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Wealth Manager: Ashcourt CIO Meadows on his part in the turnaround

Wealth Manager: Ashcourt CIO Meadows on his part in the turnaround

Toni Meadows is a man who likes a challenge and the opportunity to stamp his own authority on a business undergoing change.

Joining Ashcourt Rowan as chief investment officer in March, he came on board at a time when the firm had already undergone something of a revolution since chief executive Jonathan Polin took the helm in August 2011.

‘I have worked in a number of businesses going through change and that is one of the things that attracted me to Ashcourt Rowan,’ Meadows says.

‘But I am no sucker for punishment. We had a lot here already – we are a decent size and have good client retention. We have had a change of management and have done a lot of work on the structure of the business. We now have a good base in place and are positioned for the next growth phase.’

Much of Meadows’ focus has been on building a centralised and co-ordinated investment process and ensuring this is communicated effectively across the business.

Ashcourt Rowan as a group runs £4 billion across its 16 regional offices, with the assets under management roughly split 50/50 between its discretionary arm and Ashcourt Rowan Financial Planning.

The discretionary business has three core service offerings, which means it can cater for every different type of client in a financial advisers’ client bank, Meadows says, with internal and external adviser referrals being the group’s largest source of new business.

The managed portfolio service (MPS), which could be viewed as the base level entry point, comprises eight risk-graded models, which have a single manager and so are delivered in a consistent core format.

The bespoke portfolio service is the next step up, providing asset allocation based on the managed portfolio service, but with clients having an individual named manager.

‘The bespoke portfolio service uses our core best advice lists but can also include direct investments,’ Meadows says. ‘It takes account of any capital gains tax (CGT) liabilities the client may have and they get a named fund manager, so there is a lot more personal contact. It is designed to be bespoke.’

Savoy is described as the group’s tailored and arguably most prestige offering, catering mainly to its biggest clients. Although Savoy was formerly run as a separate company, it is now a service offering within the business.

 

The mandates are individually run and have the flexibility to manage legacy portfolios within them, while having a broader best buy list and the ability to hold international direct investments.

‘They have different entry levels but it also depends on the clients’ needs. But high net worth clients with no legacy portfolio or CGT constraints could go to the MPS – we have services to cover the needs of everyone,’ Meadows says.

‘You can have a portfolio of funds backed by our investment research or have a mandate that blends funds and direct investments. We have an experienced team who are also running direct portfolios.’

The group’s core mandates are all managed taking a multi-asset approach with traditional equity and bond holdings blended with negatively or non-correlated alternatives, including hedge funds, physical property and volatility.

In its higher risk models, Ashcourt Rowan takes a thematic approach as a way of segregating its equity positions and can hold more esoteric funds, such as single country emerging market, private equity and specialist funds, which are focused on a specific sector or theme.

The core asset allocation guidelines on the managed portfolio service’s eight risk-graded mandates are set by the group’s investment committee with these acting as the neutral weightings for the bespoke portfolio service. The managers of the bespoke service then have the flexibility to under or overweight these neutral allocations to different asset classes by 10%.

Ashcourt Rowan’s asset allocation committee comprises the core eight-strong research team, which Meadows heads, and includes Alan Scrimger, who joined the firm from Standard Life Investments last month as head of fund research.

‘We have a series of committees. The asset allocation committee comprises the core team of eight in research. For collectives, some investment managers in the regions have a dual role in running money and research where they have a particular area of expertise,’ Meadows says.

‘We also pull absolute return funds out of the collectives committee, so we can manage them in a sub-portfolio as a house.’

The group’s fund research blends quantitative and qualitative analysis, with the quantitative used to inform the qualitative,’ he says.

 

Although the team does use screening, a lot of emphasis is put on meeting with fund managers and company management on the direct equity side, and Meadows says they like to see the ‘whites of their eyes'.

The team holds a quarterly meeting on the house view and he says it is important to be inclusive with the regional managers with a particular knowledge base in funds, macro or alternatives, who also sit on the relevant asset allocation committees, all involved.

‘The service is centrally reported but locally delivered and we want to be inclusive and get everyone involved. We have good internal communication. All of our research is presented in a standardised format, and branded and distributed throughout the company.’

The various committees also meet monthly and more regularly when required as well as producing weekly notes, monthly news and views and an in-depth biannual investment strategy document, all of which are available to clients.

To stimulate debate, Meadows also sends out a four-page daily note at 8am with the firm running an in-house discussion forum, which he describes as the firm’s own mini ‘Alphaville’.

Indeed, communication is a key theme in the conversation with Meadows and he has clearly put considerable effort into ensuring it is as clear, thorough and concise as possible. The firm ensures there is a centralised approach, but one that still enables the regional managers to express an informed view based on their understanding of their clients.

‘I wanted the firm to have a lot more central co-ordination and direction, so it is about Ashcourt Rowan and the brand is not reliant on any single person, including me,’ he says. ‘The asset managers have the ability to express a view based on the client but they are covered by and supported the central team, which only has one job: investment research.

‘I have got a lot of experience of running this type of service and the private client process and structure and I have also worked in businesses going through a lot of change.

‘I’m not averse to repetition when it comes to what the firm stands for. It builds the corporate culture and eventually other people will talk your story,’ he adds.

 

Meadows has been working on the private client side for well over a decade now, but started out at Mercury Asset Management in 1992, a time he remembers with evident fondness.

‘I worked with some very influential managers there and you learnt a lot by just observing these amazing stock pickers,’ he recalls. ‘All investment managers are fallible but the guys that become great are those that have the conviction to back their judgement.

‘It was a great place to start and I always believe you are coloured in terms of work and attitude by the firm where you begin your career.’

He later left Mercury with the head of its specialist equities team to set up a pan-European equity hedge fund.

‘It was just a couple of years after Crispin Odey launched his fund and there were not many European hedge funds around at the time, but it seemed an attractive opportunity at 27 years old,’ he says. ‘I had a successful three years there and it was great experience moving from a large institution to a start-up firm and it gave me the appetite for change.’

Meadows moved across to the private client side in 1999, joining Close. He said the firm was ahead of its time in many ways, as it was already running risk-rated portfolios, an approach many other groups have only more recently adopted.

It didn’t quite click for him, however, as he did not like the execution of the process and he was persuaded by a colleague to jump ship to Gerrard with him.

As it turned out, his stint there proved relatively short-lived, at two years, as he returned to Close with the colleague who had originally persuaded him to leave.

‘I had written a paper on Close when I was at Gerrard and when I went for the interview I put it on the chief executive’s desk. He said I had got it right and gave me the job,’ he says.

‘Close had just bought Noble Money Managers and I oversaw its integration and the development of its investment process and core mandate delivery. In 2010 they launched the Oeic range using the original mandates set up in 2004 and I ran that.’

But eventually Meadows got the bug for change again, leading to his switch to Ashcourt Rowan – which he believes has the right team to become a major force in the post-retail distribution review world.

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