Interview with Vice President of InstarAGF, co-op employer and Laurier graduate, Stephen Simpson

MAY 2018 - Interview with Vice President of InstarAGF, co-op employer and Laurier graduate, Stephen Simpson

You're currently the Vice President for InstarAGF Asset Management, a joint project between Instar Group and AGF. Tell me a little bit about your role, daily activities and responsibilities.
We're an alternative asset manager, so we invest in the infrastructure, real estate, private equity, and alternative asset classes. Once we take an ownership interest in a business, we're active managers. That means that as VP, I have two main responsibilities: first, I spend a lot of time looking for new investment opportunities within the marketplace; good energy, utilities, civil or social infrastructure businesses in North America. The other 50% of my time is spent managing our existing businesses, including a renewable energy facility in BC's Okanagan Valley, as well as the passenger terminal at Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport.

Let's go back to the beginning; you're a Laurier and co-op graduate. How did your co-op experience affect your career path?
My co-op experience was really invaluable in setting my ultimate career path. I did my first two work terms with Aon Reed Stenhouse (now called Aon) on the insurance brokerage side. I had a phenomenal work experience where I met some great professionals and gained exposure, but I realized that insurance wasn't for me. I worked closely with my co-op coordinator to find my third work term within the investment banking group at CIBC. That term was tremendous as it gave me the opportunity to see what activities were involved within an investment bank in the 'real world'.
Without that co-op experience, I certainly wouldn't have been able to get a position with Macquarie Group after graduation that led to a 12-year career within the infrastructure finance world.
Aon is a fantastic company, and I still do a lot of work with them in my current role. It just wasn't the right fit for me. I think that's one of the benefits with co-op. It's kind of like a free trial; you have opportunities to explore, try something new, and go for a different firm or field to find what you really want to do.

What lessons did you learn from your co-op jobs that still resonate with you today?
I learned very early on in my work term at Aon that being professional, and being willing to work hard as part of a team, can go a very long way. Whether you're a first-time co-op or you're 10 years into your career, if you can prove yourself to be a trusted and reliable team member, folks are willing to give you a lot of rope to take on new responsibilities and tasks.
Another lesson is to find something that you enjoy doing. As I mentioned, while I had a positive experience at Aon, I didn't have the passion for insurance that some people do. Once you're out of school it's much harder to make a transition between fields, and the change often comes with bigger consequences. The co-op program at Laurier gives you the chance to try different environments in such a fantastic manner, I can't recommend it enough.

Now you've come full circle, and are hiring co-op students to work for you. What roles do co-op students fill at InstarAGF? What value does your company get from hiring co-op students?
Our firm is about four years old, and we've had co-op students almost since the beginning, including many from Laurier that have been tremendously successful. At InstarAGF, we empower the co-op students to get involved in all aspects of the investment cycle from day one. We view them as full team members; they're actively involved in our staffing plans and meetings. We get them involved beyond background research, including projects such as financial modelling, drafting proposal responses, and preparing screening memos for the senior leadership team.
As an example, we had a call this morning that included a former governor from the United States, and the co-op students who are working on the project joined us. Students get an opportunity to participate in all aspects of our investment cycle, including calls and meetings with senior representatives of our counterparties or sector advisors.

So you really offer a well-rounded approach?
I've had comments about how other companies offer four to five different co-op roles. We really want to provide our co-op students with a rich learning experience and the opportunity to get one-on-one coaching from our associates, vice presidents and even our partners. Often a partner will go directly to a co-op student when they need a bit of help with a project. With our team of 18 investment professionals, we can provide personalized mentoring for one to two students while giving a well-rounded look into life in our industry.

What contributions have co-op students made at InstarAGF?
In a few instances, co-op students have been co-leads on financial models for investments. Over the course of a four-month period, we've even had a co-op student become actively involved with a transaction from inception to close. Past co-ops have worked on financial modelling (with a lot of oversight), prepared memoranda for the investment committee, completed background research on opportunities, and looked at comparable company transactions. We've had stretches where a co-op student has been integral to a number of research projects related to our sector strategies and the infrastructure opportunities.

As an employer, how challenging is it to manage your priorities as a vice president with training and supervising student workers?
Coaching and mentoring is ingrained in our culture here at InstarAGF. Co-op students are treated no differently in terms of resources, assistance, professional development and team building. My door is always open for anyone on the team to come in and ask questions. I'll often sit down at the computer with the co-op student and go through different ways we can lay out a task, giving them the opportunity to run with it before they come back and ask questions. We prioritize asking intelligent questions, but also ensuring that from the beginning of a task you understand what you're doing and why you're doing it. We provide students that support, making sure they are aware that they have access to the entire firm's resources, and allowing them to perform at their best.

What advice do you have for businesses who are thinking of hiring co-op students?
With the right encouraging and open environment, hiring a co-op student can be a tremendous asset to any business. The calibre of the students that we see coming out of Laurier, even in their first or second co-op terms, is high. There's a real hunger to learn that makes up for any lack in experience, and can bring value to an office environment. Taking on a co-op student doesn't require a lot of infrastructure, oversight or set up, but you have to be willing to provide that bit of guidance and a learning environment. Over the last few years, our experiences with co-op students have shown the positive value that they can bring to a business.
UPDATE (March 2019):
Since this interview was conducted, Mr. Simpson has been promoted to Partner at InstarAGF. In addition,  InstarAGF Asset Management announced the sale of their interest in the Billy Bishop Airport passenger terminal on February 21st, 2019.

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