Profile: Tony Corbin, White Star Capital
The Drawdown (TDD): You were previously at PwC for 17 years and joined White Star 10 months ago. What prompted the move?
Tony Corbin (TC): I’d had a varied career with PwC, working with them in Guernsey, London and Sydney, and I had specialised in alternative investment funds.
Almost a year ago, I was approached by Eric Martineau-Fortin, founder of White Star, who was looking to hire a CFO.
After an intense two-week period meeting with the team, I decided to join because I was impressed by the company culture and its rapid growth, so I convinced myself to try something different. I liked the idea of being part of a fast-growing, innovative and nimble firm.
TDD: The role of the CFO is varied. Can you tell me about your specific responsibilities?
TC: It’s a great question – I’m often asked: “What does a CFO do at a VC firm?” I usually joke that the role really does encompass almost everything that takes place within a VC firm, which sounds crazy to say.
What I really mean is that the role is multifaceted. I’m aware of what is going on with our funds, management company, investment portfolio, investors and service providers, and I know what the strategy looks like. It's not just the traditional financial reporting, accounting, tax structuring, or the legal and governance side of things. I'm also on the investment committee and get involved in investment decisions as well as investment valuation, reporting and even investor interaction.
In addition, I work very closely with one of my fellow partners and our in-house general counsel Patrick Recasens Morente, and co-founder and COO Jean-Francois Marcoux. Jean-Francois is also heavily deal-focused, so myself and Patrick often lead on the majority of any operational responsibilities, from recruitment to opening up in a new jurisdiction.
Working across so many areas of the business when you have a lean team means we sometimes outsource to service providers. I own many of the relationships we have with our fund administrators, auditors, advisers and lawyers, which gives me a large network to maintain.
TDD: You operate out of the Guernsey office yet White Star Capital is a global firm. How does being based in Guernsey help with your role?
TC: Our Guernsey office is HQ and serves as the operational hub for the firm. This was firstly a personal decision on behalf of our founder, Eric, who lives here with his family, and a strategic decision due to Guernsey’s reputation as a strong financial services centre.
Each one of our flagship funds has a Guernsey fund within them. I think the jurisdiction appealed to the firm because of its nimble and stable regulatory framework; we have all that flexibility of being next to the EU but not being in the EU.
TDD: You are in the process of setting up your first debt-led strategy, the White Star Growth Capital Fund. What were some operational challenges you had to consider?
TC: Firstly, you need to ensure how and where you get the right investment team who understand how to execute the strategy in a successful manner for investors.
Then you need to domicile the fund. There were three main jurisdictions we looked at: one being Guernsey because we were already here, the other being Ireland, which was becoming a hot topic in relation to its Irish Limited Partnership law. Finally, we looked at Luxembourg – a very popular jurisdiction, albeit with its own supply and demand issues as a result. Usually, the best solution is the most efficient and well-trodden path.
After speaking to other debt funds and conducting market analysis, all three jurisdictions had their benefits but ultimately for this debt-led fund strategy, Luxembourg was an attractive jurisdiction.
Contrary to what I was expecting, the experience has been quite good so far. I wouldn't say it's as fast as other jurisdictions, but I think the quality of the service providers has been good. As a result, we are considering implementing a Luxembourg parallel fund in our venture capital arm, although Guernsey will continue to play an important part in our structure.
TDD: How have you implemented new technology?
TC: We've really started to push forward on technology implementation. The first tool we considered was a portfolio management tool. Being able to understand what we invest in and how to value it without using Excel is a huge nut to crack. We are currently using a solution called Fund Wave, which is in its implementation phase; it's a good solution for venture capital clients.
We then started to think about the whole investor experience. As a result, we have implemented a Salesforce-based CRM tool, which is supplied by Altvia. This tool allows us to store all investor data in one place and own it ourselves. As it is built on Salesforce, it’s got amazing APIs, meaning you can link it with any other tool in the future.
Most recently, we implemented an onboarding tool for investors to complete their subscription documents, all done through an electronic portal. I like this tool for two reasons. One, you can delegate it to a secretary or wealth manager, for example, to fill out the form on behalf of the investor. Two, if they're already an investor in our funds, the form prepopulates with all of the data that we already have. As you can see, we are trying to get everything relating to investor interaction nice and slick. It takes a huge amount of time and is a big investment, but it’s important to do something that will ensure we are able to scale while offering an enhanced investor experience.
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On choosing the best jurisdiction for the firm, Corbin shares his two pennies’ worth: “The nice thing about Guernsey is we try to centralise it as the main investment management and advisory part of the business. While the fund structures may or may not be in Guernsey, the management, advisory and investment committee, if you like, have a large Guernsey element. So we have that overarching responsibility across all of the fund activities, regardless of where the investments might be in the world.”
He clarifies further on the structuring of White Star’s funds: “What also works well for us is our parallel fund structures – we don't just have one fund in one jurisdiction. Instead, we have funds that sit alongside the Guernsey fund (in Canada, France and, soon, Luxembourg).”