Perpetual – a matter of perception or reality?

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In public relations, we talk about managing perception, because what people think about an issue is often more important than the reality.

In public relations, we talk about managing perception, because what people think about an issue is often more important than the reality.

A good example recently about managing perceptions is the effect on Perpetual of the uncertainty surrounding the future of its Australian equities fund manager John Sevior.

The perception is that if John departs permanently, it will have a major adverse impact not only on the funds he managed but on Perpetual itself, and the company’s share price immediately reflected this.

But is a fund manager leaving really such a disaster?

The reality is that Perpetual has been in the same position several times before.

Since Perpetual started publicly promoting its fund management business in the early ‘90s, there have been four successive heads of equities, all highly regarded and all high profile – Anton Tagliaferro, John Murray, Peter Morgan and John Sevior.

When the first three left Perpetual, there was little effect on the long term performance of the funds they managed. Most important, perhaps, is that Perpetual was able to promote from within and there was no need for a big name recruitment to fill the shoes of its high profile and very successful heads of equity.

There is every reason to suppose the same will happen if John Sevior elects not to return from long service leave. Indeed there is already a highly regarded manager in place at Perpetual in Matt Williams, who has worked with John for many years and, before that, Peter Morgan. So he has had excellent mentors and knows the Perpetual approach well.

It could be argued that this reality shows that Perpetual’s internal systems – such as the discipline of its equity investment processes and philosophy, the professional development of its people, and its succession arrangements – are first class. Perpetual clearly has a terrific track record in recruiting people who become excellent equity managers, not always with previous experience managing money.

Yet these realities are overlooked in the perception that the senior fund manager is irreplaceable.

Whenever a well-known fund manager (usually an equity manager) leaves their job at a fund management organisation – whether it is to join another company, for personal reasons, or to set up their own boutique investment management business – there is a lot of excitement and public debate, and the perception is that good performance is not likely to continue. But in reality, fund performance is usually largely unaffected.

In nearly every instance, not only do organisations survive in the long-run, but the fund performance continues as strongly as before, if not better.

All fund management organisations, whether small and large, must have a plan in place that deals with the possibility that their top talent may one day want to leave – particularly if the individual’s profile is a large part of the business’s profile.

Some financial services organisations try to prevent problems by restricting their fund managers’ public image, but this is a mistake in communications terms. Funds management is a “people” business and investors want to hear from the people handling their money as well as having trust in the organisation itself. Who better to show the expertise of the people handling the money than the person running the fund?

A high profile fund manager can help attract funds as well as keep investors loyal. However that loyalty needs to be the fund and the organisation and to achieve this, fund management organisations should communicate the strength of their investment process, the discipline of their approach, the rigour of their systems, their succession plans, the continuity of performance and the quality of the team.