Hotel

Published in issue 10 of Lionheart Magazine, November 2018. Get the “Bright” issue here.

Hotel

“Stay as long as you like,” he said as he headed out the door. “Take anything you want from the minibar.” That’s quite the offer, isn’t it. It was already late in the morning, but the moment was irresistible: I was in a hotel robe, the sun was filtering into the perfectly air conditioned room, and the sounds of the world were muffled by thick glass and even thicker carpet. It was a moment that seemed to exist outside of time.

Staying in a hotel in the city where you live may well be the ultimate indulgence. I didn’t need to be in that room – I live in London and my house was just a couple of miles away. But from the top floor of a hotel you can actually see across this flat city, as it sprawls on and on. Try as you might, but you’ll never be able to get a proper view of London – the place defies clarity. But we keep trying: Faced with an open view from a hill, or a floor-to-ceiling window in a tall building, we can’t help but stop for a long, slow while and look.

Dwarfed by thick white cotton, I crouched down by the minibar and contemplated a Coca Cola and some salted almonds. This is the breakfast of Joan Didion, a heroine of the in-between moment if there ever was one. Didion would get up in the morning, have her Coke, and get to work. Drinking soda for breakfast is not classy – for that you want black coffee and probably some kind of French pastry. But Joan Didion is one of those people who’s so razor sharp in her elegance that anything she does becomes classy by association. Didion would spend a lot of time in hotel rooms too, bringing with her a typewriter and a mohair shawl along with cigarettes and bourbon.  

I’m not usually one for morning soda, but the moment seemed to call for it. I mean, the minibar Coke came in a glass bottle. Apparently it really does taste better from glass than from plastic, and it’s not something I’m imagining. The sharp sweetness is enhanced further by the heaviness of the bottle in the hand, and the way the fat glass lip feels against your mouth. It’s such a treat: Haven’t we all been trained from childhood to never, ever touch the minibar? It’s wildly expensive compared to the shop just a block away. But if you think about the experience, it’s actually a bargain. For a mere £4, you get to drink a mini bar Coke in a oversized robe in blissful quiet, luxuriating over the view of your own city as the day is just starting.

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A trip too far?

BL Magazine, Sept-Oct 2018. Original article p44-46

On the health impact of business trips, and how employers need to take more responsibility

To have the life of a business hotshot, putting in a couple of hours for meetings before lounging at the pool for the rest of the day – nice work if you can get it, right? But of course you can’t, because this version of business travel doesn’t exist anymore, if it ever actually did. Any lingering luxuries afforded to work travel disappeared with the 2008 credit crunch, and economy flights and tight turnarounds have been the norm ever since. “The guys here take the mickey out of me when I’m going to Dubai, asking if I’m going to the swim-up bar,” says Trevor Norman, Director of Funds and Islamic Finance at VG in Jersey. “But it’s not all fun – business trips are work.”

Seven million business trips are taken every year by UK residents, according to the Office of National Statistics, a number that’s typically risen by 2.8% per year since 1980. A survey by Bristol Airport found that those who travel with their jobs typically head out eight times a year. But frequent business travel can have serious negative effects on health – mental as well as physical. Because there’s a lot going on when you’re travelling for work: you have to get to the airport on time and pass through security, and maybe the plane is late. Trying to sleep in an economy seat is never fun, and you land late at night and maybe there’s only junk food available. You have a few drinks – it’s been a long day – and you skip the gym before crashing into bed for some restless sleep while fighting your body clock. Tomorrow is a day of back-to-back meetings.

There’s a proven link between a high number of days spent on the road and a risk of long-term health issues like heart attacks and strokes. But a study published last December in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine suggests it may be causing some more immediate problems too. People who travel a lot for work are more likely to see their mental health suffering, by having trouble sleeping, being sedentary, smoking, and drinking more alcohol. Anxiety and depression also spiked for those who found themselves frequently on the road.

While most of us probably travel less than 14 times per month – the frequency which the study identified as being particularly harmful – the negative effects can be felt at more moderate levels too. A World Bank study found that the business travellers among its staff were three times as likely to file psychological insurance claims. Health risk appraisal surveys at large corporations routinely show that international business travel is associated not just with poor health, but that it also makes it harder to keep up with the pace of work. This means it’s not just an individual’s problem, but a corporate concern.

“The opportunity to travel is often touted by companies as a benefit in their recruitment of talent, but the accumulating evidence linking extensive business travel to chronic disease health risks needs to be factored into the cost-benefit analysis of the practice,” Dr Andrew Rundle, lead study author and Associate Professor of Epidemiology at Columbia University in New York, wrote in the Harvard Business Review. “Employees simply need to be aware that business travel can predispose them to making poorer health decisions.”

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Dr Bob Gallagher, who heads up occupational health at Queens Road Medical Practice in Guernsey, says that companies are getting better at taking responsibility for their employees’ well-being while on the road. The issue should be considered as part of a company’s risk assessment: “Work travel can cause problems that can make people unwell, or it can make pre-existing mental or physical health conditions worse – or both, as these things are often linked,” says Gallagher. At his practice, Gallagher meets people who travel “an awful lot”, sometimes for weeks at a time. “It’s rare to meet someone who travels often for work who says it’s something they enjoy doing,” says Gallagher – for most people it’s something they have to do for the job and it can be a source of stress.

Common ill effects of work travel include heartburn, acid indigestion, digestion problems, and trouble sleeping, says Gallagher. “If you are below par because you haven’t slept, you’re a bit hungover, you’ve eaten too much food, you haven’t exercised, are you performing at your best? Probably not.” While some of this is down to the individual, companies are starting to realise that it’s their responsibility too. “Organisations need to look at this. They shouldn’t cram the day full of meetings so people can’t have some rest. Make sure people have a bit more time,” says Gallagher.

Ensuring employees don’t return from a mad-dash business trip too tired to drive home from the airport is also a matter for companies’ duty of care, says Andrew Perolls, Director of Business Travel Direct, a travel management company. “Companies have to be more careful about how they look after staff.” This also means ensuring staff aren’t staying in hotels in unsafe parts of town, considering things like access to medical facilities, and also, ensuring the company knows exactly where everyone is in case of a natural or political event.

While Perolls can testify to the fact that the life of the work traveller has sped up – going on a one-day business trip to the US is not unheard of – he also thinks this might be improving. “What people are prepared to put up with is changing,” says Perolls, adding that staff are increasingly bristling at being told to fly budget airlines at the crack of dawn. Especially the millennial generation, who’re now in their 30s, are more attuned to work-life balance: “We know that in specialist professions, they may even look at the travel policy before deciding to join a company if the job involves a lot of travel.”  

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Letting employees choose where to stay (within a budget) is one way to keep people happy – that way they can pick a hotel with a gym, or something in walking distance of good food options. Allowing people to fly out the night before will also prevent stress, as well as ensuring there’s downtime between meetings. Giving people a leisure day or two at the end of their trip is a good way to ensure the trip is a positive event, says Perolls: “It’s a shame going all the way to Bangkok only to see the airport.”

Ensuring you don’t have to run through airport security is always a great start to any trip, but ultimately, travel is an exercise in unpredictability. “Stress can be defined as a perceived lack of control, which is common when travelling,” says David Brudö, co-founder and CEO of Remente, a mental health app that aims to promote wellbeing through planning. Brudö explains how he recently used Remente to plan a trip to Japan, from booking flights and choosing restaurants to scheduling in his meditation sessions on the plane. “When you’re travelling you’re a bit disconnected from the outside world, but this means you actually have some time to take care of yourself. A plane is a great place to just sit and meditate, read a book, and invest in yourself,” says Brudö. Remente also works with businesses looking to improve employee wellbeing: “We see that the more balanced people are, the more productive they are. That’s something businesses are increasingly realising.”

It’s hard to get around the need for business travel – video conferencing is constantly improving, but it’s not a substitute for a handshake. But a stressed organisation is not a smart organisation, and it’s clear that companies are realising that taking care of people is ultimately a sound business decision; Deloitte found that 88% of UK businesses are working towards improving work-life balance for staff. That also means helping people stay healthy on the road, by booking the hotel with the nice gym, or providing resources for meditation or cognitive behavioural therapy. Ultimately, it also means picking the people who enjoy travel to go on trips, while letting those who’d rather not stay home.

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The lifetime flier

Trevor Norman took 90 flights last year, having gone on 18 business trips from his home in Jersey. “I’m constantly travelling,” says Norman, Director of Funds and Islamic Finance at VG, a Jersey-based independent provider of fiduciary and administrative solutions. “My father was BA staff so my mother flew with me even while pregnant. I’ve flown all my life, literally!” He laughs. “I was lucky enough to fly to all sorts of places before people were really travelling. That’s carried on in my business career.”

Norman’s BA record shows he’s flown almost 600,000 miles. He’s got the routine down pat: “In our spare room I have travel drawers with all the bits I need. I have a bag of electrical leads that I just drop in my case. It’s almost instinctive by now.” As he usually flies to the UK first, Normal likes to get that leg done the day before, as he’s done with risking still sitting in traffic on the M25 as his plane boards. “Also, I always allow time between meetings, for something to eat and a comfort break. … I try and relax as much as I can no the plane, have a snooze and try and arrive fresh. I can sleep just about anywhere and don’t tend to suffer much with jetlag – I’m lucky that way.”

Missing home used to be more of a problem when the children were young. “That was stressful for my wife,” says Norman. Although now that the kids have left home, his wife often comes with him on trips, which makes for a lovely time for them both. “I enjoy the travel to see different places and learn about different cultures. I try and see the positive side of it.”

Interview with Jerry del Missier

Hedge Magazine, August 2018. Original article (p42-45).

Starting a New Chapter

Interview with Jerry del Missier, founding partner and chief investment officer of Copper Street Capital 

Jerry del Missier – what’s he like? We might as well start with that, as that’s what everyone asked me after I went to meet the financier at the HEDGE photo studio in South London earlier this summer. Because Jerry del Missier is a name that’s been heard far beyond the usual financial circles: he was the highest paid senior executive at Barclays Capital before resigning in the midst of the Libor manipulation storm. That’s six years ago now, and we’re here to talk about what he’s been doing for the past three: running his own investment company, Copper Street Capital.

If the air at the top was thin, it’s a far more down-to-earth situation for del Missier these days. Much has been made in the press about his modest offices in Maidenhead, near the train station just by the Travelodge. “I feel like we should be getting paid by the Maidenhead Chamber of Commerce for all the publicity we’re getting the businesses around there,” says del Missier, laughing. “But Copper Street Capital is a commercial venture. It’s not a vanity project.” And Maidenhead is really close to Heathrow. “I never fussed much over the trappings of office. I’m perfectly happy being in a small office again, with like-minded people.”

From the way that he talks, he’s clearly content to be in a different season of life, and equally, he’s happy to clean the office coffee machine if the light comes on when he’s using it. (The only difference is, he owns part of the company that makes the coffee. More on that later.) There’s no arrogance to be detected in del Missier and he’s surprisingly modest, at least until you see his shoes. Today he’s wearing a grey suit with waistcoat over a blue shirt, complemented by an orange tie dotted with little zebras. His cufflinks are leather and there’s a Rolex Explorer on his wrist. He seems to know a little bit about everything and a lot about more than most. It doesn’t take long to realise that he is very intelligent and also, clearly interested in the world around him, with an uncanny knack for seeing the big picture.

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There’s about a dozen people at Copper Street Capital now, and del Missier tells me he is looking to add a few more, including in North America as he wants to start covering those markets, too. Del Missier’s dozen has quite the pedigree: he’s been hiring heavyweight names from the likes of Deutsche Bank and Barclays. The premise of Copper Street is to capitalise on event-driven opportunities in the financial services sector, and del Missier says the people are the key differentiator: “There is a core block of operations experience and expertise that allows us to really bring not just that operators perspective but also that insider perspective. You can put yourself in the shoes of the decision-makers inside the banks, because a number of us were those decision-makers not too long ago.” Maybe that’s obvious, del Missier adds, but seriously, the sector has undergone unprecedented change since the financial crisis – massive regulatory reform, upending of capital structure, and an unprecedented macroeconomic environment where central banks have had to resort to low or negative rates for long periods of time. “Direct intervention in asset markets has had a very disruptive impact on underlying businesses – assumptions about profitability are out the window. So if you’ve been on the inside and living through that whole transformation, I think it gives you a perspective that hard to replicate.”

Right now, one of the ways in which Copper Street is “heavily involved in the transformation in the financial services industry” is the situation in Europe, and the three key factors that’s driving driving change there. The first is recapitalisation – European financials have shrunk their balance sheets, raised new capital, and created entire new instruments. “This has created some significant distortion and opportunities, and the complexity of the environment makes it very difficult unless you are a specialist.” The second is restructuring of business portfolios, as new regulation has meant European banks have had to sell off assets. And thirdly, there’s reengineering of business models. “There’s a chart that illustrates this,” says del Missier, digging it out; most European banks still operate below 10% return on equity. “I think you’re going to see consolidation within countries, and in some cases you’ll see banks disappearing as they get broken up and parts get sold into others. “There’s still an awful lot of work to do, and a lot of opportunity to participate in this transformation.”   

The best part of the job, says del Missier, is to be an active participant. “And hopefully, a driver of a constructive transformation of the sector. A healthy banking system is critical to the underlying economic success of a country or a marketplace.” It’s an extraordinarily interesting time, he adds – we’re at a crossroads that people will be talking about in 100 years. There’s tremendous satisfaction in being in it: “I firmly believe that taking Europe from where it is today and up to where it could be is critical for the European economy, and it also represents a huge investment opportunity.”  

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Del Missier was born in Northern Ontario in a mining town called Sudbury. “My parents had immigrated from Italy a couple of years before I was born. My sister and I grew up in an Italian household, and so did everybody else around us – everybody was first generation.” His first job was at 15, taking night shifts at the bakery where his mother worked before switching to construction jobs. “Everything that was made was saved for university,” says del Missier – it was always clear that he and his sister would go on to further education, something their parents never had the chance to do. Del Missier graduated from Queen’s University with a degree in chemical engineering and an MBA in finance. The engineering part was the influence of his father, “as I think that’s what he would have done had he had the chance,” but then the Canadian oil industry collapsed during his undergrad years. This was the 1980s and del Missier realised there was a lot of interesting things starting to happen in finance owing to the massive deregulation: “So I decided I wanted to be an investment banker.”

Del Missier started his finance career in 1987 at Bay Street, the Wall Street of Toronto. The papers often called him a “rising star” at Barclays, but del Missier is quick to point out he was “fairly senior” by the time he started at the British bank. He was in fact ten years into his career, having worked his way up from Scotiabank to a Senior Managing Director of Derivative Products for Bankers Trust, a place he describes as “an extraordinary organisation, a collection of extremely bright, creative people”. That business hit the wall in 1994: “You go through a period where the banks’ reputation has been damaged and the business that you’re a part of suddenly stops and it needs to be rebuilt. … As a firm, you call your fundamental values into question.” Those three years became the most valuable experience of del Missier’s career, he tells me. I ask him what the lesson was: “How you do business is more important than the results that you achieve.” He pauses. “If you compromise on values for performance it’s only a matter of time before you have problems.”

Del Missier has a three year gap on his CV between leaving Barclays Capital and starting up Copper Street, initially with $100m of internal capital before opening the fund to external investors a year ago. The newspaper articles from July 2012 tell the story of how del Missier, then newly appointed COO, left Barclays after 15 years. I’m not going to ask del Missier to recount this – instead I ask if it was a difficult time. He’s not one to look backwards, he tells me. “I’m not bitter about it. It’s life. I’d spent 25-plus years going at full throttle.” The lesson, he says, is that when you’re operating in a regulated industry you have to accept that things can happen when you achieve a certain level of seniority. “Our industry remains in a very political space.” Now though, he prefers to remember the good times. “I’m extremely proud of what we built, extremely proud of the people I worked with. I participated in some of the seminal events of recent times. I mean, my dad was a janitor and my mum worked in a bakery. I’ve been blessed.”

But, I press, when he set up his own company there must have been things he wanted to do differently. “Yes. You have a greater flexibility when you’re a dozen people than when you’re 28,000 people. In many ways the principles are the same, but it gets harder to keep those principles as you grow.” The point, he stresses, is to stay focussed on building the business in a sustainable manner, and not deviating from what you want to do. “I was raised to work hard, and keep my feet on the ground. The one thing you can control is how hard you work,” he says. And also, learn from your mistakes. “I was never afraid to take risk – I’m not talking about trading risk, but I learned long ago that it’s always good to feel a certain discomfort, and never let yourself get too comfortable.”

Del Missier is married to Jane and they have nine-year-old twins – a boy and a girl. “My family is everything. I spend as much time with them as possible.” Asked about hobbies, he tells me about the coffee chain he’s got a hand in, it’s called Boréal, but you can find it by googling “Best coffee in Geneva”, he laughs. I’ve checked and it’s true. He’s also involved in a Burmese restaurant in London called Lahpet, which has me do a double take – you can’t find Burmese food! “Exactly,” he says, looking pleased. I tell him how one of my favourite dishes is the fermented tea leaf salad from a Burmese place in San Francisco, and as I gush about it del Missier shows me the restaurant on Instagram – “lahpet” actually means tea leaf, he tells me. “This is fun stuff – it’s real and it’s not sitting at a computer. But the business takes up a lot of time. … I really want this to be a legacy project.” You want Copper Street to be the thing that people remember about you, I suggest, and he nods: “Yes.”

Copper Street is still at the whims of investor interest and the markets, del Missier says – that hasn’t changed. “But it’s my thing, and I want it to be an extremely interesting experience for everybody who works there. I want it to be the most meaningful thing that they do as well. I stepped into this under no illusion as to how difficult it is to build something from scratch.” He shrugs. “But I always tell the kids, anything that’s worth having is worth working hard for.”

Down the line: How Crossrail is changing London’s neighbourhoods

OnOffice Magazine cover story, August 2018. Original article (PDF).

Station to Station: How Crossrail is changing London’s neighbourhoods

Any new building will change the face of a block. If the structure is significant enough it can even change an entire neighbourhood, like how the Shard propelled the entire London Bridge area into becoming a glitzy business piece of the City. But once in a rare while there’s an infrastructure project that has the chance to transform an entire city.

When this happens, it’s not just about the buildings or the trains that run underfoot – it’s about creating opportunities that will stand the test of time. What kind of legacy do we want to leave for the future? For the people who move through the city on a daily basis, the open spaces and the green habitats around the buildings may well mark the difference between a city that’s merely functional, and a place to love.

Londoners have watched the construction of Crossrail happen around them for nine years now, eagerly anticipating the opening of the Elizabeth line at the end of this year. £14.8 billion has been spent to create a railway that will carry 200 million passengers a year. This is the largest construction project currently taking place in Europe, building 57 kilometres of new track to create a 118 kilometre-long railway set to bring 1.5 million people within 45 minutes of the capital.  

But the train is only half the story. Ten brand new stations have been built along the line, and another 30 have been refurbished. Far beyond that – the surrounding areas have been profoundly influenced by this new lifeline. The presence of this major new transport link has inspired buildings, passages, and squares that will be part of daily life in the city for generations.

At Tottenham Court Road, the new Crossrail station is being built a little way down from the existing station.When you stand at the Newman Street entrance of the new Rathbone Place complex you can see where the crowds will soon make their way. Built atop what was previously a Royal Mail sorting office and a car park, Rathbone Place isn’t an official Crossrail project, but as Graham Longman, Lead Project Architect at Make Architects explains, many of the choices made in this mixed use development were determined by the proximity to the station.

Now, the Fitzrovia site is home to Facebook’s London office, but the presence of the tech giant is barely noticeable when you’re sitting in the garden surrounded by trees and flowers. “It really is all about the garden,” says Longman as he gives me the tour. There are three routes into the green space – two archways covered in glazed jade ceramic tiles, and one that’s open to the sky. That’s the main Crossrail route coming from Newman Street. Make worked with the Space Syntax Laboratory to model how people would flow from the station and into the garden, which makes for a scenic shortcut to the offices and houses of Fitzrovia.

“The garden is like a found space – it’s not obvious as you walk down the street. It’s a pressure valve to Oxford Street,” Longman continues as we find a spot in the shade, behind the public water fountain. The architect says it felt important to give something back to London with this project – central London developments are often tight and this is a relatively large site: “In the 1800s there would have been a lot of garden squares being built. We’re seeing less of that in modern times, but it’s an old model,” he says. “Open, green spaces, and roof gardens and balconies, are so important for people’s states of mind. These are spaces where people can feel happy to be in them.”

Public space, in the form of open squares and green gardens, are a red thread running through many of the architectural projects that have cropped up in the wake of Crossrail. At Canary Wharf, Crossrail Place is a surprising green oasis in the midst of a strictly business area – a deliberate effect, according to Ben Scott, Partner at Foster + Partners, the architecture studio behind Crossrail Place.

“Infrastructure projects act as natural magnets, pulling people in from across the city. We believe they are also an opportunity to create vibrant public spaces and amenities for people, maximising their potential,” says Scott. “The primary planning objective of the project was to create a clear, publicly accessible building that serves both the working population of Canary Wharf and its visitors, as well as the residential neighbourhood of Poplar.”

Foster + Partners worked with Canary Wharf Group to ensure the below-ground Crossrail station and the oversite development had a unified vision. This has been the case for the entire Elizabeth line – in fact, this is the first time that a major UK rail project, complete with stations and surrounding areas, has been designed at the same time. This created a unique opportunity to ensure that the new line not only fits in, but that it actually adds to the character of the city.

For several Crossrail-related architecture projects along the line, public life sits at the centre of new developments. When placemaking practice JTP was tasked with the Dickens Yard development in Ealing in West London, there was no doubt: this was an opportunity to create a new centre for Ealing. “It lacked a town square – it has Haven Green to the north but it didn’t really have a civic open space in the centre of town,” says Ian Fenn, Partner at JTP. Dickens Yard is not directly linked to Crossrail, but a large part of the appeal for the mixed use development is the increased footfall expected from the new trainline.

Dickens Yard sits on top of a former car park, but the square at the heart faces a number of listed buildings, including Christ the Saviour church, Ealing Town Hall, and Ealing Fire Station. “A key driver for the design was to create a series of linked spaces that embraced the context of the surrounding buildings,” says Fenn. “We created a new town square that [opened up] the main entrance of the church. The image was that people would spill out of the church on wedding days and into this new realm in the heart of Ealing.”

Architects working along the Crossrail path through central London have had to work in areas with a strong sense of history that had to be respected. Daniel Moore, Partner at PLP Architecture, says their design for the building sitting atop Farringdon East Crossrail station was bounded by conservation areas on three sides, one of them being Charterhouse Square, a Grade II-listed park that’s being opened to the public as part of the development. “We quickly realised we had to be sympathetic to the local context,” says Moore. “You have to treat it with respect, as these buildings may be sitting on the site for a hundred years – it’s a Crossrail station, so there’s an element of permanence.”

Civic architecture is different – building something that’s distinctly intended to improve the lives of the people comes with a sense of added responsibility. Every architect I spoke to echoed the pride and joy that comes with being trusted with creating something that will last generations – the Crossrail stations themselves are designed to last 120 years. Buildings can find a place in people’s hearts, but a public square, or a garden where anyone can go to have a quiet moment, becomes part of the fabric of the city.

The idea of Crossrail is over 100 years old, and its current iteration – the Elizabeth line – is the result of 20 years of planning, as Head of Architecture at Crossrail, Julian Robinson explains. “When you have a project that stretches over that length of time you’re able to plan in a wider way. It presented an opportunity to take a more integrated approach.” The new station at Tottenham Court Road will introduce a public space on Dean Street; Robinson explains how the space that’s opened up around around the existing Tube station at Charing Cross Road is a result of collaboration, as London Underground has been preparing for the added footfall. “Sometimes it’s serendipity as projects are coinciding, but the reason they’re coinciding is because of the degree of planning.”   

With any major building project in an old city like London, something will invariably be lost. The Saint Giles area by Tottenham Court Road – the “grubby” end of Oxford Street – is probably the piece of London that’s seen the most change as a consequence of Crossrail. The much-loved 1927 Astoria Theatre  had to be torn down to make room, along with the Grade II-listed building at 96 Dean Street. For people who know and love an area, it can be tough to accept what’s lost. But Robinson points out that a great deal of effort has been made to ensure that Crossrail preserves London’s character, and that it will improve the area for the people who use it.

A major civic architecture project like Crossrail is really about creating something for the future. When the scaffolding comes down, the stations will be taller and wider than what we’re used to seeing on the Tube. Londoners and visitors will add the new squares and gardens to their mental maps of resting spots throughout the city. Once the Elizabeth line opens, London will continue to mould itself around its new high-speed rail link – developers will see new opportunities, architects will get more opportunities to create open air, and people will adjust their habits. Because ultimately, Crossrail is about so much more than just a train. “The railway is there for people. London is there for people,” says Robinson. “Without the people you wouldn’t have the railway, and you wouldn’t have the city.”

 

Marcelo Saez, investment director at Argo Capital Management

Hedge Magazine, May 2018. Original article p32-34.

Marcelo Saez, Investment Director at Argo Capital Management

Marcelo Saez uses the word “ideas” a lot when he’s talking about investing. “You have to have a certain degree of curiosity when you invest in emerging markets. A healthy dose of curiosity goes a long way to keep you abreast of developments in emerging markets. It’s not something you read about every day in the newspaper, but you know, if you dig enough around the place you can find good information.”

Saez is the Investment Director at Argo Capital Management, the alternative investment manager that focuses on emerging markets. We’re sitting in Argo’s offices in Mayfair, which is a modern space once you get past the marbled lobby. It’s a mild spring day a few days after the snow melted and Saez is in a blue suit and an open-collared light blue shirt. He’s calm and focused as he talks shop, equally comfortable discussing details as he is the big picture.

Established in 2000, Agro Capital Management operating an an absolute return policy. Saez is part of a half-dozen strong investment team and the way he describes it, there’s a fair amount of discretion: “We pick and choose our investments predominantly from our own research. We look at companies that are coming to the market issuing bonds, and there’s been an increasing wave of those. Last year was the biggest on record on the corporate credit side and this year is meant to surpass that,” says Saez. “As more resources are being devoted to emerging markets, you get a lot more exposure from companies that you may not have heard of before.”

Right now, Saez’s key investment interest is high volatile emerging markets and some of the frontier countries. “I think it’s interesting. You’re seeing a lot of issuance from these places, but in some of these countries you’re not getting a lot of information. There seems to be a big demand for emerging market issuance, and particularly these for names that no one’s heard of before. You have to run your analysis of these countries fairly thoroughly before you get comfortable.”

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Emerging market investment have traditionally been more driven by political instability than mature markets, however recent events in Europe and the US have, to an extent, turned things on its head. “Paradoxically, some of the emerging markets have gone the other way round,” says Saez, noting how Argentina had been the “basket case” of emerging markets for the last 20 years until the country started reforms in 2015.

But still, there’s a trade-off between how much analysis you’d like to do and how much analysis you can do given the time limit – particularly for new issuances. “Given that we are seasoned investors with 20-plus years’ experience for most of the team members, you get to know pretty quickly which areas you need to focus on for a particular country.” Take Nigeria for example: “They used to run a current account surplus, but they’ve started to run a current account deficit since the oil price dropped and that tells us a lot. … The fact that they’re running a fairly conservative fiscal deficit and that their level of debts is very low by international standards, would make us confident that this particular economy has the ability to service its debts. There’s still a lot of challenges, but we got pretty comfortable that these were attractive investments.”

Keeping the promises of an absolute return fund that’s also deep into volatile territory requires a fair amount of diversification. The fund has 50-60 low-correlation positions across the corporate and sovereign sides. “10-20% of our portfolio is what we deem a liquid distress bucket, or ‘fallen angel’ investments – corporates where bond prices are dropping from 100 down to 80 down or even lower. We get quite excited by those low correlation opportunities.”

Saez’s favourite part of the job is putting together the portfolio – piecing together the different ideas. “For example, in February there was a big dislocation in the marketplace because of the VIX Index – it exploded. … At the time we were kind of scratching our heads. We had positions in place, but how could we make any value out of it?” The solution was to hedge the portfolio and go long on volatility. We saw some funds that invested in inverse volatility go from 100 to 4 in the space of a day, losing 90% of their value. “It cushioned our returns nicely. That kind of looking for ideas demystifies the market to an extent. Having the conviction to put those ideas in place is very satisfying.”

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Saez was born in Chile, and the family emigrated to Australia when he was 11 and he grew up there. “I picked up the language quite quickly and I did all my high schooling and university in Australia. It set the foundations, which was a good opportunity as the educational system there is good.” Saez speaks in a hard-to-peg international accent, although the Aussie comes out every time he says the word “Australia”. Saez got his degree from Macquarie University: “I did economics and actuarial studies in Australia and soon found myself working for AMP, a big asset manager there. I was still on the actuarial path when the dot-com bubble happened. … You could see the raw power of the markets and how people were sucked into this trading environment. I decided then that I wanted to go into the investment markets.”

Saez joined a local asset manager called Equity Link, which led him down the fixed-income investment path. The company was taken over by Aberdeen Asset Management, which provided Saez’s introduction to the Latin American markets and eventually saw him move to London in 2003. He subsequently joined a hedge fund called Convivo Capital, which was started by an ex-head of emerging data at Aberdeen. “It was an exciting time to get into emerging markets. Local emerging markets was in the process of being developed, so it was a lot of hard currency stuff, and only a handful of corporates. … It was less benchmark-driven and you had the ability to use long and short positions and really take sides with a particular creditor if you liked it.”

Saez joined Argo in 2011 following a year’s sabbatical, having previously left the Swiss hedge fund Tell Investments. That fund was in the process of being wound down, and Saez figured it was a good time to pause – he was also in the process of getting married. “It’s good to take a break. Sometimes you get too enclosed in a particular market that you fail to take a broader view,” says Saez. “Sometimes the best ideas come when you’re not expecting them.”

Saez and his family live in Wimbledon with their two young children. “They’ve got very thick English accent!” He laughs. The family travels often to visit family in Australia and Latin America. Saez’s favourite thing about London is the multiculturalism and the dynamic. “There’s very few cities in the world where you have so much available.” Saez’s international background must provide a unique perspective, I suggest, and he nods – everyone should travel if they have the opportunity. “To be able to experience another culture opens up a whole new level of understanding, particularly for up-and-coming analysts or researchers. … Go to Latin America or go visit Asia for three months, and you get a whole new world of experience, and you become a better analyst for it.”   

London is a good place to be to maintain a global view of investments, says Saez. He thinks he’ll stay here: “There’s a lot of exciting things going on in London. The biggest one is of course Brexit, which continues to have a huge impact.” Saez is diplomatic in his answer about how Brexit is impacting business, but: “If you slam the door on an opportunity or a market somewhere, it can be hard to open in new markets, particularly if you’re a smaller economy relative to the rest of the world. Unfortunately, we’re finding out that some of the UK’s allies may say one thing but do something entirely different when it comes to trade deals.”

For all its strengths, the financial system can also be pretty fragile – Saez learned that when he watched Lehman Brothers collapse. “Confidence permeates everything else. For all your reputation, if the market loses confidence in you, it can go south very quickly.” Emerging markets have been on a good run but it’s been largely beta-driven, says Saez, who thinks it’s time separate the wheat from the chaff. “People have been coming into the sector and not really been discriminating. A as 2018 develops I think you’re going to see a lot more divergence between countries and corporates. Being long-short as we are, we’re in a better position to disseminate what’s a bad credit from a good one.”

Strange birds

Published in Lionheart Magazine (Issue 9: Land, Water and Air) in April 2018

Strange birds

Wild parrots don’t belong in London but still, they are everywhere. I always find it a little jarring to see one – the shocking green and red typical of a parakeet is starkly out of place. It’s like we instinctively know that English birds should be brown and grey, with a hint of colour on the chest at most. The parakeets are striking outliers: they are characters of a brighter, sunnier place that’s clearly very far away from here.

I suppose your attitude to happening upon a flock of wild parrots in London will depend on who you are – will you respond to this uncanny encounter with awe, or with scepticism? They sure are adorable, darting between the trees, but seeming a wild parrot in an English park also feels like someone messed up and put the wrong bird down on the island.

I feel a bit like that myself in West London – a strange bird in a wrong place. I moved here from East London, my home of nearly a decade, for reasons that were good but ultimately not my ideal choice. I was pretty sour about it at first, but I’ve had some time to think about it and I’ve come to take a more philosophical approach to the matter: what makes a home?

The parrots made England their home by being big and bold. Now, wild parrots are actually one of the most common birds found in London, and their numbers are growing at a rapid pace as winters are getting milder. There’s more of them out West, but they’ve been spotted in all 32 boroughs. In Kensington Gardens there’s a group that’s apparently so tame they will eat out of your hand. Peckham, Brixton and Greenwich also have them living in the local parks. There’s lots of different types: Alexandrine parakeets have been seen in Lewisham, while Bromley has blue-crowned parakeets, and Amazonian orange-winged parakeets have made a home in Weybridge.

No one quite knows how London came to have wild parrots. Maybe they escaped from a film set, or from a hanger at Heathrow Airport, or were set loose when aviaries were damaged during the 1987 storms? The best story is that Jimi Hendrix once released a breeding pair of parrots on Carnaby Street in the 1960s, but like is often the case with myths like that, the truth is probably far less remarkable.

There’s a flock of feral parakeets living not far from my house, and I often see them in the trees in my garden. I enjoy their company a lot. I’ve never seen any wild parrots in East London, so the first time I spotted one out West it felt like it meant something – maybe this place would have its own charm too? London is so big, made up of all these little villages, meaning that wherever you are there will be things that you can’t find anywhere else. One of my favourite things is when someone says something smart to me that I hadn’t thought of. When that happens, it’s like my brain cracks open for a second, with the sheer thrill of it. Sometimes, places are a lot like that too.

Interview with Thomas Deinet, Executive Director of the Standards Board for Alternative Investments 

Published in Hedge Magazine, February 2018. Original article p36-38.


Interview with Thomas Deinet, Executive Director of the Standards Board for Alternative Investments 

“We’re a small organisation with a big impact,” Thomas Deinet tells me as he opens the door to his office. It’s a modest room, just big enough for him and two others alongside a row of filing cabinets. The setting would be unremarkable if not for the fact that we’re inside the elegant settings of Somerset House, and the Executive Director of the Standards Board for Alternative Investments (SBAI) has just led me along the neoclassical grandeur the courtyard and columned hallways. But SBAI is a non-profit so no one cares about crown moulding here, and after all, the real work of establishing a framework for transparency and integrity for the alternative investment sector is happening out there, among the members located all over the world.

Our meeting takes place hot on the heels of a name change: until September of last year, SBAI was called the Hedge Fund Standards Board. It’s a case of evolution, says Deinet, who’s in business formal in a grey suit and modest striped tie, peering through his horn rimmed glasses as he talks in his engaged manner. Since having a hand in the organisation since its start in 2008, Deinet has cultivated a favourable reputation (“a complete industry legend!”) among peers for his work with regulators.

“The industry has evolved a lot from when we started in 2007-8,” Deinet says, explaining the name change. Many of the stakeholders involved aren’t actually focused on hedge funds: “Some are very diversified alternative investment managers doing many different things, including private equity [which falls outside SBAI’s remit]. It made perfect sense for us to move forward by broadening the branding to include other forms of alternative investments,” says Deinet.

SBAI’s membership numbers are on the rise – there’s been a push to expand in the US and the Asia-Pacific – and this has contributed to this broadening of what the stakeholders do. But while hedge funds remain central to SBAI, the group has also found that some stakeholders simply don’t like using that name to describe themselves. “Few of our stakeholders call themselves, or have ever really called themselves, hedge funds,” says Deinet. So yes, this is absolutely a branding exercise: “It’s true that there’s been a bit of negative association, at least in some parts of the world, with the term ‘hedge’,” Deinet nods, adding that some members run strategies without any hedging elements at all. In any case, you don’t need to be a hedge fund to be concerned with alternative investment codes of conduct: “It’s certainly good if other areas of investment to also subscribe to the standards and commit to better practices.”

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SBAI’s success hinges in large part on the fact that the alternative investment industry has really come around to the idea of a code of conduct. “If managers have robust evaluation procedures and good risk management frameworks, and they are transparent and disclose strategies properly to their investors, that’s a good thing. Investors like to see this.” Companies can do a little or a lot – Deinet tells the story of a new joiner which, before even getting in touch, had already completed many of the steps recommended on the SBAI website: produce an administrator transparency report, compile with open protocol risk reporting, present a standardised total expense ratio, and conform with alternative investment standards. “I think this example really is a reflection of how investors enjoy the benefits of better standards and ultimately, and so will any of us who are saving in a pension plan.”

Deinet likens the SBAI way to Kaizen, the Japanese concept where you gradually and continuously improve the way you operate. “The way we do things is quite similar. We constantly look at standards and practices to find areas where something can be improved,” says Deinet, adding that it’s a collaborative effort. “The standards are not carved in stone. No, the standards evolve over time.” For example, there was an issue in 2014 where a company had separate funds for staff versus client money. But which got traded first? Which got the senior traders? How were resources allocated? Did they have skin in the game! SBAI launched a consultation into conflicts of interest after that, leading to amendments of the standards. That includes a requirement to disclose any co-investment by managers to clients, who can then make a call as to what they’d like to do. That’s the essence of the SBAI requirements – comply, or explain why you don’t. But Deinet says that since the new standards on conflict of interest came into force in 2016, everyone complies: “Everyone does things in line with the way we have suggested it should be.”

SBAI standards conformity is voluntary of course, but regulators have more than once made use of the organisation’s materials when creating new rules: “Parts of the Alternative Investment Fund Managers directive were in fact taken from our standards. We’re always pleased when regulators think what we do is meaningful.” Although it’s not always perfect alignment: in the days before our meeting, headlines claimed the Financial Conduct Authority had been critical of the SBAI for not going far enough on fee transparency. When asked about this, Deinet is quick to point out that this was a comment from one member of a working group, before providing a detailed explanation of what exactly SBAI wants when it comes to fees: to have a total expense ratio that gathers every structural costs, including paid-for research, but excluding performance fees and other trading costs. This is because a well-performing fund will have higher fees than a non-performing fund, so adding this into the total expense ratio won’t provide a true basis for comparison, he asserts. “We are crystal clear that we’re not including the performance fees into this calculation methodology.

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Deinet was born in Germany, where he trained as an industrial engineer at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. Business was added to the mix with an MBA from Purdue University in the US. Deinet thinks both elements has helped him at SBAI: “The analytical skills you gain [from engineering] is very helpful in whatever you do.” Deinet spent first seven years of his career in management consulting, working at Oliver Wyman: “I worked with financial institutions around the globe, including banks, asset managers, and exchanges.” This was also the start of his work in alternative investments: “One of my projects there was the so-called hedge fund working group. We were called in to help set up a standards board with a credible framework to improve practices in the industry.” This work started all the way back in 2006, having been initiated by a group of leading industry stakeholders – pre-dating the financial crisis, Deinet points out. Nearly 300 global entities and regulators provided feedback on the working group, which created the first set of standards. The culmination of those years came in 2008, when what is now SBAI was established with Deinet as Executive Director from year one.

Deinet has been living in London for almost ten years now, having moved out from central London to live in Surrey with his family – he has a son who’s 2.5 who brings the energy. Deinet’s favourite part of the city is Kensington Gardens, where he’s also the Commodore of the Model Yacht Sailing Association – one of the oldest model sailing clubs in the country, he informs me. “Building boats gets me back to my technical engineering roots. And it’s fun to compete, racing on the pond.” Deinet feels properly plugged into London life after all these years, both socially and professionally: “The concentration of financial services talent here – we really have this fantastic cluster of expertise, so closely knit together. You can find an expert for everything within a mile or two. I think that’s very impressive.”

Asked about his personal motivations for doing the work, Deinet says it’s a fantastic and dynamic marketplace. “It’s full of entrepreneurs and people who want to deliver good returns for their investors, and investors who want the best possible standards for their investments,” he says. “I’ve always been widely interested in a diverse range of topics. [Here] we can work on many topics and learn very quickly from experts and turn this into good deliverables. … It’s something that feels good to do.”