the 1997 “Handover”) which then, as now, was seen as a somewhat less-risky launchpad to the still daunting mainland Chinese market.
Increasingly, though, expats were also finding their way into such cities as Beijing and Shanghai. And as they did so, they brought with them a demand for everything from English-language schools for their children, expat foods and beverages, private healthcare and, of particular interest to Hempstead and Morris, specialist financial advice for expatriates.
On their way, the partners looked only briefly at Hong Kong, with its already-well-established infrastructure of British financial institutions that dated back decades, as a result of its history as a British colony (which, of course, included the likes of HSBC, aka as the Hongkong Shanghai Banking Corporation), and decided to give it a miss, and to head straight to Shanghai instead.
That is, though, after establishing a base office in office in Singapore in 1997 first, to test the market, Colclough says.
By 1999, though, an AMA representative office was on the ground in Shanghai, servicing the firm’s first clients, and by 2003, they had established a “Wholly Foreign Owned Enterprise” there, giving Austen Morris a fully-registered mainland Chinese presence.
“This was a clear sign of our commitment to provide financial consultation services to the expatriate community in China for the long term,” says Colclough.
In 2000, Colclough had been working as a financial adviser in the UK for Friends Provident, when he met a client of AMA, who, he says, recommended the company to him as a great place he might go to build his career overseas.
“I was intrigued that an existing Austen Morris Associates client would so strongly recommend the company to me,” he says.
Thus it was that within two months, Colclough found himself in the middle of Shanghai and working for Austen Morris, as an independent international investment consultant. And he says he’s never looked back.
By 2007, Colclough had become a managing senior partner of AMA, and from that point until now, he’s been responsible for the growth, development and direction of Austen Morris Associates as a whole, including all of its global operations – which is to say these days, its Chinese, Philippines and African offices.
Founder Morris is still involved in the business, out of its Shanghai offices, but after 30 years in the financial services industry, Austen Hempstead announced his retirement in November 2005.
Enter the dragon
Colclough says he’s seen huge changes over the decade-plus he’s been in Shanghai.
“In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the expatriate community here was a very small and very close group,” he recalls.
“At times it felt like everybody knew each other, and if you walked past another expatriate, in the street, [it was such a rare event that] there would always be a nod to acknowledge [that fact].”
Also back then, the expat community in Shanghai was made up mainly of people in senior management roles, or people who had been sent over to set up a branch of their company in the Chinese city, Colclough says.
China was regarded as a hardship posting, and expatriate packages were made highly attractive, in a bid to entice the right people to move over.
That’s all changed now. Today, he says, Shanghai is a vibrant cosmopolitan, international city, and a place that people no longer need lavish expat packages to be enticed to relocate to.
With the dramatic growth of Shanghai’s expatriate community, expats have also become an integral part of the culture of the city, as well as of its labour pool, including everything from start-up entrepreneurs to Fortune 500 CEOs – most if not all of whom need help with their financial affairs. They’re also staying for longer, Colclough reports.
“In the past they would come on assignment for a year or two, and then leave to another posting. Now people tend to stay in China for many years, establishing their life here.”
Colclough, who himself has been in China now since 2000, married in 2006 and has two daughters.
“Having lived here for 17 years, Shanghai is certainly my home, and will be for a long time to come,” he says.
This works on a professional level, he adds, since the company’s approach is also long term, as it has to be now that its expat clients are increasingly staying on.
“We are committed to long-term partnerships with our clients, and…to working with them through all of the various stages of their financial life cycles,” he says.
As followers of Austen Morris will know, the company went through an initial period of rapid expansion in China and Southeast Asia, which at one point saw it with five offices in China, including two in greater Shanghai, and one each in Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines by 2008.
It has trimmed that list a bit recently, to one office in China (Shanghai), one in the Philippines, and two in South Africa.
This, Colclough says, was mainly due to improvements in global communications and physical communications that enabled the company to consolidate some offices, such as the one in Shanghai, into regional offices.
“For example, in the past we had an office in Suzhou, which is a one-hour drive from Shanghai on a good day, [and otherwise is closer to] two hours,” explains Colclough.
“Then a few years ago, China finished the construction of a direct bullet train route between Shanghai and Suzhou, taking the travel time down to just 20 minutes. Immediately the expat community in Suzhou could be serviced by our consultants based in Shanghai, without the need for an additional office.”
Echoing others in the cross-border advisory industry, Colclough says Austen Morris is also turning more and more to the use of video conferencing to stay in touch with far-flung clients, as this means, he says, each one of the firm’s consultants is able to “reach anybody, no matter where they are based in the world”, regardless of traffic, bulletin trains and other physical considerations.
In the summer of 2013, AMA decided to expand into South Africa, with a head office in Johannesburg, followed by another office in Cape Town.
The size of the expatriate population and the quantity (and quality) of competing wealth management companies has always been a major factor in determining where AMA chooses to locate its offices, Colclough says, but he notes that South Africa was also an attractive destination for financial reasons too.
Commodity prices had started to soften, and the decreasing value of the Rand had made global securities look more attractive.
A rise in the quality of the South African companies available to invest in, alongside the liberalisation of currency controls that made it easier for money to be moved out of the country as needed, also made it, he says, a promising environment for potential financial gains.
Also around this time, investment in Africa by Chinese companies in particular was seen to be accelerating.
As for where Austen Morris will go next, Colclough stresses the importance of not attempting to grow too fast, and sticking to an organic growth model.
“Within our regions, we are constantly approached by consultants wanting to join us, and so it would be easy to double or treble [our numbers] in a very short period of time,” he explains.
“However, our philosophy as a company is to only recruit consultants who have proved themselves to be successful, and who have a long-term view for staying with the industry, and with Austen Morris Associates.”
The Austen Morris client ‘Manifesto’
From the day they launched Austen Morris back in 1994, Austen Hempstead and Greg Morris made a priority of treating their customers well, according to AMA managing partner James Colclough, who says this is seen by the company’s management as having been a key factor in its success over the last 20 years.
The company philosophy, which also includes making a priority of promoting good causes, is spelled out on the company’s website, where it’s identified as its “Manifesto”.
But one key feature of this commitment that isn’t immediately visible to outsiders checking out the AMA website, Colclough says, is that Austen Morris makes a policy of allocating three support staff to each of its consultants, which allows the consultants to focus on delivering what he says is the “best-targeted financial planning and wealth management products and services possible” to the firm’s clients, without their having to be distracted by paperwork and other admin issues.
Like most full-service advisory firms, Austen Morris provides consultation on all aspects of personal financial planning and wealth management, covering lump sum investments, regular savings, life insurance, health insurance, trust structures, banking, property and mortgages.
Its consultants are trained up to handle this “full spectrum to their clients, rather than just focusing on one area”, Colclough says, adding that this has given its consultants “the tools to evolve and build in an ever-changing industry” and that this, in turn is “why many of our consultants have been with us for over ten years.”