When John Crowley launched Hawksmoor Investment Management into Exeter’s competitive private client market in February 2008 he had two primary goals in mind.
First, the former solicitor felt private clients had been badly let down by private client stockbrokers and needed a better service, and second, he wanted to build a top-quality fund of funds team.
Nearly 18 months on, the building blocks for the latter have been well and truly put in place with the hiring of former Citywire Wealth Manager cover star Richard Scott and a third former Iimia manager, Daniel Lockyer.
The Exeter office runs money for around 130 clients, with the total client base now standing at about 320 following the acquisition of the investment assets of East Anglian solicitors Ashton Graham.
That deal brought in another £25 million to give the firm a current total just north of £40 million in assets.
Crowley is urbane courteous and measured in his manner, but cannot hide his delight at the firm’s progress so far, especially after a year out of the game when he resigned from Iimia in February 2007.
He cuts a cerebral, bookish figure in keeping with his legal background. He does not waste his words but when he speaks he is clear and concise.
‘We were delighted to be able to recruit Richard, and now Daniel,’ he says. ‘Both have great reputations in the market place and we hope our funds of funds and private business can capitalise on that.’
He believes the pair will also act as a launching pad for the bespoke side too.
It is quickly apparent that a loss of faith in other private client stockbroking firms has helped to drive Crowley’s ambitions to offer something better.
He says: ‘I believe private clients have been broadly ill served by traditional stockbrokers and private banks.’
He reserves most of his ire for those he considers unable to operate outside of what he sees as a limited investment universe based primarily around UK blue-chip stocks.
‘I’m not impressed by anyone who tells you the overwhelming core of your portfolio will be in UK equities regardless of what is going on elsewhere.
‘Many suffered because a lot of private client stockbrokers don’t like straying outside their comfort zones. You might find 50% to 75% of their clients’ portfolios in UK equities – you might as well buy a UK tracker.’
Crawley says the firm offers exposure to a far more diverse asset class base and takes a more agnostic approach to investing.
‘For the first year of our life we have had very little exposure to UK equities and no specific direct long-only UK exposure,’ he says.
Like other former Citywire Wealth Manager cover stars who work at smaller boutiques, Crowley espouses the importance of having a nimble structure.
He adds: ‘Taking that type of top-down decision gives you a much better chance of preserving client wealth in times of market dislocation.’
Again, he is scathing of private client investment managers who hide poor performance behind the benchmark performance.
‘Saying the UK market is down 25% and you are only down 22% does not cut the mustard and is absolutely not what private clients want when they are paying a premium for a bespoke investment service.
‘We have a heavy responsibility to maintain that trust and look after people’s money. At Hawksmoor our risk levels are very calculated, even with our high-risk clients.’
When it came to choosing a name for the firm, getting the right one was not as simple as it might sound. He recalls trawling through all the Great British dictionaries of exotic sounding flora and fauna names but to no avail.
‘Everything that was appropriate had been taken, while everything that was left was too twee,’ he says.
Then Crowley’s love of classic architecture led him to Hawksmoor; Sir Christopher Wren’s apprentice who was responsible for many of the City of London’s finest 18th century churches. Crowley immediately felt that the name would reflect the values and gravitas he wanted to project for his prospective clients.
‘I though the architecture of Hawksmoor sounded the right note and gave excellent opportunities for corporate literature.’
Crowley reveals he has received a lot of complimentary comments over the classic Hawksmoor branded literature and website, which bear all the hallmarks of design and permanence that Crowley was after.
The firm has hit its stride over the last few months, with the latest recruit to its fund management ranks, Lockyer, joining at the start of June following a period of gardening leave after his departure from Iimia.
Crowley himself was on gardening leave for a year before founding Hawksmoor, giving him plenty of time to work with fellow founder and former Iimia director Ian Henderson to get the desired structure in place.
After studying law at Oxford, Crowley switched to the London School of Economics where he undertook a Masters in economics.
His investment career began soon afterwards, as an institutional stockbroker at what was then Schroders Chase Manhattan, and subsequently at Den Norske Bank. He arrived in Exeter in 1993, where he retrained as a solicitor.
Crowley enjoyed his time at Oxford but admits to experiencing ‘exam fatigue’ by the time he reached the end of his course.
After graduating he joined what he describes as ‘Exeter’s most blue-blooded private client law firm’ Anstey Sargent and Probert, a full service law firm with a private client speciality.
Crowley soon became aware of the firm’s sizeable private client departments and found himself flitting between his roles as a solicitor and an investment manager.
Crowley pitched a plan to launch a private client investment team to the firm’s partners in 1997 and on its acceptance, started to do so.
The firm subsequently merged with Plymouth-based Foot and Bowden to make Foot Anstey.
Crowley says the firm did not really know how the private client investment business worked, and the result was the investment department becoming part of a joint venture with fellow solicitors Michelmores.
That joint venture became Iimia in 2002, with the majority of the company from the old investment department of Foot Anstey.
‘It was clear from the start that the people controlling it wanted it to be a funds-focused business,’ Crowley recalls.
He was soon disenchanted with the business direction of the new group, which he saw as moving further and further away from the private client portfolio model.
‘I felt we were falling between the two stools of the IFA business and the funds business and that the team I was running was having progressively less importance at the group.’
The divergence of the business led Crowley to resign in February 2007 and spend his year-long gardening leave planning how best to launch his new his new business.
Eighteen months after its launch, Crowley says it is all about making the business model go from strength to strength. ‘We are still a very young business with
just 10 people. My priority is to make the funds under management sustainable,’ he says.
Crowley is not resting on is laurels however, despite the early successes. ‘We have achieved a hell of a lot in our first year but there is still much to do. We have put in place a solid administration system through clearing house Pershings and have hired two quality managers which gives us the opportunity to move quickly ahead.’
Crowley still looks after around 70 clients, although he admits his time as a client facing manager is slowly being eroded as the corporate responsibilities of being chief executive continue to grow.
He now spends almost as much time in the former Ashton Graham office in Ipswich as he does in Exeter.
The private clients are a mix of old Iimia clients, solicitors, IFAs and ‘people who are starting to walk in off the street’ he says.
Three of the firm’s directors are qualified solicitors with strong links to the profession and Crowley is keen to stress their strong roots in the legal profession. He himself was a founder member of the Association of Solicitors and Investment Managers.
Crowley believes that the scale of the business means solicitors and IFAs are ‘not intimidated’ by Hawksmoor.
‘A lot have heard stories about large investment businesses wanting to take over their clients. Many IFAs are scared they will try to take over their financial planning business but we concentrate purely on investment and have no aspirations to be an IFA.
‘We are looking to add to our IFA partnerships. If we take on an adviser’s clients, the primary contact will always be the IFA.’
When he is not mulling ways to continue building the business, Crowley likes to unwind at his Dartmoor home, where he has a stables.
While his family ride, Crowley prefers to walk and read. He still has a soft spot for singing, having spent the first four years after Oxford as a professional singer.
‘I have appeared in the proms, the South Bank, and at the Barbican,’ he says with pride. ‘It was great fun, but I was never going to be an English Pavarotti,’ he smiles ruefully. ‘I just didn’t want to do it badly enough.’
While he still retains a love of music, it is his determination to keep building on the solid foundations he has put in place for his private client and fund of funds business that shines through.
With his keen eye for detail and his genial manner it is not difficult to imagine Crowley continuing to win the hearts and minds of those wanting to outsource their clients’ investments.
And with Scott and Lockyer now adding weight to the proposition with their global investment nouse, both Crowley and Hawksmoor look well placed to keep building on their early successes.