Dugald Higgins is Head of Responsible Investment & Sustainability at Zenith Investment Partners. The company is now a certified B-Corp!

What was your first job?

My first job was grass farming! I was a 4th generation cattle farmer in NSW and while there’s a lot of different aspects involved, ultimately growing grass underpinned the whole system. While I wouldn’t say that sustainability as we think about it today was a focus back then, what I did learn from an early age was systems thinking and relationships in complex environments.

When did you know you wanted to work in finance/business?

I studied agribusiness with the intention of going back to the family farm (still run by my brothers), but injury in my late 20s necessitated a career change. I started my corporate life in investment research focussing on agribusiness as an analyst, lived agricultural experience and training were relatively uncommon back then. As a fund analyst I’ve covered all asset classes over the last 20 plus years, but private markets in the built environment and natural capital have always been my focus. While this seems like an odd pivot, my training was really all about running all aspects of a business and a big part of that is understanding investment analysis and return on capital. It seemed logical at the time!

When did you first discover the concept of Impact Investing?

Ironically it was back in 2001 when the concept of SRI and triple bottom line accounting were becoming real buzzwords in Australia. I ended up building an SRI fund rating model with my employers at the time and while we never launched it (sadly due to not enough data), it made me realise that more businesses were starting to look beyond the P&L. While it’s taken me nearly 20 years to come back to focussing on responsible investing across the spectrum, it’s always underpinned  what I’ve been doing in some capacity.

What’s one exciting development you and your team have in the pipeline?

What’s really exciting is that we have just achieved B Corp certification! Zenith Investment Partners and our other business Chant West, became certified in June and it has been an exciting experience. As advocates for responsible investing, we realised we couldn’t not turn that scrutiny upon ourselves and recognise our own impact on society.

By becoming a Certified B Corp, this provides us with a framework for continuous improvement in how we think about all our stakeholders. Whether it be in our governance, our staff, our community and customers or the environment around us, we now have a lot of other lenses to apply to ourselves and plan out our future. In becoming part of the B Corp global community, we become part of a system working collectively for economic change. To us, that’s exciting!

What was the most interesting impact deal (from any team across Asia/Pacific) in the past 12 months?

As a ratings house focussed on funds rather than individual securities, I’m a bit removed from actual deals, although it’s always interesting to hear what our fund managers are seeing.

What I’m very aware of is our role in impacting the lives of families through financial advice. Our financial advisor clients deliver advice to thousands of people across Australia, and we play a critical role in supporting them do that.

To me, financial advice isn’t just about money. Financial wellbeing is a critical part of our overall wellbeing. Financial wellbeing, mental and physical health and family relationships are linked. Economic dignity for people is important. People deserve to be able to take control over their financial decisions and achieve their goals. Our clients work with people over long periods, sometimes for decades, to help the achieve those goals. The impacts of that can be felt generationally. These may not be big impacts on a standalone basis. But the advice profession helps create impact at the individual’s level every day. I’m proud to be a part of that.  

What’s your vision for impact investing in 5 years time?

I really look for that day when all investment decisions bring impact into the equation. A time where we move past the risk / reward equation to one where it’s risk / reward / impact. I don’t necessarily mean that every investment must be an ‘impact’ investment in the way that most people currently think about it. It’s about moving to a world where everyone understand that all investments have an impact and being able to recognise what those impacts are, positive and negative, and use that knowledge to make more informed, better choices.

For that day to come, we still need a lot of changes. We need better education on responsible investing across the spectrum, not just on impact, more cohesive guidelines and better reporting. We need more accountability and assurance and more government policies to incentivise change. These issues are not independent, they’re interdependent.

A lot needs to happen. Let’s go.

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