Anthony Boswell experienced a memorable career in Hong Kong, working on the Peregrine Investments collapse and the Lehman Brothers “Minibonds” debacle. Now in Sydney with Denning Asia, he matches Australian and New Zealand businesses with Hong Kong non-bank lenders, as he tells George W. Russell during a deal sourcing trip in Auckland
Photography by Jiwon Kim
Luckily for the accounting profession, Anthony Boswell had less than stellar skills as a sportsman. A devotee of cricket, the New Zealand-born Hong Kong Institute of CPAs member had a relatively short playing career, but his love of figures helped to propel him into the top ranks of scorers.
Cricket produces huge amounts of statistics on players, teams, venues – even spectators. Scorers act as the record-keepers of the match, noting balls bowled, runs scored and wickets taken. As a young accountant in Auckland in the 1990s, Boswell progressed through the ranks until he became a scorer for the New Zealand national team while a graduate with New Zealand’s government auditor for 18 months, before moving onto to what is now PwC.
Today, Boswell utilizes these data analysis skills at Denning Asia, a boutique Sydney-based investment firm that finds capital sources for mid-sized corporate and real estate transactions across Australia, New Zealand and Southeast Asia. “We are a matchmaker of investors looking for opportunities and domestic borrowers in Australia and New Zealand looking for funding,” says Boswell.
The inspiration to co-found Denning with long-time colleague Mathew Morahan, a former RBS banker, came from Hong Kong, where Boswell was working in the aftermath of the collapse of Lehman Brothers that marked the beginning of the global financial crisis.
“My client base in Hong Kong morphed from being banks to alternative credit funds, because the banks’ ability to lend in certain sectors of the market was being restricted by regulation,” Boswell recalls.
“[The regulators] de-risked the banking environment, but those businesses still require funding and while there might be a higher risk, they’re not all going to fail – in fact the vast majority won’t.”
That meant many businesses were needing to consider other capital sources. “Regulators didn’t want banks to fail,” he adds, “so they restricted how much capital banks could deploy in certain sectors of the market: property and mid-sized businesses that are often thinly capitalized, and often run or managed by an owner-founder who has not had enough time to work at succession issues.”
Boswell and Morahan saw these businesses as clients of the future. “[The regulators] de-risked the banking environment, but those businesses still require funding and while there might be a higher risk, they’re not all going to fail – in fact the vast majority won’t,” Boswell says. “So the opportunities for the alternative lending world has just multiplied.”
“Matt had left RBS and we were both talking about how he was seeing many credit opportunities if there was access to alternative funds,” Boswell recalls. “My response to him was that there are plenty of funds with available liquidity. I was getting daily calls from my clients in Hong Kong asking me to find them lending opportunities in Australia. So Matt and I agreed to give it a go and so Denning Asia was established. That was 2016 so we’ve been going three years now.”
Boswell and Morahan are co-managing directors at Denning Asia and they hired a third capable Managing Director in 2017: Jennifer Tang, an Australian lawyer recruited from Avenue Capital’s Singapore office.
Boswell acknowledges he has accounting in his blood. “My family has always had a passion for numbers, my maternal grandfather was a dyed-in-the-wool accountant for the Inland Revenue in New Zealand until his retirement at the age of 60. His wife, my grandmother, strongly suggested about three weeks after retiring from that role that he should re-join the workforce and so he went back to be an accountant for the Presbyterian church for many years after that. My brother too is an accountant and chief financial officer based in New Zealand.”
As a secondary student, Boswell found he had a knack for numbers. “I was dux [top of class] of my school in accounting and I just had a natural bent for it.”
With his focus on helping Martin Crowe (the then captain of the New Zealand cricket team) prepare for the 1992 Cricket World Cup, he missed the accounting firm recruitment season. “My first job out of university was with the New Zealand Government Auditor for about 18 months. Some of the cricket players I knew had businesses on the side, so I ended up doing some of their basic accounting as a way of making some money at university.”
That put him in contact with Price Waterhouse (now PwC). “They did the big-picture strategic tax work for several of these cricketers and I’d done my final qualification exam with the then New Zealand Institute of Chartered Accountants” – now Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand.
When Price Waterhouse advertised for auditors, Boswell got his start with professional services, “I stayed 22 years,” he says. “I started in 1994 and spent two years in the audit group, and by 1996 I was getting a little bit tired of auditing and told one of the senior partners.”
He was offered two roles: the management consulting group or the restructuring and insolvency group. “My initial gut feeling was that management consulting was where all the hip and cool people were working and the insolvency group seemed a little tamer!” he says.
However, his love of cricket won over once again. “There were two things that swung my view. Number one there was a former New Zealand cricketer in the restructuring and insolvency group – Richard de Groen – who was a senior manager and so this meant I could continue my passion of working with cricketers and continue to work closely with a sport that I love.”
Secondly, Boswell sought the advice of a mentor, Tony Gray, then CFO of Television New Zealand. “He told me I could do management consulting at any time in my career, but I would quickly learn a lot about the reality of business and paying people, managing disgruntled employees and creditors if I worked in the restructuring and insolvency group.”
Boswell’s Hong Kong connection began when John Waller, a PwC New Zealand senior partner who went on to be chairman of the Bank of New Zealand, asked if he was interested in going to Hong Kong to help work on the collapse of Peregrine Investments Holdings after a US$260 million bond issue went awry.
“That was January 1998 and I stayed through to April 2004,” he says. “I worked on Peregrine for about a year and then Guangdong Enterprises (Holdings) which was going through a massive debt restructuring, and PwC was acting on behalf of the bank creditors analysing the proposal put by Goldman Sachs, who was acting on behalf of the debtor.”
Boswell admits New Zealand was a lot quieter in the 1990s – an era before The Lord of the Rings made the country famous. Auckland, the country’s largest city, had a population of just over one million. “I found Hong Kong unbelievable because of the scale of the whole place, the scale of the buildings and the whole environment and just how many people were out,” he says.
“I was a little bit nervous about being a younger Kiwi accountant,” he remembers. “But some of the things about being a New Zealander actually played out pretty well. I was really taught to treat the chairman and the cleaner in the same way and so I think I always got on well with people.”
Even though the region was in the grip of the Asian financial crisis, Boswell saw optimism in Hong Kong. “Did I think Asia had a future? I did because of the different level of intensity, the scale of creativity, of people wanting to do things, and a go-ahead mentality. Yes, I thought it had an amazing future.”
One reason was the rapid growth of China. “I had three big projects in six years: Peregrine, Guangdong and then Greater Beijing First Expressways. That was a massive set-up of toll roads just outside Beijing. It just really opened my mind.”
When his mother became ill, he decided to return home. “I just felt from our family perspective that it was the right thing to do,” he says. “In 2004, I went back to Auckland and re-joined the firm and made partner at PwC within three years later.”
Boswell worked in Hong Kong from 1998 to 2004. After which, he returned to Auckland and rejoined PwC.
“[Hong Kong] has really developed my sense of thinking differently and approaching an issue in an analytical and purposeful way but with respect.”
Back to Hong Kong
Then came Lehman Brothers. “Two weeks after Lehman went bust, Hong Kong called again. So I returned in 2008 transferring to PwC China and among other projects, was one of the receivers of the Minibonds,” says Boswell, referring to the US$1.5 billion of structured notes that became in default when the United States bank collapsed. “So that was a great job for me in a lot of ways [including] personal development because it was incredibly complicated and incredibly detailed.”
Boswell’s team was more diverse than a normal project. “We were bringing in outside expertise because of the complex issues around the conflicting laws – U.S. law versus English law – and you needed that absolute crème de la crème of experts around derivatives.”
He says his biggest learning experience was the complexities of stakeholder management. “We had the issuing banks, led by Bank of China, we had HSBC, which was trustee, we had a lot of work with the Securities and Futures Commission, clearly the Hong Kong Monetary Authority was interested, the media was interested and then there was the 30,000 mums and dads who’d invested in the Minibonds.”
Boswell says the exposure to such a varied group of stakeholders has opened his mind. “I think for a lot of people who don’t get an opportunity to travel and work in cultures that are quite different to their natural culture that’s a really hard thing to learn,” he says. “[Hong Kong] has really developed my sense of thinking differently and approaching an issue in an analytical and purposeful way but with respect.”
In his current role, Boswell struggles to achieve a work-life balance. “I’m not sure how you get work-life balance, particularly when so much of my work is done on the phone and in multiple time zones,” he says.
He retains his interest in cricket and other sports, such as New Zealand’s All Blacks rugby team and NBA basketball. He also likes to travel. “I really enjoy exploring new locations and also returning to frequently visited ones to see how they have evolved,” he says. “Shanghai is a great example of that.”
Boswell stresses the importance of physical activity. “What I have found in the past three or four years is that the gym and outdoor activities are great for my physical and mental health, so I try to make sure I do some exercise four to five times a week. Sometimes with work travel, though, that number can range from zero to seven times.” He also credits his wife for his current success “I have an amazing and successful wife and I find her counsel and support incredibly useful in work and life – she gives me some balance!”
In 2018, the fundraising activity of Australia-based fund managers surpassed levels seen in recent years, according to a report by law firm Allens. It adds that assets managed by private equity firms on behalf of their investors have grown to almost US$26 billion as of December 2018, the third-highest figure on record.