Advisor Insights with Gary Bennett: CEO, Executive Chair, Certified Chair™

Advisor Insights

Published 08 July 2021

With experience as a Chair and advisor on more boards than most, Gary Bennett is a one-of-a-kind of business professional and if he offers you insight into his experience, you’d be wise not to turn it down. An international insurance veteran with more than 39 years in the industry, Gary is currently an Executive Chair and CEO of North Star, a portfolio investment company. After a long tenure with New York Life in various roles as President, CEO and Executive Chair in Hong Kong and Mexico, Gary is now a Non-Executive Director for their Seguros Monterrey division. Over the span of his career so far, Gary has established, led, built, grown, re-built and strengthened financial services, insurance, pension and health companies in many countries including Australia, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, India, Taiwan, China, USA, Indonesia and South Africa.

Having transitioned from full-time Executive positions to concentrate on his portfolio of governance, Advisory and investment roles, Gary draws on his incredibly vast background to provide support, strategic advice, leadership development, investment and counsel to boards around the world. His ability to adapt rapidly to new cultures, countries and companies has seen his reputation, respect and strong results become a hallmark of his career.

After thousands of board meetings, Gary shares his wealth of experience in this Advisor Insights with Louise Broekman. Through the Executive Chair Program and Business Growth Score Survey, The Advisory Board Centre has enabled Gary to bring together and support new businesses and start-ups with a formal process for advisors, chairman executives, family businesses, founders and staff, creating a genuine and logical structure for the business to succeed. To Gary, an Advisory Board enables the right actions to take place and provides clarity of outcome and purpose. He believes that smart, innovative, futuristic thinking organisations are coming to understand that Advisory Boards help provide a breadth of knowledge, expertise, and skills that will make a business reach its objectives and bring balance.

The Advisor Insights series are unfiltered conversations giving you a lens into real people and real businesses within the Advisor ecosystem.

Listen to the podcast



Read the transcript

Louise Broekman: Hi, my name is Louise Broekman. I am the founder and CEO of the Advisory Board Center and we’re here for the Advisor Insights series. I would like to welcome our very special guest, Gary Bennett, all the way over there in Mexico. Hello, Gary!

Gary Bennett: How are you this afternoon?

Louise Broekman: Very good Gary, let’s start. You’ve got a wealth of experience to share, but maybe provide a bit of background to what you’ve been doing.

Gary Bennett: Thanks always and I’ll try and keep it brief. You’ve known me now for too long and you know that sometimes I will pull on, but I am an Australian who’s been an international expatriate chief executive in financial services and life insurance for goodness. Well, over 30 years ago now I left my little home in Sydney (Australia) to Canberra, Melbourne then Singapore, Hong Kong, all sorts of places, and I’ve been blessed. And I say this, interestingly, I’m now international by choice, Australian by birth and blessed by fate to have had the opportunity to work in 14 different countries and built businesses. And being part of, I guess, the old fashion governance boards has been an interesting part of the journey for me, but I know that when we first talked about this, I looked at what I was doing next, as far as the evolution of my life.

And I’ve talked about my life being in three stages, my childhood and education, my career as an executive. And then what I call the third stage, which was something that I was quite specifically planning for and preparing for a bit, being in the insurance business, I guess I’ve been a planner anyway. And I saw those opportunities to become involved on both boards, but more particularly Advisory Boards is that it became more obvious about what they were, was something that I wanted to do. And I was fortunate that in my corporate life, as we were exiting and preparing for retirement, that I had access to a coach, a fantastic woman out of Baltimore (USA) who worked with me when I was in the US and I’ve worked in lots of places and we discussed how I would start to build a practice that would do a number of things.

One, it would look at opportunities to be in what I saw in the new world of financial services, technology-led, customer-driven, more information and data-led businesses, and then build a practice around that, investing, advising, and supporting those businesses. And then I say this, fortunately, you came along and the opportunity to clearly view what the Advisory Board Center was all about and linking that together with the portfolio of businesses that I’d started to build. And I’m seeing also a much clearer opportunity to be supporting both start-ups and traditional businesses and growing businesses as an advisor. Also, as the chairman of an Advisory Board, that we would help those businesses bring together. The Advisory Board Center really gave me an incredibly impressive insight into a couple of things, and I’ve always believed that process was such an important part of the different things that I did in my life and the businesses that I ran.

And all of a sudden is this Advisory Board Center with, with a process that enabled me to bring together and support new businesses and start-ups with a formal process for advisors, for chairman executives, for family businesses, for founders, and for staff to have some structure placed around them, to bring this into, into a genuine logical step-by-step process and being, and I’ve managed to do that now with them a number of places where I’m involved in. And I think I’ve said this at different times, I’m now involved with 11 or 12 different startups or businesses that are going through the evolution of growth funding innovation, new customers. And even as recently as two or three hours ago with one of the businesses that I’m involved with, I’ve been working with the founder and chief executive about bringing together a more structured Advisory Board process looking at the experts, it’s required to sit around this business, ensuring that we go through, and I’m a lover and true believer of the business growth score.

I think that that really enables organisations to look at what they do or to individuals to look at what they do and build a sort of a step-by-step plan and process to be able to get to that point where they really have something that’s meaningful, that the Advisory Board and me as the chairman or an advisor on those boards can help them bring through the level of expertise that sits in different areas to really help understand where skills come from. Potency expertise, process work funding can come from bringing that together through what is it really…unique is probably an interesting word. Maybe it is unique, but a really structured formal process to bring into life the Advisory Boards. And I’m always excited by that. I think that every time I get to talk to a new founder or a new chief executive for a new innovator in the space that I’d chosen to operate, and I actually am able to talk to them about the qualification or the support that I got through the Advisory Board Center, they get this, and I’ve started to build those things.

Now, some of them take a little longer than others, and it really is a step-by-step process, but you know, I’m excited that those things are all coming together and that stage three of my, or my third innings or whatever we want to call it, is really starting to make a significant difference to the businesses and the people that I work with. And I think that we have a great future not just in Australia and in Asia where I know that things are now really starting to move rapidly, but I’m in some of the conversations that I’ve started to have here with individuals in Mexico and where I’ve read a strong network also in the United States, after my 15 years of working for a major US mutual life insurance company, and people are going here, we get this, we now understand that there is a clear difference between a governance board regulatory process and an Advisory Board that really brings a clear timeline for a set of activities and a clear a group of individuals that bring key skills to those businesses to help them grow, evolve, and develop to the next stage.

Louise Broekman: That’s fantastic, and Gary, you know, being involved in the Advisory Board setting, there’s an evolution that’s happening in the sector, isn’t it? And it’s global. What are your observations around how the sector is evolving?

Gary Bennett: I think without question what we’re seeing is, and it’s not just been, because people have said we’ve got to pivot and COVID, it’s forced us to do things differently. I think that the evolution and diversification of businesses and the opportunity to understand that you can’t be a solo entrepreneur without the support of a significant network of people who both believe love, support, and challenge you. And the emergence of Advisory Boards around the world is really becoming obvious from that point of view and the activity of those people. And this conversation I was having this afternoon, where we have identified a set of core competencies that we want to surround the chief executive with, and then a series of interviews to have people do that. Now, I think people always got the concept of an Advisory Board, but I think what is now exciting is that there is more than just a concept.

There is an absolute crisis. And we’re seeing that, you know in the US, lots of the conversations that I’m having with people, they really get this, and the advisors bring more than a governance board in a different fashion. And it’s not that they’re in competition, do different things for different reasons, at different stages of evolution in the business with different people in them. There’s sometimes a little crossover with the individuals, but usually, it’s about wrapping around the founder, innovator, chief executive, the sort of skills to be able to help them with a network. And I think if you listen to or talk about or hear any of those, the really smart leaders on the planet these days, they talk about their kitchen cabinet, they talk about their board.

They talk about a team of equals that allow them to bring together expertise. And I think we’re seeing that. And I’m very fortunate, I have investments in involvements, in businesses, in the UK in, in Europe, in Hong Kong, in Singapore, in Australia, in India, in Mexico. And even now in South Africa where I’ve started to do some work on some stuff, that’s more charitable than it is commercial, but again, it’s the young guy there that said, ‘Gary, you’ve got all this knowledge and smarts, can you help me?’ And we’ve started to work together so everywhere we’re starting to see people understand how valuable it is. And again, sort of giving the other perspective. I know that with some of the people that I’ve spoken to here in Mexico, family businesses can be a bit challenging.

I know in Hong Kong and Asia, there are times that family businesses can see that bringing in other people to ask hard questions and challenge them and to help drive some of the business planning and the thinking on the financials and things can sometimes set them back a little bit. But I think that more and more people get this now. And I think it’s really becoming part of the smart, innovative, futuristic thinking organisations to say, ‘not only do I need this, this and this, but if I’ve got an Advisory Board, it can help me with a whole range of other things that will give me a breadth of knowledge, expertise, and skills that will make my business reach its objectives, to do the things it needs to do to bring on board, you know, a complete balance faster than if I try to do this myself.’

Louise Broekman: That’s incredible insight. Gary, what do you think some of the tips you would provide organisations and advisors in the Advisory Board space?

Gary Bennett: I think that the key tips are, and I say this from ‘I’m an advisor and an Advisory Board chairman perspective’. First you’ve got to be in anything we do. You got to be courageous enough to be able to have those conversations with the individuals, with the founders of the start-up guys. And I know, again, I’ve shared this story a few times. I know my own brother has a fantastic start-up business in the hospitality space and it’s doing an incredible job. The first thing that I had him do was review the business growth score, and here I went through it and interestingly, his score was very high and he has continued to drive on using that score and be better and better. So I think hard conversations and open and transparent conversations based on a fact base of information and knowledge.

We need to bring this together and we need to work together and you need to be able to have those conversations. And, you know, so after a life of being in wonderful leadership roles, I think the one thing that I’ve learned always is that those hard conversations are hard. They are not easy, but they are what really will end up making the difference. And I spent about two hours with one of the founders and saving chief executives last Friday. And he said to me, ‘Gary, I’ve now got four pages of notes and one and a half pages of follow-up’. And I said, yes, my friend. And we are now going to follow it up. And you’ve got to make sure that follow-up takes place, that regular interview. I splice that access to that individual and their schedule, because otherwise they’ll go off on their tangents.

They’ll have too many things to do. And the more I work with the process, the more I see the process supports significantly the business. So that’s probably one of the key tips. The other one is I think that you’ve got to have people in the room as reports you actually add value. And this concept of adding value I think is one of the things that I’ve tried to carry through my entire business life and personal life. If someone reaches out to me and they want some assistance or some help, if I’m not adding value, I’m wasting their time and I’m wasting my time. So to be able to have advisors that sit in these boards that actually add value, and there’s a process to that. You’ve got to have the conversations, you’ve got to make sure that they’re aligned with what goes on.

You’ve got to be able to share some significant insights of the business, the business plan, the strategic plan, and the financials with those people, make them aware of what your expectation is. All of them are in both the near term, the short term, and that there is a use by date for some of those things. As you go through this process to get to a point where you’ve done your job and you need to move on and you need to have all of those things in mind. And whether that’s corny saying that you need to start with the end in mind, or whether you just need to have clarity about what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. And who you do with, I think is a really important understanding for people as they come into this. But again, Louise, I’ve seen this after almost thousands of board meetings and processes and management teams and leadership teams and advisory roles as a right way to put in place the structure and process to support businesses.

And so many people have wonderful ideas, so many innovative and creative people, whether they’re young, old, or ancient, like me, and to give that support, to bring that together and to give people a track to run on, I think it is the single biggest tip that we can give people. This is real, this supports them. This enables the right sort of actions and activities to take place. It has clarity of outcome and clarity of purpose. And you get a group of people who add value to support what the CEOs, the founders and the innovators of, of these businesses, as it grows more and more into the corporate world as well into the bigger corporate world, really add that significant value into businesses right across the world.

Louise Broekman: Gary, it’s just always so wonderful to catch up with you and to hear your insights. I always learn so much when I speak with you and it’s an absolute joy to have you as part of this Advisory Board community as well. So Gary, thank you so much for sharing.