Hutt Valley teacher became founding chief of the New Zealand Super Fund
‘‘He never mistook his good fortune for entitlement. He scoffed at hubris and valued humility.’’
Paul Costello Super fund chief b February 10, 1957 d November 5, 2018
Paul Costello, who has died aged 61, knew early that he did not want to follow his family’s farming tradition – he was attracted more to books than animals. This inclination was heightened after he broke an arm in a riding accident and spent his recuperation reading, and he went on to be a pioneer of the superannuation fund industry in both New Zealand and Australia.
As chief executive of the NZ Super Fund, he was its first employee when it began life in 2003, with $2.4 billion to invest. At the latest count, in November, it was valued at $39.3b, and widely considered among the world’s best sovereign wealth funds.
After three years at the helm of the Super Fund, he went on to repeat the feat with Australia’s Future Fund, the national wealth fund seeded by the sale of the government’s last tranche of shares in Telstra. The A$60b fund he started with is now worth $180b.
Shortly after he joined the Future Fund, the global financial crisis threatened disaster for the world economy, and the fund was at the front lines of Australia’s response. Lindsay Tanner, then Australia’s finance minister, says he appreciated Costello’s support through the period. ‘‘I found him a class act in every respect. He was a rare combination of intellect and decency.
‘‘He was very good at explaining his strategy and making sure I understood what was happening.’’
In fact, Costello used the crisis to make hay while the sun shone. At the start of the GFC, the Future Fund was about two-thirds in cash and was able to use this liquidity to buy distressed assets that would turn handsome profits in later years.
Costello was born the eldest of eight children of Dave and Colleen Costello, a Canterbury farming family. After finishing high school, he studied arts and went on to become a teacher and, for a time, a tour guide in South America, after doing a quick course in Spanish.
On a posting at Hutt Valley High School, he met and married fellow teacher Denise Ryan. Paul initially stayed with teaching while Denise transferred to her career passion of journalism.
The couple moved to Sydney following Denise’s journalistic path, and Paul taught at Scots College. Soon he did postgraduate studies in business, a move that would soon come to define his life. They moved to Melbourne, where Denise joined The Age
while Paul took up a position with Superannuation Trust of Australia, now part of Australian Super, the country’s largest super fund.
Costello went on to serve as a member of the Reserve Bank of Australia’s Payments System Board and the Qantas Superannuation Fund. He also served as the independent chair of the Queensland government investment fund QIC’s infrastructure investment committee, as a board member of insurance group AIA and the Salvation Army’s super fund.
‘‘Paul was a pivotal figure in the super industry, and an enormous asset to the Qantas Super board,’’ its chairwoman Ann Ward said.
In recent years, he started to enjoy the fruits of a successful career, travelling with Denise extensively in South America and spending time in France. Together they built their dream holiday home in the mountains near Wanaka. The move typified Costello’s great vision, with Denise christening the block ‘‘Rabbits and Rocks’’ when they first bought it.
Shortly after the purchase, Costello was diagnosed with cancer, but they pushed forward with the project, completing it in time for him to enjoy it before his death.
The final stage of his life was difficult, but he approached it with courage and humility, spending time with his family and tackling each part of the journey as it appeared. A persistent cough evident from October 2016 was diagnosed as lung cancer, which had spread to his brain by February 2017.
He fought the illness with radiation, chemotherapy and an expensive drug treatment, but the benefits didn’t last. He began an experimental new treatment in 2018, which had a miraculous effect, turning his situation around immediately and giving him six more months with his family.
His memorial in Melbourne was attended by 280 people. Costello’s friend and corporate governance expert Dean Paatsch told mourners: ‘‘He was blessed with a cracking sense of gratitude. He’d often wonder aloud to me at just how fortunate he was – with Denise, with his kids, his career, even during his illness. He never mistook his good fortune for entitlement. He scoffed at hubris and valued humility.’’
‘‘He noticed important things. And he had a world-class bullshit detector.’’
Costello is survived by his wife, children Harry and Caitlin, his father Dave, seven siblings and partners, and 22 nieces and nephews.