Ian Robertson

Founder of OxProx

Ian is a Portfolio Manager, Director, and Vice President of Vancouver based Odlum Brown Limited, and is a member of the firm’s Executive Committee. Prior to joining Odlum Brown in 1997, he spent five years with the Federal Government, where he held several positions with a financial or economic focus – including postings in Ottawa with the Department of Finance and the Department of Foreign Affairs.
Ian is a CFA charter-holder and has also completed his Responsible Investment Advisor certification, which is focused on the integration of environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors in the selection and management of investments. Ian and his team offer responsible investment portfolio management services to high net-worth clients, integrating ESG considerations into portfolio constructions and into the voting of clients’ proxies.
A keen lifelong learner, Ian is pursuing his DPhil (PhD) at the University of Oxford, focusing on the integration of ESG factors into proxy voting. Ian holds an MBA from Dalhousie, an MA from Carleton, and a BA and a BSc from UBC, and has completed his directors’ certification (ICD.D) from the Institute of Corporate Directors. Ian has also spoken on various ESG topics at conferences in Canada, Europe and the UK. Ian is the past board chair of the Responsible Investment Association (Canada).
Further to his DPhil research at Oxford, Ian is also the founder of a university spinout social venture – OxProx – which aims to bring transparency and accountability to institutional shareholders’ proxy voting records on Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) proposals.
Community service is also important to Ian. He is a past chair of the UBC Alumni Association and a past chair of the UBC Foundation. Ian is a former varsity swimmer and has maintained a strong connection to the team. He was a founding member of the Thunderbird Swimming Society, and is a past chair of UBC Athletics’ pan-sport Thunderbird Alumni Council.
Ian is a Past President of CFA Vancouver and continues to volunteer with its affiliated global body, CFA Institute. He served as chair for CFA Institute’s global annual conference, held in Vancouver in 2007. He is a lecturer for CFA Institute’s Investment Fundamentals course and for the Institute’s Investment Ethics course, and is a judge for the Institute’s Investment Ethics Challenge for university students.
Ian is the Past Governor and former President of the Royal Lifesaving Society (BC & Yukon). He was a longstanding classroom volunteer with Junior Achievement and has participated in mentorship programs at both UBC and SFU. Ian is a contributor to the United Way, and has served in several leadership roles with the organization. Ian enjoys spending time with his wife and their three children, gardening, and competing as a nationally ranked masters swimmer.
In 2017, Ian was awarded the Volunteer Leadership Award at the alumni UBC Achievement Awards Gala for the support of his alma mater, and in 2018 the Arthur Delamont Service Award by UBC Athletics.

Where did the idea for OxProx come from?

I have a new spinout company with the University of Oxford. This new social venture – OxProx – is predicated on the hypotheses I’m testing in my PhD research. The OxProx database and website will bring transparency and accountability to institutional investors’ (mutual funds, index funds, and pension funds) proxy voting. Some of the proxy voting data is available publicly already, for example filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) or posted on investment company websites, but it is difficult to access and difficult to compare. Companies and institutional investors operate globally, and OxProx will be a global database accessible to all.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

There are two key parts to my day. I start early with a good cup of coffee and catch up with the world and financial news. We are always looking to minimize portfolio risks, so starting the day by considering how recent events and policy developments might pose new challenges or opportunities gives me a current perspective when speaking with clients, including how their portfolios might be shifted over time.

The second part of the day, which is the most important, is reviewing with clients their investment objectives, returns, holdings and outlook.

I work with a team of experts—CPAs, CFAs, and MBAs—and with clients’ own CPAs and lawyers. As most work shifted from in-person to online during the pandemic, we shifted to Zoom calls with clients and with our team. We did miss our daily work camaraderie, which is hard to replace with a computer screen, so we’re glad to be getting back to more in-person work.

One way I have found to enhance my productivity is to read books, which provide context and depth of insight that one doesn’t get from articles or news. I read quite a few books, including fiction, and have written reviews for some of them. Finally, with respect to productivity, as a former competitive swimmer I’m in the pool on a regular basis, which is great for cardio and conditioning … and also for work-life balance.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I will sketch out a pathway starting with its purpose, followed by the resources, people and time needed. All of the ingredients need to be there for an idea to come to fruition.

What’s one trend that excites you?

Responsible investment—the consideration of environmental, social, and governance [ESG] issues in the investment process is a long overdue trend. It has its roots in the SRI [socially responsible investing] movement of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, but it has now meshed with traditional investment practice and theory, and offers some hope of nudging companies to better ESG outcomes. Of course, our own behavioural changes and the force of regulatory and legal changes will have a much larger impact, but the investment community has an important role to play as well. Responsible investment is not a panacea, but it is an important part of the solution.

A key element of responsible investment and better ESG outcomes is proxy voting on shareholder proposals. This is an area that still needs better transparency and a more robust system. My part-time PhD research focuses on this area, and I hope that there might be improvements that come out of the data and the empirical results.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

Being interactive and communicative has been helpful when managing a client-centered business. A good conversational style not only helps you understand their interests better but also makes clients confident about the work you do. A good relationship with people may or may not actually make one more productive, but it definitely makes the experience more enjoyable!

What advice would you give your younger self?

I would tell my younger self to get more involved—in particular, volunteering—as it enriches your life. Having good relationships with people and a positive community spirit is beneficial to you, to your community, and to your work.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

Responsible Investment (RI) is a welcome and essential development … but it is only a small part of the solution to our environmental (E) and social (S) challenges. For example, many investors believe that RI – especially the screening out from portfolios of carbon intensive stocks – will have a significant impact on the world’s carbon emissions but this is simply not true. Wall Street is happy to encourage or at the very least turn a blind eye to investors’ misguided belief as it has a financial interest in delivering investment solutions that investors want.
The primary benefits from RI stem from the increased transparency (disclosure) of companies’ E&Sl impacts. This in turn leads to: more accurate valuation of companies by analysts as they consider E&S issues; more effective engagement by investors to improve those E&S outcomes; behaviour change by consumers; and more effective regulatory and legal frameworks. The first two outcomes – corporate valuation and engagement on E&S issues – will nudge companies to improve E&S outcomes (in economic terms to ‘reduce their negative externalities’), but only to the extent it will improve their stock valuation. In other words both capitalism and the financial markets that support it will continue to seek the most profitable outcomes, and we should not expect anything different. RI on its own will deliver benefits – from win/win situations (lower carbon output; better stock valuation), and from win/neutral situations (lower carbon output; no impact on stock price) – but the larger changes must come from consumer change and from government/regulator mandates.
Investors should invest in RI funds, but they should also recognize this is only the first (and likely easiest) part of addressing E&S issues, and that their behaviour and their electoral votes will collectively have much more impact.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

I regularly step back and think about my work as a system—not just about the mechanics of what we do, but why we do certain things. I think about whether we are serving our clients as well as possible, or if our approach needs adjustments or even wholesale reconsideration.

This reflection has yielded positive results by changing the way we serve our clients, and it is a central tenet of two books I go back to often: Blue Ocean Strategy by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne and Governance Reimagined by David Koenig.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

Hard work, accompanied by thoughtful work. It doesn’t pay to just keep adding hours to your day. Rather, you must think about who you are serving and why, and then adapt to accomplish those goals in the most efficient way. This will lead to success for you, your team, and your clients.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

In my early years as an investment advisor with Odlum Brown, I had both a securities and an insurance license. While my primary focus was providing investment advice to clients, I used my insurance license to introduce the topic before handing off any further or more detailed questions to my firm’s in-house specialists. This wasn’t a failing in itself, but it did provide an early lesson in the value of teamwork and sticking to one’s own expertise. It was a challenge to provide the expert advice in both investment and insurance that my clients and I expected, and the situation was neither sustainable nor scalable. I quickly focused on my passion—investment portfolio management—and built a team of experts and colleagues to provide clients with both high-level expertise and great service.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

There are opportunities in not-for-profit businesses and in businesses that improve the efficiency of current systems. For example, proxy voting would benefit from greater efficiency and transparency. Proxy voting helps hold companies accountable, and its antiquated system is under scrutiny with the rise of ESG issues. The custody, trading, and settlement part of the stock market became more efficient and transparent in the 1970s, and the proxy system is due for a similar update. I think the proxy voting system will look much different over the next 10 to 20 years.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

I spent about $100 on a weekend with two friends at one of their summer cabins on the Gulf Islands in British Columbia. During the pandemic, I stayed connected with my friends through Zoom calls and phone conversations, but we hadn’t seen each other in person for a while. The pandemic was at a low ebb, and all of us were fully vaccinated, so we ventured out for the weekend while following the provincial health and safety guidance. It felt great to spend a weekend together relaxing, swimming in the ocean, biking, and hiking. Indeed, that was $100 well spent.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

The best software or web service that helps me be productive is Microsoft Office suite, including OneNote, Teams and Planner. I am a complete Apple person—from my iPhone to my Apple TV—and I even used Apple’s word processing and spreadsheet software for a while, but there is just no match for the power of the Microsoft suite. Now that they run on MacOS and iOS, I use them all the time. And the standalone programs integrate very well with each other. Programs such as Edge, OneNote, and now Teams make it truly an incredibly flexible, dynamic, and powerful suite of software.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Liar’s Poker. It’s a rollicking story by Michael Lewis about an important financial event. I now read lots of books about business leaders and companies, and this is the book that piqued my interest in books other than fiction and classic literature. In telling the story in Liar’s Poker, Michael Lewis is like those professors at the pub, late in the evening, unfettered, unrestrained, and bringing real characters to life in a way that a classroom setting misses. The crux of the book is the mercenary pursuit of profit by some investment companies and their employees at the expense of clients’ (and societal) interest. But first and foremost, Liar’s Poker is a great story told by a great storyteller.

What is your favorite quote?

My favourite quote is, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are,” by Theodore Roosevelt. It’s not always necessary to aim for huge impact or to have a huge budget or a global plan for everything. Make the world a better place, however you can.

Key Learnings:

  • Diversify your experiences as much as possible.
  • Give back wherever you can, and build community spirit.
  • Thoughtful and proactive communication leads to strong personal and professional relationships.
  • Small steps compound towards long term goals.
  • Be patient and reflective as you work towards your goals.