Bond king John McNiven’s story: about business and love

John McNiven
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John McNiven, an incredibly successful bond dealer across New York, London and Hong Kong, who always called Australia home, and became an incredibly successful entrepreneur in the global and local fixed income markets, passed away on August 13 after a four-year battle with cancer. He was 63.

McNiven retained good friends all over the world – the world was his stage – as was evident at the funeral, held physically at St Canice Catholic Church in Rushcutters Bay, Sydney, and online, last Thursday, August 20. For John, his business was an intellectual challenge. Making money for his employer and his clients, as well as his family, was just the way of keeping score. He made a fortune, from relatively humble beginnings, but, more importantly, made many friends. More importantly, still, thanks to good-old Merrill Lynch, he met Jo, now his widow. John’s life then found purpose.

Befitting the man, he was remembered in the eulogies and written words last Thursday, and probably for a long time to come, more for his generous personality, his charm, his impish sense of humour, his fierce intellect, and his devotion to Jo, the love of his life, and their four children (even Elvis the dog got a mention) than for his massive contributions to the business world. And so it should be.

But those contributions to the business world should not be overlooked because they genuinely were massive, helping to develop better ways for companies, especially in Australia and New Zealand, to borrow and lend globally and, more recently, opening up those opportunities to smaller investors in Australia. That last commercial endeavour, known as XTBs or exchange-traded bonds, he did while in supposed semi-retirement. John was never going to be a person to fully retire. Life for him had to be run at a fast pace. His back story sets the scene.

John McNIven
John McNIven

Malcolm McNiven, John’s older brother, recalled that, at boarding school, “Johnny” made the first-15 rugby team, as inside centre. For the uninitiated, an inside centre in rugby has to be both fast, preferably with a good side-step, and a good tackler. It requires not only some natural ability but also guts and determination, while always thinking of your outside centre and winger. That year, his team won the NSW State championship. His intellect must have got the better of him, though, and he decided, rather than spending the next few years working towards a possible spot with the Wallabies (good decision), he would go to university and get an honours degree in economics followed by a Batchelor of Laws instead.

On graduation in 1982 he got a job with a little investment bank called AUC which shortly after was taken over by what became known as the venerable global bank J.P. Morgan. John was offered a junior position in New York, which is where his career really got going. That was also where, in 1983, he met Chris Schade, who was a fellow trainee wheeler and dealer in the fixed income world. They remained friends until the last.

Schade said from his home in Massachusetts last week: “John went on to join what was the beginnings of the derivatives market with the ‘international financial management’ department (at J.P. Morgan) doing some of the early interest rate swaps… We became good friends and remained in New York until the late 1980s when the Euro market opened up. John was responsible for the first Australia and New Zealand-denominated bond issuances in the Euromarket. In the 1980s in New York, there was a lot of fun and a lot of opportunities.”

Schade, who is now in the biotech industry raising capital for start-ups and taking other companies to market, said: “John was so smart and logical and well-reasoned. It was tough to argue against him on anything. He was a great team leader. A good person both to friends and staff.” Coincidentally, one of the biotech companies which Schade took to market in recent years was the provider of John’s immunotherapy drug which extended his life after his original brain and lung cancer diagnosis and early traditional treatments such as chemotherapy.

Both John and Chris Schade saw that London was becoming the centre of the universe for the international fixed income market and, separately, moved there in the early 1990s. John got a big job at Merrill Lynch, hired to set up an international fixed income business. The brokerage company was then a minnow in fixed income. John recruited Schade to join him. “It became very successful,” Schade said. “We had a great time, both professionally and in our downtime. When John and Jo left for Hong Kong, I headed back to New York.”

Conrad (Connie) Voldstad, who had moved from J.P. Morgan to Merrill Lynch in the late 1980s, was an early mentor of John. Connie became one of Merrills’ debt capital markets stalwarts. He said last week, after the funeral service, when offering his condolences to Jo and the family, that: “John’s accomplishment in London with Merrill Lynch was nothing short of extraordinary. Merrill Lynch had no debt capital markets business and John built it into the best in Europe.”

Connie said from his home in South-West Florida: “John used his knowledge of the Australian and New Zealand bond and derivative markets and participants to produce Australian and New Zealand bond issues and swaps in the US markets. John also managed a trading book of Australian dollar swaps from New York for JP Morgan and developed US dollar liability management solutions for US clients during that period…

“The Eurobond and derivatives markets had grown enormously in the 1980s and several European and US banks and securities companies dominated the market. Competition for business was fierce to say the least. John’s job was to manage Merrill’s debt capital markets business in Europe. That meant arranging bond issues for the most prestigious borrowers in the world as well as related swaps and other products that such borrowers required. John recruited new staff and worked himself on the most demanding clients. From virtually nowhere, John made Merrill Lynch the number one underwriter of Eurobonds in a few short years.

“{John’s] clients ran from governments – finance ministers and even a Prime Minister or two – to corporations and large retail financial institutions. John was a pioneer in developing global bond issues… These transactions typically would be for billions of dollars. John was also expert in advising clients in their inaugural bond issues. In that regard, his work with Lebanon stands out where he worked with the Prime Minister to develop a strategy for the country’s first issued bonds.” Connie said: “He dealt with the most prestigious borrowers in the world and his clients loved him.”

With almost everything John did, the ‘Jo story’ – the development of their relationship – was to become overarching. When all was said and done, it was the most important story of his life. And hers. Malcolm McNiven recalled at the funeral service that the rest of the family first met Jo when she accompanied John from London to Australia for the funeral of Odette, their mother, in 1989. John had met Jo two years earlier at Merrills in London. “He had Jo with him and they had just got engaged,” Malcolm said. “She was beautiful then as she is now… They married in 1991.”

Their eldest daughters, Kitty (now 27) and Gracie (25), were born in London and son Angus (23) was born in Hong Kong, where John and Jo decided to spend a few years on the way back to John’s home and Jo’s new home – Australia. The youngest, Ruby (21), is the only other member of the family, apart from her father and their beloved dog Elvis, to be born in Australia.

John and much-loved Elvis

Hong Kong was John’s sort of town, business wise. It was like the Wild West, full of business cowboys prepared to take a gamble. It was there that his charm and irreverent sense of humour famously came to the fore over what John’s friend, Tony Shale of Euromoney fame, describes as a somewhat ‘fruity’ incident involving a competitor bank.

John was pitching for a significant piece of business in the Philippines, worth about US$400 million. He discovered that the main competitor, Salomon Brothers, had made a deliciously big mistake in its investor presentation. One of the contact phone numbers for investors to call in its brochure was incorrect. When dialled, the young man who answered would say: “Hello. Welcome to Wet Boys.” It was a gay porn production company in the predominantly catholic country. While protecting his source, as all good journalists do, Tony Shale recalled that John had “helped” a couple of journalists, including himself, to “discover” this unfortunate accident. The news, somehow, found its way onto the front pages of more than one magazine. “In the years that I knew John, I never heard him laugh so hard,” Shale said.

Coincidentally, Euromoney Magazine published in 2019 a special edition for its 50th anniversary, which included profiles of the 50 most influential people in global capital markets over that long period. John McNiven was the only Australian among them. If only they knew about the Salomon Brothers gay porn incident, they may well have sold a lot more magazines for that edition.

In his semi-retirement, John had one last, as it turned out to be, go at changing the business world for the better. He formed the Australian Corporate Bond Company, with co-founders Richard Murphy, the chief executive, and Ian Martin, the chief investment officer. John talked them into joining him in starting a new market – what was another world first – to allow retail investors to support individual companies raising money through corporate bonds in a listed and liquid environment.

It was also a battle, as were many of John’s previous encounters against entrenched positions. This time John took on ASIC (the Australian Securities and Investment Commission) which is the Federal Government’s recently maligned regulator for retail financial services. The co-founders, with John as a non-executive director, started the ACB company in 2013, Murphy says. But they got opposition from ASIC and lethargy from the Treasurer at the time, Kelly O’Dwyer. ASIC issued a limited licence. John McNiven was not interested in anything that was limited.

After Josh Frydenberg, the current Treasurer, gained his position, John renewed his efforts, notwithstanding what he was going through personally. They met with Frydenberg’s staff, Murphy recalls, who “got it straight away”. This was good for the country. The Treasurer’s office referred it to the department who confirmed that they had previously seen the new business to be a good thing which should be supported. Kelly O’Dwyer had been distracted by politics at the time. Murphy says he was so pleased to report to John, before he died, that the company had finally got its full licence from ASIC and also had two good candidates to be its first wholesale bonds to be distributed to that new market segment.

John Szangolies, also a very successful businessman but in the arguably more interesting field of restaurants and hospitality, put it all together about John in his eulogy at the funeral. The Szangolies’, John and Sandi, became very close friends of John and Jo McNiven over the past 20-or so years. They had side-by-side holiday houses at Palm Beach on Sydney’s northern beaches, which was not a coincidence.

John Szangolies said, prior to the funeral service, that John McNiven was very correct in everything he did. To be fair, Szangolies may not have heard about the incident in the Philippines. “We were both on the Cranbrook Rugby Committee when John was asked to take on the treasurer’s role,” Szangolies said. “As is always the case with these things he inherited not much more than a shoe-box full of receipts. John set about providing proper discipline to the administration and also decided the club needed more money. He arranged a fund-raising dinner… I remember that one of the committee members wanted it put on the record that he thought the fund-raising would not work. He was wrong. The fund-raiser was a big success and became a regular event.”

Szangolies said that John was “so correct” that when he was scheduled to retire from his position at the Cranbrook Rugby Club, that he had the books independently audited, so he could hand the organisation on to his successor in the cleanest and best possible fashion. “He had his own accounts audited. No-one else had ever done that before.” But he also had a great sense of humour and loud and infectious laugh, Szangolies said. He loved spending time at his farm on the Hawkesbury River at Wiseman’s Ferry. He could relax, occasionally, too.

John Szangolies said in his eulogy: “On the day before the wedding to Jo, John’s colleagues played a practical joke on him. They told him that there was a huge deal in Toronto and that all the appointments had been made for him to go, but they assured him he would still make it back in time for the wedding… Jo tells us he had his bag packed and was about to walk out the door when he realised it was a prank. However, Jo – never one to be outdone – retaliated by calling these same colleagues saying: “would you please give John the message that the wedding is off!” His colleagues were “rightly shitting themselves.”

Szangolies said: “John and Jo’s story is a true love story. They were madly in love with each other from the very beginning and it is the strength of this love that held them tight as they worked through many tough times together. They laughed continuously and their love truly deepened throughout the years. Love and determination in the face of extreme health issues proved John and Jo’s true metal.”

John Arthur Charles McNiven is survived by wife Jo and children Kitty, Gracie, Angus and Ruby – each of whom John was so proud, Szangolies said – and their cute dog, a pug, named ‘Elvis in the Fat Years’ (Jo says that is the poor pooch’s full name). Jo, too, has an impish sense of humour.

– Greg Bright

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