It was a perfect June day for a leisurely walk from the fishing village of Camogli to Portofino, about 15km away on the Italian Riviera coast. Peter Switzer and wife Maureen Jordan were looking forward to lunch, then a stroll back. But the hills proved a bit much for Switzer who, to his alarm, found himself breathless. Four months after arriving home last year, he underwent triple-bypass surgery.
With their sons, Marty and Alex, in the business, a team used to stepping up when the couple was away, and an existing, well-established succession plan devised with the help of their business coach, The Switzer Group continued humming along.
“Good people and systems keep a business going and growing, even if the ‘stars’ aren’t there,” says Switzer, who is across the whole business, but happy to delegate and let staff get on with their jobs. “We had developed people who could replace me in the media.”
Switzer returned to work in a matter of weeks. In no time, he was running the 4km from their home in Woollahra to Bronte and playing tennis with Gerry Harvey.
“We set out to work even harder,” says Switzer. “We constantly see new opportunities and have ideas. We’re more prepared than ever to take risks. I’m more focused on the business as I feel I’ve had a second lease on life. Every day is precious.”
They regularly turn to their business coach, Lesley Ann Grimoldby for advice. “Our systems were in our heads and our fingerprints over everything,” says Jordan.
“We needed objective eyes and someone to turn to for the next stage. Lesley Ann is an investment, not a cost.”
It sounds like a recipe to test familial bonds: a husband and wife living and working closely together for more than four decades — without ending up in the divorce court.
Advice to SME owners
- Forget the new car, invest in your business instead
- Pay for the best advice available
- Listen to people who’ve been there, done that
- Read widely, subscribe to newsletters from experts
- Employ quality staff who share your core values
- Never take your eye off the bottom line
- Embrace change
How it began
Switzer and Jordan met as students at the University of NSW. They travelled overseas after graduating — he a Master of Commerce, she a Bachelor of Arts (Economics) and Law (Honours) — ending up in London where they wrote for various business publications.
Returning to Sydney in the early 1980s, the couple settled with two young sons and a sizeable mortgage. Switzer worked for radio station Triple M, contributed to several publications and tried to finish his PhD — he didn’t — while Jordan worked with David Koch in his publishing business, filling in for him on his Money Talks radio program.
“We found ourselves wanting to get away from the routine,” says Jordan. “We took a tremendous risk when we decided to migrate from full-time employment to self-employed. I’m not cut out to have someone else as a boss and I love taking risks. We made a commitment to each other that we’d raise our sons in a family atmosphere centred on their wellbeing. We had a small but profitable business that gave our young family a great life. We were incredibly focused and passionate. Peter has a gift for translating complicated information into accessible information. Contracts started jumping out at us. We didn’t have to do any marketing.”
Switzer, a born communicator, wanted to educate the average Australian about finance and business. A former applied macroeconomics lecturer and teacher, his no-nonsense approach to wealth creation and preservation — along with a sense of humour — proved a winner.
Jordan, the enabler in the partnership, is focused on spotting opportunities and growing the business. “I’m good at thinking fast, being analytical and logical. I’m a qualified solicitor, so there are savings on legal matters, too.”
She admits that despite their multiple degrees, they didn’t know much about starting, running or growing a business. “It’s hard work because your livelihood and that of your employees depends on your success. It’s like having your first child — you can’t imagine how hard it is and how unprepared you are until you run your own business.”
”Good people and systems keep a business going and growing, even if the ‘stars’ aren’t there.” Peter Switzer
The 1987 crash was, says Switzer, “good for us in an odd way. We set out to drag the Australian population into [a place where they found] education about money enjoyable not boring, the outcome exciting. In 1993, we tapped into a new trend — small business.”
Marty and Alex both joined the company in their twenties. “Alex topped his ecommerce course at the London School of Economics,” says Jordan. “He taught himself about IT and website building and was essential to our digital development, coming up with the online coaching platform.”
Today, Switzer Financial Group is a content and financial services firm, with an audience of 300,000 investors across a group of websites and other media channels. It offers brands access to this audience and provides investors with advice and home loans, and investments via Switzer Asset Management, which is a joint venture with the ASX-listed company Contango Asset Management. Marty recently left the family company and was appointed CEO of Contango. The family also owns the brand fashion magazine and website RUSSH, edited by daughter-in-law Jess Blanch, while Alex and his wife, Renee, run another family business, Switzer Media & Publishing, from the Melbourne office.
Spreading the word
A constant stream of television, radio and newspaper work, topped with public speaking engagements, turned Switzer into (as one commentator called him) the “rock star of finance”. Early on, the couple realised they were giving away business opportunities for free. They also recognised a lot of naivety among investors, and didn’t like some of the practices they witnessed. In 2003, they started Switzer Financial Group and bucked the industry norm, charging a flat fee according to the size and complexity of the investment instead of a commission. Eight years ago, Paul Rickard (former MD of Commsec) became a shareholder and helped provide the expertise to grow the financial planning side of the business.
”We don’t work to the extent that a public board does, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t moving to these standards.” Peter Switzer
“[The Switzer Group] is a private company so we don’t work to the extent that a public board does, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t moving to these standards,” says Jordan. “We have monthly advisory and governance board meetings; naturally, all meetings have an agenda and are minuted. I’ve always put importance on having the best financial records possible, along the lines of much bigger companies. So we have a set agenda with items on it that would parallel many listed companies and we discuss each item in detail — financials, staff, marketing, sales reports and other business.
“We will soon be appointing our first independent director, as well as an audit and risk committee (finance), and a remuneration and nominations committee (employment and human resources).”
“We will soon be appointing our first independent director, as well as an audit and risk committee, and a remuneration and nominations committee.” Maureen Jordan
Conversely, Switzer Asset Management is an unlisted public company run according to public company requirements. It has a board of four, which includes Switzer as chair, Marty Switzer, Paul Rickard and Jarrod Deakin from Contango.
Gaining knowledge by listening to old friends such as Aussie Home Loans founder John Symond, Mark Bouris and Gerry Harvey has proved an invaluable step along the learning curve. However, for growth and development possibilities Switzer and Jordan often turn to Grimoldby, who helps them write procedures and policies — and to develop depth to their business vision.
In many ways, Switzer and Jordan are very different people, but that’s probably why the business relationship works so well. “He loves an audience,” she says. “I’m more the one-on-one person. I’m strong, focused and determined. We share core values. It’s why we have such a trusting relationship with our partners. There is trust, loyalty and respect in our relationships — and how can you not succeed when those values are the uniting force? Peter and I are best friends, we cover for each other and work really well together. However, that doesn’t mean that I couldn’t strangle him sometimes.”