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Takeover moves investment services into new territory.

Albert E Sharp has dominated Birmingham stockbroking for so long that its takeover last autumn by Capel-Cure Myers, itself owned by the South African Old Mutual - to be floated on the London stock market later this year - inevitably takes the provision of financial services in the city into new territory.

In a sense, there is less choice for investors. Capel-Cure Myers' long-established Birmingham office is in the process of being merged into the new Capel-Cure Sharp and is set to move into Sharp's glitzy headquarters in Temple Court over Easter.

In fact the two have had a similar approach to investment for some time. Some Capel-Cure people were surprised to find that their firm's investment strategies were even more structured and disciplined than Sharp's.

"It is very much 'top down'," said Mr Vincent Hopkins, the regional director now running the combined C-CS in Birmingham.

Investment decisions start with a committee taking a view of macro-economic factors. From there, analysts examine the implications for various sectors of activity and only then do they start looking at individual companies within those sectors.

With one or two exceptions, Sharp's fund management analysts have now moved to London to join the national research centre previously established by Capel-Cure Myers.

The merger has also created a considerable force in unit trusts, which now manages pounds 850 million in 13 funds, although some of them may be combined in due course. To all outward appearances the combination of the two businesses is going smoothly, helped by the fact that most of the people involved already know each other as members of Birmingham's fairly tight-knit stockbroking community.

Investors seeking sophisticated and well-researched portfolio management with a full array of financial services should gain from the benefits of size.

Yet it is an important change. Birmingham now has only one big independent stockbroker, Harris Allday - and for historical reasons many of its clients come from outside the West Midlands.

One of Sharp's leading competitors, who asked not to be identified, said: "One of the things they focused on was their independence and now, wrap it up as they like, they are part of a South African insurance company.

"They have got a new message to get across. As a result of the deal some of the older people have either gone or are going and there is a lot of uncertainty in the lower ranks."

Be that as it may, there have been few senior job changes between Birmingham stockbrokers in recent months, certainly nothing resembling the general post that accompanied the simultaneous arrival of Brewin Dolphin, Greig Middleton and Williams de Broe in the mid-90s.

That experience has made broking firms more wary than they used to be in drafting the contracts of their senior employees and directors.

"You can go off to a new job, of course, but it is very difficult to take your clients with you," one broker noted.

An active recruiter is Quilter & Co, which has just taken on an extra floor at its office in Bennett's Hill and signed up Mr David Juppe from Sharp as a director.

"We have got room for a few more.

"We are acquisitive," said Mr David Loudon.

The new ownership of Sharp makes a clean break with the difficulties of last year when it upset some private clients after its settlement system ran into trouble and irritated a number of local professional firms by raising fees.

It is now bringing its settlement operation back in-house and transferring the work to the existing Capel-Cure Myers system.

Mr Gordon Harvey at the original C-CM office in Birmingham believes that the cost of up-dating systems and making them compatible with the Internet will lead to more stockbroking mergers in the next couple of years.

C-CS, he said, was the first to enable clients to check the valuations of their portfolios on their computers at home.

One prediction made at the time of the takeover has failed to materialise.

Although Old Mutual is overwhelmingly a personal finance organisation, it has made no move to sell Sharp's institutional wing, which still trades under the name Albert E Sharp Securities.

Its director, Mr Tom Morris-Jones, rejects suggestions that it is too small to continue on its own.

"The world is coalescing into the very big people and the boutiques of which we are one," he said.

"There is no reason why we should not continue as that within the group."

A comparable polarisation has developed in private client stockbroking.

C-CS's hard-edged fund management techniques providing sophisticated services for trust funds and fairly wealthy individuals represents one extreme. At the other lies the execution-only service pioneered by ShareLink in Birmingham before it was taken over by the American Charles Schwab.

Both are already active on the Internet, although there is no sign yet of Schwab's British clients following the craze for frantic "day" dealing that has developed in its parent office in San Francisco. British Stamp duty on share purchases probably makes it too expensive.

In between the poles lies the area of advisory, or semi-advisory, services that were the hallmark of traditional stockbroking in Birmingham. Most brokers would like to persuade the clients who use these that they would do better to entrust the whole thing to them, go for a discretionary service and pay a fee for it.

All, though, take care not to frighten off clients who are used to making investment decisions for themselves - and one or two small firms do make a point of providing strictly an advise-and-deal service without any ambitions to manage portfolios.

"Under no circumstances will we pressure people down the discretionary route," said Mr John Cadwallader at Brewin Dolphin.

"If the client wants 'X', the client gets 'X' as far as possible. We welcome advisory business with open arms."

Like others, he is keen to grow his fee income. Clients who pay fees are charged lower rates of commission. And when they sign up for a discretionary service there is still a good deal of flexibility.

"The way we run discretionary is not based on asset allocation and core stocks," Mr Cadwallader said.

"We take the view that the portfolio is the job of the client executive. We give him the tools to do his job and we expect him to structure the portfolio.

"But we don't believe in telling our fund managers 'You put 10 per cent in this and five per cent in that, buy SmithKline Beecham'. You have got to give the fund manager a bit of autonomy."

Brewin Dolphin's acquisition last year of the respected Newcastle broker Wise Speke was now providing valuable research into small and medium-sized companies, he added.

"We get a lot more power to our elbow as individual fund managers," he said.

"At the top end of the market it is all about quality and service.

In a recent seminar, Mr Geoff Miller, Brewin Dolphin's ex-Wise Speke strategist predicted 'a game of two halves' for the British stock market this year, with bonds and big companies doing well in the first half and smaller and cyclical companies taking up the running in the second.

By some accounts, Greig Middleton has made less impact in Birmingham, particularly among the professional community, than might have been expected from the strength and size nationally.

But Mr Giles Vardey, chief executive, said the Birmingham office "has made huge progress and is very successful", although all round the country at present stockbroking is very fluid.

"The fact that we are doing very well doesn't mean that we cannot do better," he added.

"If people think we are not doing things that we should in Birmingham, I assure you that we will. We are developing our business in quality as well as quantity.

"Birmingham is a very, very important area for our business and the opportunities are considerable."

Mr Vardey is also keen to build up Greig Middleton's corporate finance operation, in the West Midlands and elsewhere. At present its acts as broker to 63 companies across the country.

Both Brewin Dolphin and Greig Middleton are among several organisations that have shown interest in absorbing Harris Allday, according to Mr Ron Treverton-Jones, senior partner.

"We are one of the largest independents nationally and intend staying that way," he said.

"We have had approaches from all sorts over the past year, but the answer is always the same.

"Naturally there is always the possibility that someone has more money than sense."

Harris Allday is also sticking to its distinctive policy of relying on commission income and not charging fees.

"Non-charging for investment management is probably leading us to winning more beauty parades than we would expect," Mr Treverton-Jones said.

"Eighty per cent of the market place is now fee-charging."

Several accounts with funds managed by professional firms were transferred to Harris Allday from other Birmingham brokers last year, although there have been fewer since Sharp was taken over.

"We are growing really significantly. If anything, the upheavals in Birmingham have been helpful to us. Birmingham professionals are increasingly apprehensive about dealing with ever larger firms," Mr Treverton-Jones added.

Mr Treverton-Jones is another who takes care to handle clients gently when he raises the possibility of making their accounts discretionary.

First he encourages them to use the nominee service to save paperwork.

"Once they have made the change, it puts them at a remove from the companies. The next move to become discretionary is then easier," he explained.

So far, though, only a fifth of Harris Allday's clients use nominee accounts, appreciably fewer than across stockbroking as a whole.

"We allow flexibility to the individual fund manager to be able to respect the wishes of the client," Mr Treverton-Jones continued.

"But 10 partners deal with 90 per cent of the clients, so there is a similarity in our approach.

"If we are contemplating a major change of emphasis - to move into cash for instance because we think the market is going to fall sharply - we would like to think it would be sensible at least to inform the clients and have discussions with them."

Harris Allday has made no acquisitions since it absorbed Roy James four years ago. Expansion has come from internal promotion.

Mr Adam Martyn-Smith was recently made a partner after 10 years with the firm.

"We would look at approaches from a whole firm, but in a partnership situation it would be unlikely for us to open a cheque book," Mr Treverton-Jones said.

"We try to home-grow the business rather than taking over others, but we are happy to talk to individuals from other firms if they want to take a more flexible approach for their clients - but they have got to bring clients."

Harris Allday underscored its commitment to an independent future last October with a hefty investment in technology when it switched over to the CONSORT settlement system. Partners had considered following Sharp to Pershing, a specialist settlement company in London, but in the event decided to go on doing the work themselves.

"It was a substantial investment," Mr Treverton-Jones said.

"We replaced every computer in the office, 170 of them, a year and a bit before the Millennium.

"There were teething troubles in the first month, but all the basic systems are now working well."

Five years after it opened in Birmingham, Quilter is one of the firms repeatedly mentioned as a growing force.

"We are included now in shortlists of three," said Mr Loudon.

"It does not matter if we don't win them. Being there is important.

"We are very encouraged that we have gradually acquired a presence. It takes time for the firm's name to get known. Good administration is very important."

Quilter's investment technique is based on model portfolios confined to shares that it has researched.

"When we manage funds we stick pretty closely to our in-house recommendations on particular stocks. In an advisory situation, if we don't know about a stock we will tell a client so, although we have access to other people's research."
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Author:Economics, NEVILL BOYD MAUNSELL
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Feb 26, 1999
Words:2001
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