Seeking tall returns

Robert Janson, MFin’13, went from playing volleyball in Europe to a career in finance. Now he’s teaching Canadians about a different way to invest.
By: 
Brenda Bouw
Issue: 
Robert Janson

R​obert Janson is used to standing out from the crowd. His height is only part of the reason. For most of his career, the 6-foot-8 former professional volleyball player turned investment manager has chosen to do things in life a bit differently.

Janson grew up in Ottawa but went to Winnipeg for his undergraduate degree. He played professional volleyball in Europe for six years, studying finance on the side while many of his teammates were resting for the next game. Janson then went outside the norm in his investment career, choosing to focus on alternative assets, such as real estate, private equity, debt and infrastructure, instead of traditional stocks and bonds. 

These are the varied experiences that have shaped Janson’s career to date. “Our company is competitive and wants to make a difference in Canada in the way people approach investing,” says Janson, president and chief investment officer at Toronto-based Westcourt Capital Corp. “A lot of that drive and competitiveness and wanting to achieve comes from sports and from being pushed at an early age,” he says of himself.

Serve and spike

Janson was born in London, Ont., and raised in Ottawa, the middle child between an older sister and a younger brother. His father, of Latvian descent, was born in Germany and moved from the United Kingdom to Canada in the late 1940s. His mother was born in Canada, to which her parents immigrated to from Switzerland years earlier. Both Janson’s parents and his sister are 6-foot-1 and his brother is 6-foot-7, making Janson the tallest in the family.

While basketball might have seemed like a natural choice, Janson was inspired to play volleyball by his Grade 5 gym teacher, who had a passion for the sport. Janson loved the skill involved beyond the serve and spike, and the competitive aspect and teamwork required to win.

When it came time to choose a university, Janson, encouraged by his parents to experience life in a different city, chose the University of Manitoba from amongst various schools in the U.S. and Canada that had offered him scholarships. After obtaining his bachelor’s degree, Janson played professional volleyball for three years in Switzerland, followed by three years in France. “It was paradise,” Janson recalls of that time in his early 20s, when he was paid to play his sport and had most of his living expenses covered, including trips home to Canada. 

Life on the court was intense, but players were also given time off to just hang out. It was in that spare time that Janson started to think about life after volleyball. “It was only through me having the time to sit down with the free time I had during the day, when I wasn’t training, to be curious and decide what fascinates me in life,” Janson says. The more he started to read about business and finance, the more he became interested in the subject. He started taking finance courses. 

Janson had an opportunity to keep playing in France but realized that a volleyball career was unlikely to fund his retirement. In 2005, Janson used his finance skills to land a job in Lausanne, Switzerland at financial advisory firm AWD SA. “It was the impetus to say to myself, ‘I’ve had a great playing career…but I don’t long for it anymore.’ It was an excellent time to turn the page.”

His next job was at UBS, also in Lausanne, where he worked during the 2008-09 global financial crisis, a challenging and eye-opening time for the banking industry. It was also during that tumultuous period that Janson convinced his girlfriend, Charlie Simpson, whom he had met in Toronto in 2007, to move to Switzerland to be with him. The couple lived for three years in Switzerland, where they got married, before moving back to Canada together in late 2010. 

All asset classes

Janson transferred to UBS in Toronto and, while working 60-hour weeks, decided to get a Master of Finance degree at Smith. It was a crazy time for Janson and his wife, given that they had a one-year-old and a second child on the way. Janson says going back to school was short-term pain for long-term gain. “It was like being an athlete, pushing myself to the breaking point to see how much I could do and accomplish for a short period of time,” he says. “I wore that as a badge of honour, that I was able to make it to the other side and was able to accomplish things that were difficult.”

In early 2013, Janson joined Westcourt Capital, a company founded in 2009 by his current business partner, David Kaufman, another former professional athlete and a lawyer with an extensive real-estate and private-equity background. It was Kaufman’s athletic background, as well as his different take on investing, that attracted Janson to the firm. Both men believe that too many investors are missing out on alternative investment options. Such investments include everything from private-apartment real-estate investment trusts, to owning a stake in farmland, to investments in storage facilities or other infrastructure. “There is a bigger world out there and our belief is that using all asset classes is to the advantage of our clients,” says Janson. 

The company’s motto is “conservative alternative”, which is a play on the perception that alternative investments are risky. “Alternatives are often misjudged,” says Janson. “We can build conservative portfolios that include all sorts of different asset classes. It’s a big departure from the way most Canadian financial institutions come at it.”

Westcourt has grown from a staff of four and $500 million in assets under management when Janson joined to 26 employees and $4 billion in assets. For Janson, Westcourt’s growth to date is further proof of the rewards of taking the path less travelled, as he has for much of his career. “I am extremely lucky that I truly love what I do,” he says. “And you don’t hear that often these days.”

Robert Janson - My Other CV

Hometown: Ottawa 

What was your first job? Landscaping, when I was 15.

Favourite all-time book: Red Notice by Bill Browder…an unbelievable tale.

My motto is: “Pow!”

What do you do when you’re not working: Family time, with a seven- and five-year old, travel, golf, skiing…and trying to catch up on sleep!

What’s the best advice you ever got? People will always doubt your success…always prove them wrong by outworking them.

Favourite travel spot: Italy

What’s on your playlist right now? Total diversity: Major Lazer, old-school rap, Frank Sinatra…it really depends on my mood.

My idea of perfect happiness is: Happy, healthy family and friends.