Business

Christopher Williams: Proven's entrepreneurial CEO

Business Leader: Executive Steward NOMINEE #5

Monday, November 13, 2017



Today the Jamaica Observer publishes the fifth of 12 stories on the nominees for this year's Business Leader Award being held under the theme “Business Leader: Executive Steward”. The nominees are among the top CEOs in Jamaica.

I have an eidetic recollection of the very first time I saw Christopher Williams making a public presentation.

On assignment for the Business Observer newspaper I had quietly slipped into the room where the event was taking place, and quickly made my way to the back where I grabbed a chair and took out my notepad and pen.

The young, brash CEO of NCB Capital Markets was on-stage and in his element. The bank's deft pitchman, he commanded the space around him and had the audience of mainly financial analysts and potential investors fixated on his every inflection.

Power points at hand and armed with an array of superfluous charts and graphs, Williams cut the image of a new-wave financial dealmaker on an urgent mission.

I was dumbstruck by his incredible comfort in front of the mike and the depth of his expertise as he deep-dived into his investment pitch.

The gift in salesmanship so unerringly displayed that morning and which no doubt would have helped to power Williams's ascendancy within the corporate world would face its biggest test yet in the years ahead.

Peter Bunting was no stranger to Williams when he popped up on the radar of the Capital Markets boss sometime in late 2009. Williams had spent a few years as an executive at Dehring, Bunting & Golding (DB&G), the investment bank in which — as the name suggests — Bunting was a principal and co-founder.

As it turned out, Bunting, his partners and shareholders had sold DB&G to Scotiabank Jamaica and he had a major pay day.

“I was trying to get him in as a client,” Williams confesses. “He was an absolute 'bleep, bleep, bleep'… the most difficult prospect.”

That's in part because Bunting, a savvy and experienced entrepreneur with a penchant for judicious risk-taking, had a fundamentally different plan for his money than Williams could possibly offer.

“He wanted a unique opportunity,” concedes Williams.

The real prospect of tapping into Bunting's cash mountain came the day Williams left NCB in January 2010 and immediately began work on a pathfinder prospectus for a private equity outfit he says he had been contemplating.

“I had a dream to create a private equity platform, an entity with a strong team and an equally strong balance sheet that could make decisions as well as execute quickly and effectively,” he explains. “I remember calling Peter to pitch the idea.”

This time their interests were much better aligned and the dogged pitchman found a more receptive pair of ears.

“I had an exceptional presentation ready, fancy models and charts and Johann Heaven was there from inception to help me co-present,” says the ever-confident Williams. “Peter, being the always aggressive entrepreneur, agreed to the idea before I even got the chance to present. He is amazing — I am forever indebted to his entrepreneurial spirit.”

Two other members of the quartet who were early investors in DB&G — Mark Golding and Garry Sinclair — accepted the invitation to be partners in the new venture.

Johann Heaven, whose relationship with Williams dates back to the days of DB&G, became Proven's senior vice-president and chief investment officer.

“We all pooled our various capital and Proven was born,” says Williams. He was installed as the CEO.

It didn't take long for the new investment outfit to telegraph its audacious ambition to upend the status quo.

In February 2010, a US$20-million private placement by the nascent advisory firm was fully subscribed — the first in a series of major footprints that Williams was about to stamp across the industry. Within months, the landmark initiative was followed by a US$9.7-million rights issue, and by the following year Proven made history by listing its US dollar-denominated ordinary shares on the Jamaica Stock Exchange.

The cash infusion came in handy as Williams and his team went into overdrive to meet his goal and that of the shareholders: to snap up ongoing operations — preferably on the cheap — improve their bottom line and divest them at the point of optimal return.

“From inception, we've established ourselves as a private equity player and executing a strategy around same is built on acquisitions and divestures,” declares the CEO. “This early in our evolution we are still in the growth and acquisition phase and my role is to find those opportunities.”

Proven has maintained fidelity to this initial mission, and Williams insists that “we're a team... I'm just blessed to be the face of it”.

That sense of teamwork and collective responsibility is codified in the three-tier decision-making structure that is in place at the organisation; it funnels the big ideas through an inverted pyramid from the ground, all the way up to the top.

As group president and chief executive officer Williams chairs the executive level committee that does the initial assessment of a deal to “determine the feasibility and chart the way forward” as he frames it.

In this structure, all the CEOs of the various subsidiaries owned by Proven report to Williams and he sits on the powerful investment management committee where proposals that percolate up from the executive level are subject to further critical review. It is largely here where they die or are vivified. This committee is chaired by Chris Bicknell, a principal in the construction firm, Tank-Weld Ltd.

At this level, there is a remarkable bar to scale if big ideas are to advance all the way up to the group board, which is chaired by former tourism minister Hugh Hart for his final imprimatur.

“Decisions are made on a unanimous basis,” Williams lets on. “If one person is in disagreement, a decision cannot be taken.”

It is Williams's responsibility to make the case for an investment, or divestment for that matter, both to the investment committee and, if necessary, to the main board in order to “solicit their approval”.

“We've found that this three-tiered approach results in better decision-making and allows the group to dispel any weaknesses within the feasibility analysis,” he avers. “My role in the mix is to be the hunter, constantly looking for opportunities for Proven to grow. The company sets very aggressive targets and it is my responsibility to guide the team to execute them.”

The growth by acquisition axiom went into full gear from the get-go, and has remained in force to this day. Within months of start-up, Proven grabbed Guardian Asset Management Ltd, a securities dealer and asset management outfit, and rebranded it Proven Wealth. Williams's aggressive price negotiation enabled his company to book millions of dollars in profit on the Guardian deal.

The Guardian acquisition, and others that followed, are in part manifestations of a personal aphorism that Williams swears by, insisting that it has served him and his career very well.

“It is my belief that crisis is the root of all opportunity,” he declares. “Proven prides itself on being calm, collected and nimble in the face of crisis. Our first acquisition was in 2010. It came at a time when a major securities dealer (Guardian) was on the heels of the first GOJ debt exchange and there was widespread panic as to the Government of Jamaica's securities. We saw it as an opportunity and we executed that acquisition.”

The debt exchange Williams referenced was the decision by the Government to reduce the national debt burden by cutting the interest that investors were promised on the instruments they held, and lengthen the original tenure.

The move had a negative impact on many financial institutions.

But a more public and spectacular example of Williams' maxim played out in December 2014 when his company moved to acquire Mayberry Investment's 49.27 per cent stake in Access Financials.

Members of the Mayberry board and the founder and CEO of Access, Marcus James, had got into a bitter public spat over the operations of Access which then led to a courtroom drama over control of the micro lending firm.

Proven's role as a deus ex machina not only kept shareholders peace, but ultimately protected their value and spared the Jamaica Stock Exchange from what was shaping up to become an ugly and internecine war within its ranks with untold public relations damage.

Access “was under pressure and facing a dilemma amongst its major shareholders,” says Williams. He can't be blamed for this understated perspective, because by his own admission this dispute offered a rich business opportunity, “an opening in buying out a major shareholder and (we) acted on it”.

Months before the Access acquisition, Proven strengthened its capital base with a US$10.3-million rights issue, returning to the market in April of 2015 to successfully raise US$29.2 million.

Yet, there was less drama in June 2014 when this company bought out First Global Financial Services Ltd, which it now operates as Proven Fund Managers Ltd — immediately expanding its wealth management services to include pension funds management.

Proven wants to expand its operational reach beyond Jamaica and made the first play towards achieving this objective in March this year with another relatively drama-free acquisition of 83 per cent stake in the Bank of St Lucia International.

“Proven is what you would call the Caribbean's version of the now popular NBA super teams,” brags Williams. “We feel that our competitive advantage is the super experience and acumen of all members of this team, from the executive… to the investment management committee to the board. Super team,” he stresses.

As part of the diversification of its income stream, the investment firm has stepped into the real estate market through its wholly owned subsidiary Real Properties Ltd.

Although the mission is to be a player in both commercial and the residential end of the business, so far the three ventures that have been executed are homes. The first, a residential development on Kingsway in Kingston, was followed by another on Sullivan Avenue, also in the capital. The company says that the third development is in the pipeline and is expected to come on stream in the near future.

The CEO's office, from which Williams constantly surveys the market for investment opportunities, is located on Lady Musgrave Road in Kingston. It has a staff complement of 10. The bulk of Proven's employees are located at the campus-style offices on Belmont Road in New Kingston.

However, as Williams explains, both offices combined make up only a fraction of the more than 500-strong workforce within the broad Proven family including employees at the various operational subsidiaries.

Another measure of just how fast this organisation has grown in its seven years of operation can be found on the balance sheet.

At the end of May this year, Proven had total assets of US$632 million and shareholder equity of US$88.9 million. It generated revenue of US$34.4 million for the full year to May 31 and had operating profit of US$6.5 million.

“I have always seen myself as an entrepreneurial executive,” declares Williams. “Anytime there is an entrepreneurial challenge I will take it on.”

Proven has been the ultimate proof of yet another of his maxims.

— Moses Jackson is the founder of the Business Leader Award programme and chairman of the Award Selection Committee. He may be reached at moseshbsjackson@yahoo.com

— Freelance journalist Nazma Muller contributed to this story.

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