Leadership Q&A: Som Seif

Claymore Investment head Som Seif on being a young leader, how creativity drives him, and the value of being a little paranoid.

Som Seif, president and CEO of Claymore Investments.

Just more than six years ago, Claymore Investments was a one-man show that Som Seif, 35, was running from home off his laptop. Now, the Canadian financial services company that offers unique ETFs and other investment solutions has grown into a competitive leader in the Canadian market, with approximately $6.5 billion in assets under management as of June 30.

With an educational background in engineering instead of the usual business degree, Seif made the unlikely jump to investment banking with RBC Capital Markets in 1999, before founding Claymore when he was just 28. But Seif doesn’t spend much time reflecting on the company’s soaring growth, since he believes there’s still plenty more room for expansion.

With pictures of the Guggenheim museum in the Toronto office lobby (an homage to parent company Guggenheim Funds Services Group) and the company’s namesake, Scottish Claymore swords, in the boardroom, Seif’s passion for the arts is visible. He spoke to Canadian Business about being a young leader, how creativity drives him, and the value of being a little paranoid.

CB: Your background in engineering is a little unusual? Did you ever plan to be an engineer?

SS: I went to the University of Toronto to study civil engineering with the idea that I wanted to be an architect, but as I talked to more and more architects, they all warned me I shouldn’t go into the field—there was no money in it. I asked myself, “What’s my next love?” and I thought of business, but I didn’t just want to be another B.Com, so I decided to move over to industrial engineering, which is more of a business process oriented stream. I never wanted to be an engineer, but from a learning perspective, it was a great degree that taught me how to learn.

CB: How did you transition into the finance world?

SS: In my fourth year of school, I started to put my name out with the idea that I either wanted to be a banker or a consultant. I was a kind of black sheep trying to find an investment-banking job with an engineering degree. I interviewed and no one wanted me. But eventually RBC found me, and I was kind of like a beta test for them because they said I was high beta, meaning high risk, but if it worked out it would work out really well. And it worked out really well.

CB: Architecture and engineering are fields that require both creative and logical thought—a balance of right- and left-brained thinking. Do you think that foundation helps you in business?

SS: Being an entrepreneur, which I’d like to believe I am, requires a systematic and analytic approach to yourself, but it also requires a creative approach to yourself. I’ve always been passionate about art, creativity and architecture, and in business you have to be able to think and dream beyond the proverbial box. If you think you can be a entrepreneur by just fitting into a slot of what everyone else is doing, then you’re either doomed to fail or you have to be better and smarter than everyone else. And I truly don’t believe that I’m smarter than anyone else. The thing I do believe is that I’m willing to work harder than anyone else.

CB: You obviously have a passion for entrepreneurship, but you also saw a lot of success at RBC. How did you decide to make the leap to start Claymore?

SS: My time at RBC was very much about learning, but eventually it becomes about the cash flow, the money. One of my clients in the U.S. was Claymore. It was a new, fresh business. I built a relationship with them and one day they asked if I would like to build a business up for them in Canada. I was only 28 then, but I said, “This is the opportunity,” and they handed me a blank piece of paper and said, “Go build it.”

One thing I always tell young entrepreneurs when I meet them, though, is it’s great to want to be an entrepreneur and have the initiative, but don’t push it. Don’t say you’re going to be an entrepreneur and then look for an idea. Wait for the idea to come to you.

CB: Did you have any mentors who guided you?

SS: I don’t think you can have just one mentor because to me that says you want to follow in just one person’s footsteps, but I have always trusted my brother. He’s a couple of years older than me, he’s in business and I can always have an honest discussion with him. He’s always kicked me in the ass when I needed it.

CB: What’s the most valuable piece of business advice you’ve received from him?

SS: The best advice I’ve ever received, I don’t know if it’s in business, maybe just in life, is when he said to me, “If you ever think you’re the smartest person in the world, just come talk to me, because I’ll show you 10 people who are smarter than you in a flash.”

CB: So humility is an important trait to you?

SS: Look, you’ve got to stay humble. There was also a great book that was written by Andrew Grove called Only the Paranoid Survive: How to Exploit the Crisis Points That Challenge Every Company. I believe you’ve got to stay paranoid. You’ve got to always believe there’s something you can be doing better—that there’s always something that you’re missing. If you do that, it helps you challenge yourself to find things to improve within the company.

CB: Claymore has grown so much in such a short time. Are you satisfied by that success?

SS: I think success is meeting an opportunity, and that’s why I’m not happy to look back on Claymore yet. If you’re a company with the chance to manage a billion dollars in assets, then that’s what you have available. If your opportunity is to be a $20-billion company, and you raise a billion, you might think that you were successful, but you didn’t really meet your potential. I’m still focused on moving forward and meeting the opportunity.

CB: Claymore must keep you busy, but you still find time to participate with a number of charitable organizations. How do you find the time?

SS: I’ve always been a believer that people always have time. It’s just a question of how you prioritize and value that time. My whole life I’ve always felt I can squeeze more in because it just means I sleep a little less, or watch a little less TV. There’s a great quote, I believe it was by Ira Gluskin, who said, “A bad day in our business is still a great day anywhere else.” Sure, it’s tough on my family, and on my friends, but you know what, the good thing about family and true friends is that they’ll never walk away from you. There are other people that need your help right now.

CB: What leadership lessons have you learned in building Claymore?

SS: It’s not easy. I’ve screwed up a ton of times. I know there’s a cliché that you learn your best ideas from your screw-ups, but it’s absolutely true. I would rather attempt 10 things and screw up five of them than attempt four and miss one really great opportunity. I think the greatest trait that leaders have is open-mindedness, which allows you to make mistakes and stop where you are and not let it become something big. I’ll reverse course quickly if I need to.

CB: Do you think being a leader at a young age made it any harder on you?

SS: [Laughing] I still get the young comment, but I think now I’ve built enough of a reputation that that people respect me. That said, look, anytime anyone’s young there’s always going to be some comments and risks, but I’ve never walked into a meeting feeling young. Whether I was 23 as a banker, 28 starting Claymore, or now that I’m 35. I never thought I shouldn’t be here, or that I shouldn’t have the opportunity. Good ideas don’t come from age; they come from thoughtfulness. I feel energetic, open-minded and nimble, but I don’t feel too young. You show your value and people forget age. In business, the people you want to work with don’t care about age anyway.