New Zealand’s social, cultural and economic pivot to Asia is well-documented, yet when we head off on an OE London remains the default destination. In the first of a two part series on The Asia OE, Duncan Greive speaks to a young New Zealand entrepreneur for whom Asia called and changed his life.
Cowan Finch has a name like a law firm, a jaw like a lantern, inquisitive green-blue eyes and a CV which feels like it was constructed in some secret MBIE fantasy lab for the express purpose of pleasing its minister. He stands around 6’8”, a stature which he acquired early and had him playing basketball for the Nelson Giants while still in high school, going on to captain the Junior Tall Blacks. He manages to be both imposing in his achievements and intellect while also almost comically modest, implausibly attributing much of his success to some variety of good luck or happenstance.
It’s a lot to take in. We meet at The Store in Britomart at the invitation of the Asia New Zealand Foundation, an organisation founded in 1994 under then-foreign minister Don McKinnon’s and then-trade negotiations minister Philip Burdon’s supervision. The foundation’s intent was is to open New Zealanders’ minds to the vast cultural and economic opportunities which existed away to the east of the countries which had historically dominated much of our national attention. And Finch is both a product of one of the organisation’s leadership forums and the epitome of what it seeks to achieve.
Rather than taking the crushingly clichéd two-years-on-the-pints OE in London, he spent part of a backpacking journey in south-east Asia, and was charmed by “the sights and smells and craziness” of Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. The experience stayed with him, and when a flatmate mentioned a friend working on an energy efficiency startup in Jakarta, his interest was piqued. Some Skype sessions with an acquaintance named Steve Piro lead to a working holiday in Bali, which slid easily into three years growing Synergy Efficiency Solutions, which in 2013 signalled its prowess by consulting on the building named the most energy efficient in Indonesia.
By comparison to the remote and orderly style of most businesses of any scale in New Zealand, Finch and Piro found they could relatively easily contact CEOs and other key decision makers at huge businesses, and pitch them the benefits of energy efficiency – power bills are a huge cost centre for businesses operating in the tropics, with cooling costs generally the largest portion of a power bill. Synergy achieved explosive growth, eventually being invited – thanks to an Asia New Zealand Foundation connection – to join Endeavour, an elite global network of entrepreneurs which sounds a a little like a modern day Masonic order, and which has further accelerated the company’s progress.
With Synergy established, Finch returned to New Zealand to work at Snowball Effect, a firm using a variety of means to drive investment into high growth New Zealand businesses. Which means he’s ultimately in a position to start helping produce more start-ups following a similar path to that of his own (Finch remains a shareholder in Synergy, and still works remotely in the business).
We spoke for almost an hour about his circuitous career, the decisions which drove it and the unique advantages Asia has as both an OE destination and a place to do business.
The below conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity and brevity.
The Spinoff: So you were playing for the Giants in sixth form? That’s quite full on.
Cowan Finch: I didn’t play much, but I was on the turf. There was a funny story, where I’d got there for the pre-season for a number of weeks, and got the team photo on the town hall steps in Nelson. We were all there, but [New Zealand basketball legend] Phil Jones hadn’t come back – I’d never met him, and then I went away with the junior team, so had travelled for a couple of weeks, and in that time Phil came back and saw all the Giants posters around – with my head was right in the middle, it wasn’t even showing my uniform. So Phil just lost it: ‘Who the fuck’s just jumped in our picture?’ He literally thought someone had just popped in, some Joe Bloggs, and photobombed it.
How did your work at Synergy come about?
At Bell Gully [the law firm where he worked out of university], by the time you’re approaching three years, everyone sort of heads off to London, chasing big bucks, long hours. So some people were doing that, and if I hadn’t been part of the Asia New Zealand Leadership Network, I don’t think I would have taken up some of the opportunities that came along. I was keen on Asia, but looking to Singapore instead, looking at jobs and following up on leads. I was getting ready to go and had been interested in energy and clean tech.
What drove the interest in energy?
Just coming from New Zealand I guess, having an awareness for the environment and the growing climate change issue. And wanting to find a solution to that.
I hadn’t considered Indonesia as a destination at all, but was keen to have a chat with [Synergy CEO Steve Piro]. We had a few Skype discussions about the business, what he was up to; and he told me to come hang out with him for a month. He was in Bali, nice destination… so I took the opportunity, mainly because I’d been in that leadership network with people who had sort of done things differently to the normal corporate life. So yeah, I decided to do that along with my girlfriend who was up for the adventure. I went to Bali for the month and ended up staying for nearly four years.
Describe the nature of the business.
We were providing our clients with energy-efficient solutions to save money on their energy bills was the gist of it, for commercial and industrial buildings. Basically in the tropics, 50% of the cost for any commercial building is cooling. It’s just hot all year round. So they have massive chiller systems that cool their facilities. Usually they’re designed really inefficiently, and the technology they’re using is all outdated; they’ve never replaced it. So we redesigned the system and recommend they replace the equipment. The problem we found was that no-one ever would – they wanted to build the next hotel, in terms of bottom line.
So what did you learn from your time in Jakarta with Synergy?
I learned a lot, it was sort of like two MBAs rolled into one. It was a bit of whirlwind really; there was Steve who started the business, and myself, running around trying to crack it with no background or knowledge of Indonesia. We learnt on our feet, and we found that a lot of it was about relationships, and building respect over time.
There was also just general regulatory mud. To get things done is hard. There’s all these licences and hoops to jump through, which slows the process down. The pace of getting things done in a regulatory sense is really slow.
But in a business sense, it moved really fast. As young foreigners, it was actually a very open business community. You could get in contact with the owner of multiple factories around the country, and they’d actually be open to meeting you and hearing your ideas. So it was fast moving, open business environment. They’re keen to try new ways of doing things that made sense for them. So we could get in front of people that probably in the US or New Zealand we wouldn’t be able to.
Was language a barrier?
It wasn’t a barrier. I learnt passable Bahasa Indonesian, but English is fairly prevalent in business circles. There’s a lot of younger Indonesians that have been educated overseas and returned to Indonesia and speak perfect English. So it wasn’t really a barrier. And often they prefer to speak English. I’d try my beginner Indonesian and they’d just be like, cut to the chase!
When you came back to New Zealand you didn’t return to a law firm – you came to Snowball. Was that based on your experience of running a business in Asia; running a startup?
Yeah, basically. It was just seeing the pace of life generally in Indonesia and the pace of entrepreneurship I guess. From people selling stuff they’ve made on the street, from a corner market trade level, to people starting massive companies and the rate of growth.
New Zealand has always been built around small to medium enterprises, but seeing how that translates to a much bigger scale in Indonesia, and Asia generally, it gave me an interest in early growth stage businesses.
Tell me about Snowball, and more specifically your role.
It’s is a private equity marketplace where Kiwis can invest in growing New Zealand businesses. What it’s most well known for is its equity crowdfunding business, where any company can raise up to $2m from the public in a 12-month period. They’ve done a number of capital raisings in that space and built up an investment database of 11,000 members interested in their deals.
Do you think New Zealand businesses or entrepreneurs are cognisant of the opportunities Asia represents?
I think they are aware of it but there’s a lack of experience or know how to enter those markets. They’re keen to tap it but don’t necessarily know how to do that. So it’s almost easy to fall back on, ‘oh well, the US is just there, Europe’s just there, everyone’s going’ – and it just appears easier, even though the opportunity of Asia is beckoning.
I guess the other thing around entrepreneurship, which links to Asia New Zealand, is our getting involved with this organisation called Endeavour, which is a global entrepreneurship network – they have offices in something like 25 countries around the world. It’s funded by large donors as well as the entrepreneurs themselves.
Over the last 20 years they’ve been evolving this network of entrepreneurs, and part of the funding from people they support goes back to Endeavour itself. Steve and myself both got accepted as Endeavour entrepreneurs earlier this year. As part of that they now put on an advisory board for your company, so we’ve been dealing with Endeavour Indonesia.
Yeah, it is. We’re able to apply for Endeavor courses at Stanford and Harvard – entrepreneurship and management courses; when we move from Indonesia for business and want to, say, go to the Philippines, they connect you to the Philippines office, connect you to property developers, manufacturers; they connect you with them and straight away you have an in.
Do they invest in your business?
They do. They match 10% of any round you do, no questions asked, if you’re raising $5 million or more. So far we’ve been raising project finance, investing in our projects; as an entity we’ve been running on our own money. The consulting side feeds the project development side. But yeah, they’ll fund us when we need it. But they have massive impact… Endeavour companies generated $8 billion in worldwide revenue in 2015 and have created 600,000 jobs since Endeavour was established. Or something close to that. It’s amazing and I found out about Endeavour through an Asia New Zealand foundation event.
Are there any other broad business-type lessons that kind of echo through you from your time in Asia?
I guess it’s just that, as everyone says, it takes a lot of time and you’ve got to build relationships or partner with a good local or person. But I think the biggest lesson for me is just that you’ve got to give it a go and be on the ground and things will happen. You don’t necessarily have to plan for two years before you go. Just get on a plane and go to Asia, or the country you want to go to, and get on with it.
It helps to have the background and understanding, which is what the Asia New Zealand Foundation gave me. I guess the confidence to know what to expect, and know that others have done the same thing. But nothing beats going to the market you want to get into, or the industry you want to get into, just to get there and experience it. Learn on your feet. That worked out for me, even though there was a lot of forks in the road. Roundabouts – we went in circles sometimes. But that was part of the fun anyway.
The Asia New Zealand Foundation runs programmes in business, arts and culture, education, media, research and informal diplomacy – all designed to equip New Zealanders with first-hand experience of Asia and to grow their confidence in engaging with the region. Its Leadership Network is a global professional network comprising nearly 400 talented young people aged between 20 and 40 who are dedicated to the future of New Zealand-Asia relations. For more information about the Foundation’s research on OEs in Asia click here.
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the day's best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.