By Jessica Yun
Ever since lockdowns ended, Wilson Asset Management portfolio manager Dania Zinurova has noticed an interesting trend.
“There is at least a 40 per cent increase in the number of the events and conferences that focus specifically on alternative investing,” Zinurova says. “I [hadn’t] seen it two years ago. It’s been really interesting to observe this.”
As COVID’s supply chain knots and Russia’s war on Ukraine sends inflation skyrocketing, central banks’ efforts to contain this – by raising interest rates at a pace the world has not seen since the late 1980s – has thrown sharemarkets into disarray and shaken up the US banking system.
“We had very strong performance in the public equity markets for over a decade. But once those volatility factors start coming in, there is inevitably this surge for safety, search for different sources of income [and] investment returns. And the market responded,” she says.
“There is clearly greater, stronger demand from retail and wholesale investors in Australia for alternative assets.”
Accordingly, Zinurova – who spoke en route to an event in Melbourne – has seen her calendar fill up rapidly. “The number of conferences is always a sign.”
Zinurova has been at the helm of the investment manager’s alternative asset vehicle for the past two and a half years, overseeing a $210 million portfolio spanning real estate, private debt, infrastructure, private equity, and agriculture. Before starting with Wilson Asset Management, she spent 10 years at Willis Towers Watson, expanding her understanding and remit of alternative assets – starting with real estate.
She’s been drawn to the diverse and unconventional since she was a girl. Zinurova was born in the Russian city of Chelyabinsk, near the border of Kazakhstan, during the dying days of the Soviet Union. Travel borders opened during her teenage years enabling her to join a school exchange program to Germany, whetting a lifelong appetite for encountering different cultures and learning languages. (Zinurova speaks German, Russian, English, as well as some Italian, Spanish, and Tatar, a Turkic language spoken by the largest ethnic minority group in Russia.)
She completed a finance/banking diploma in Russia, and returned to Germany on another exchange program. She also landed a job as a young currency trader in a privately owned Russian bank and encountered a corporate environment where the owner of the bank, the chief executive and head of finance were all women, a feature she now recognises as ahead of its time.
After graduating, Zinurova kept studying and chose ESCP, a highly ranked business school based in Paris with campuses across European capital cities. By the age of 24, she had a job lined up with Cisco, but a friend recommended an internship with Russell Investments.
It was only supposed to be for three months. But the Seattle-based investment firm invited her to do a graduate program in the US, rotating between asset classes, so she turned down the Cisco offer.
“I loved the tangible aspect of real estate,” Zinurova says. “Where we’re sitting now – it shapes the community. You have retail, offices, residential nearby, all the services and businesses … You have to understand where the GDP is, where inflation, the job market is.
“All those factors – it will all affect vacancy or occupancy in the building, it will all affect valuation, rents. In other words, you just can’t ignore those factors,” she adds. “You had private equity, but at that time, very few investors really understood or invested in infrastructure, agriculture, timber, water.”
She undertook some further study – a master’s degree in real estate investments at Bayes Business School, where she met her husband – to strengthen her credentials. But then the global financial crisis of 2007-08 hit.
Russell Investments cut 30 per cent of its workforce, including Zinurova’s role. She used that time to reassess, learn some Spanish, and headed back to London.
In 2010, she joined Willis Towers Watson where she would stay for a decade, winding up in Sydney as head of real assets at the insurance company’s investment arm before meeting star stockpicker Geoff Wilson.
A generational challenge
The big investment “megatrends” that Zinurova has her eye on aren’t radically different to what’s on other fund managers’ radars.
The pandemic called attention to the importance of digitisation; the need for healthcare services and food innovation are key global themes she’s keeping tabs on; and then there is the all-important, perennially popular issue of climate change.
In Zinurova’s view, ASX-listed food and agriculture companies – and local farmers – are being tremendously overlooked.
“The opportunity set is huge. In Australia, the agriculture sector is still predominantly privately, family owned. There is not that much institutional capital invested,” she says.
“At the same time, the agriculture sector faces real succession planning challenge[s]. Younger generations don’t want to continue managing the farms that their grandparents or their dads used to manage.”
As the UN forecasts an additional 2 billion mouths to feed by 2050, a new wave of food start-ups – and investor cash for it – has popped up to meet this need, including strides forward made by the plant-based protein sector.
An unfavourable cocktail of factors spanning years of bad weather, closed borders and other pandemic-related disruptions, strained trade ties with China, and now, high input costs and inflation, has bruised the produce – and share prices – of food producers. Those affected include dairy giant Bega, fruit and vegetable grower Costa Group, poultry supplier Ingham’s and Milklab manufacturer Noumi.
Zinurova believes her particular investment focus affords her with a bigger picture perspective amid unpredictable daily swings in equity markets.
“There is a disconnect, true dislocation, between the actual value of those businesses and their share price performance,” she says. “In fact, there is no way I can even look at daily performance. You look at quarterly, semi-annual reports, annual reports.”
“Valuations don’t change day-to-day, month-to-month.”
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