Cover Story: Radek Sali
The wellness millionaire
Radek Sali joined the ranks of Australia's wealthiest when his former company Swisse Wellness was acquired. The family office investor talks to Kanika Sood on how he invests and the opportunities he sees in 2021.

In­­ September 2015, Hong Kong-listed Biostime paid $1.7 billion for a majority stake in health supplements manufacturer Swisse Wellness.

The company had grown from a small organic bakery in Melbourne's St Kilda to a giant with A-listers like Nicole Kidman, Ellen DeGeneres and Ricky Ponting as its brand ambassadors.

Maybe this is the new normal, where there isn't any certainty...
The sale meant a big payday for Swisse's founder Kevin Ring.

But also for its chief executive Radek Sali, who was only 38 at the time.

Sali can rightfully be described as a corporate prodigy. He started at the candy counter in a cinema owned by Village Roadshow at 18 and was in middle management by the time he left as a 28-year-old. He joined Swisse next, making chief executive in three years, just as he entered his 30s.

After the Swisse sale, Sali walked away with about $250 million.

He set up his own single-family office, Light Warrior, whose investment team currently manages about $130 million on his behalf, occasionally partnering with outside organisations.

He now comes into its Melbourne offices on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, while working from home Mondays and Fridays. It's not a laidback family office but an active business with operating stakes in many companies.

Sali says his decision to start a single-family office instead of surrendering the management of all his assets to a high-net-worth advice firm boiled down to two reasons: a desire to invest in non-vanilla assets, and to be operationally involved in his portfolio companies.

"Mainly, because what we were looking to do is so different to your standard offering out there. And that's taking nothing away from those offerings, we've been invested into a few of those along the way on our journey," Sali says, adding Light Warrior still uses Escala Partners for some investment-grade assets.

"Also, I am only 44. So, I do like to be operational and I really enjoy working with the team on the businesses that we're in, and also being across the funds we do."

About six months after Swisse's sale, Sali's assets were mostly tied up in Swisse and Biostime stock, according to an April 2015 interview with the Australian Financial Review. About 40% was in fixed income and cash, while 10% was in venture capital. In the same interview, he expressed an interest in making venture investments.

In the six years since, Light Warrior has increasingly diversified its portfolio, dividing it into ventures and investments. It has also invested in property, including apartment blocks.

In investments, which includes bonds, listed companies and
REITs, Light Warrior aims for 7 to 12% in annual returns. On the venture side, it wants outsized returns from two to four of the eight portfolio companies.

Last year, it took some profit from its bond investments, which yielded about 9% return in the end, he says.

On the venture side, Light Warrior currently leans heavily towards Sali's areas of expertise in wellness and marketing.

Hydralyte sells hydration electrolyte, Made By Cow sells dairy products made from raw milk, Stratosphere is a full-service advertising agency, and myDNA uses DNA analysis to suggest meal and fitness plans.

Other businesses include Adventus, a platform connecting international students with universities and recruitment agents, and OurCrowd, a platform for investing in venture capital opportunities.

Light Warrior hasn't had any exits yet in its venture portfolio but Sali says many companies are now paying good dividends.

"We are very close to doing a number but COVID slows things down. But we really see the investment profile in ventures being seven to 10 years. Sometimes you do get some away earlier than expected and that very much looks the case in 2021," he says.

And Sali points out that two of its portfolio companies, MyDNA and Made by Cow, doubled their valuations in recent raisings.

The young family office faces a challenging investment landscape in low rates and high asset prices. Sali says looking into 2021, Light Warrior's focus will be on ventures in financials(it already has stakes in real assets boutique Conscious Investment Management and bond manager Jamieson Coote Bonds), wellness and consumer products.

"I think we're probably going harder on ventures where we know [the space]. We will continue to invest in those and to grow those. We're pretty optimistic about that part of our business [but] the investment side of things, I still think it's a wait and see really, when we don't know which way the market is going to be," he says.

"And maybe this is the new normal, where there isn't certainty, perhaps like there would have been in the golden years of investments - though I am not sure when they were," he laughs, adding equities, gold and cryptocurrencies have all gone through the roof.

Light Warrior has weighed up the latter and decided to make a small allocation when the price is right, Sali says.

"Well, we've had a lot of papers that we've reviewed over the last few years, and whether it's worthwhile doing something," he says.

"But you know, the dynamics do suggest that when governments are printing money like they are and crypto, being finite like it is - it's something to think about. But it'd be a very, very small portion of the investment portfolio."

The investment team that Sali mentions employs a staff of six.

It is headed by Adam Gregory, a former Goldman Sachs investment banker whom Sali met around 2013 on Swisse's business.

Eventually, as their Swisse relationship was coming to an end, the idea of working together came up in conversations between the two.

"You really get a sense of how committed someone is to doing the right thing and getting a job done. I had a front-row ticket to see him in action and I was immensely impressed," he says of Gregory's work for Swisse in the period.

As for why Gregory accepted the role at Light Warrior, it was likely good timing and the chance to do something new, Sali posits.

"He had done over a decade at Goldman, that's a fair run for an investment banker. It's a very demanding environment and it also created an amazing foundation of skills...I think that the time was ripe [for Gregory] to transition out of that banking world and...[an] opportunity to get a piece of action on the venture side," he says.

On the way, Light Warrior has had a few misses. It invested in celebrity chef George Calombaris's Made Establishment months before an million wage underpayment scandal hit the newspapers, and the company became insolvent.

As his best investment so far, he counts using his superannuation to buy Swisse shares. His worst? Spending $70 million including on celebrities like Nicole Kidman and Ellen DeGeneres to enter the United States with Swisse. Products didn't hit shelves and the company piled on debt without booking any profit.

Until, surprisingly, Chinese-origin shoppers in Australia discovered the brand.

"So, I'm always very careful [with picking] the worst investment because I think you actually don't know how bad an investment is until you look at it with full retrospective and [have] got a sense of the wins and losses - the real wins and losses," Sali says.

Light Warrior has increased its focus on making socially-minded investments, as it has aged.

"We wanted to find investments that delivered liquidity and return. But also, we are also about creating social purpose and using capitalism for good.

"We found that really hard to find. I mean, you can find socially-minded, listed entities - anyone could go and do that. We just found that what we were looking for is something quite unique and differentiated in the market," he says, adding that's how the investment in real assets manager Conscious Investment Management came about.

Conscious was started by former Goldman Sachs investor Matthew Tominc, who previously worked for Light Warrior, and invests in property and infrastructure like specialist disability accommodation, affordable housing, community rooftop solar and social impact bonds.

It follows an "impact partner model", partnering with charities and similarly-minded enterprises to work together to identify investments and assist with the management. Last year, it tied up with a consortium of investors including the influential Ramsay Foundation to invest $48 million into 60 disability accommodation apartments.

Sali's next big thing for 2021 is a venture called Light Warrior Wellness. It will release a new range of products in May.

"It's a pretty good time to be starting up a business because you don't really have to worry about those external factors. In the year we've just had, but you know, we're really primed to deliver that range," he says.

He takes cues from Richard Branson, whom he lists as a family office investor he looks up to.

"I regularly catch up with him...I think he's in over 300 different ventures, so very diversified," he says.

For his own family office, Sali is equally ambitious.

"We have massive visions of being in anything and everything. I think that it does again come back to [that] we're just driven by making a difference. And if we need to become bigger to do that, we strive to do that," he explains.

"And you know, I don't have to work but I'm working because I love what we do."

Outside of Light Warrior, he eats healthy "maybe 80% of the time", likes to play golf more for the walk-and-talk than for the sport, and sits on boards of seven not-for-profits.

He and his wife, Helen have a two-year-old daughter. Helen Sali headed Swisse's marketing for seven years and now is a co-founder of the Lightfolk Foundation.

The two met at Prahran's Boutique nightclub which has since closed.

"I basically knocked over her drink and said, 'Can I buy you another one?'"

Sali's father immigrated from Albania. His mother was from the communist Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, who came to Australia escaping the Prague Spring. Both became academics in medical science.

Sali's paternal grandparents farmed tomatoes in Shepparton.

His father picked them and dropped them at the

factory in Cremorne, where Sali and his investment team now go to work at Light Warrior's offices.

It's not just the office space but also Sali's car of choice that has links to his childhood.

"The reason why I've got that Ferrari is my father bought a four-seater Ferrari, [on] the day I was born. And I always promised myself that when I could afford it, that that's what I would do."

"So, on the day I sold Swisse, the money transferred, I went down and I bought myself exactly that same model the father bought when I was born as a celebration. So that's my car."

The Lightfolk Foundation has supported initiatives at Hawthorn Football Club, La Trobe University, National Institute of Integrative Medicine, Igniting Change and B Team among others.

National Institute of Integrative Medicine was established by Sali's father, Avni Sali. Swisse's then director Michael Saba in 2012 defended the company's use of research where the older Sali had been one of the researchers.

As his favorite book, Sali lists a title published by Igniting Change.

The Art of Pollination by Martin Flanagan tells the story of charity worker Jane Tewson who founded the non-profit and in the past worked on Comic Relief.

Sali and Richard Branson are both supporters of the charity, while Tewson is a long-standing trustee of Virgin Unite.

He says he is supportive of The Giving Pledge, an initiative by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett that urges billionaires to commit publicly to donating majority of their wealth to philanthropy (political donations don't count).

"It is a wonderful initiative. I spend 50% of my time working hands-on in not for profits. And that gives me the most joy," he says.

When asked what he would like his family's legacy to be, Sali recalls his grandparents humble start and his relatively more comfortable childhood.

"I've tried to make the most of that in being successful with business, but now also using that success to make a difference in society," he says.

"So, if our legacy can be for our organisation to continue to do that beyond our time on this planet, and many other organisations [are] inspired by what we do - we are very, very satisfied."