JPMAM’s Berens: We don’t want to be the biggest – we want to be the best

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“The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.” This is an often-quoted tenet of Winston Churchill and one that clearly resonates with Jasper Berens, JPMorgan Asset Management’s head of UK retail.

While Berens’s career has been firmly rooted in fund management from the start, his university years were spent in Bristol studying for a degree in history. “It was a really useful arts degree,” Berens says. “History teaches a number of things; being balanced on getting your views across, that history often almost repeats itself but slightly differently – it chimes – and that people make the difference. This is also true in fund management. Fund management is about people.

“I felt fund management was the most interesting part of financial services, the most creative. I liked the sound of it – it is about understanding people. It is a very constructive industry. It is about people’s lives and dreams and making life better. Everything is geared towards making people money.”

Berens marks 20 years in the fund management industry this year, having begun his career as a sales support executive at Hambros Fund Management in 1993. While clearly an advocate of constructive change in the financial services sector, he has been rather more steadfast in his career. Over three decades he has changed jobs only once, although as is often the way in the industry he has worked for six differently-named companies. Indeed, he has spent the past 17 years working in the same office building. One imagines it may be quite a shock when JPMAM moves offices next year.

Berens left Hambros in 1997, shortly after the firm merged with Guinness Flight to form Guinness Flight Hambro. He moved to Fleming Asset Management, which merged with Save & Prosper in 1998 and was bought by US giant Chase in May 2000. Just four months later Chase acquired JPMorgan, and JPMorgan Fleming Asset Management was created.

In 2001, Berens was appointed head of asset management sales, with a promotion to head of UK sales following in 2005, the year JP Morgan dropped the Fleming name. Last year he was appointed head of UK retail.

Having seen the fund distribution business from a number of different levels, what wisdom would Berens impart to his younger self? “I would have told myself to be more patient about investment returns. The whole investment community needs to be patient. By definition it is impossible to be right all of the time as there will always be fluctuations in the markets and rotations.”

It was back in 2005 that Berens identified the value in building the group’s reputation and brand in the adviser market. “We did significant research in the intermediary market and what came back – to paraphrase – was advisers saying ‘we don’t know who you are, but we like the sound of you’. So we made the decision to build around the product range with educational tools and not just focus on fund management.”

Berens was not the only one to recognise the need to reach out to advisers. In 2006 the FSA created the RDR: “It was an extraordinary thing, the RDR coming about in 2006. The regulator wanted to help advisers, and JPMorgan was at the front of that. So the RDR was a very helpful event. We have always been a supporter of the RDR. Having a fully functioning, sophisticated, certified advisory community is something this country needs.

It is now six months since the RDR came into force and in the post-RDR environment JPMorgan has, as one would expect, changed its outreach to advisers, with the focus now on helping them to understand the capital markets better.

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‘We don’t want to be the biggest, we want to be the best. My ambition is to be one of the leading groups in terms of sales’

“We are doing less of the academy work, which was to help advisers understand their business up until the RDR. Post-qualification they don’t need so much help in this area, they want to understand the investment markets better. They need to prove to clients they are sophisticated. So that’s what we are focused on. Our guide to the markets is about 60 pages of facts about the markets, which advisers can use to relate to their clients better and become even more valuable. JPMorgan is in a strong position. We are using intellectual capital that will add significant value to advisers.”

While Berens is confident in JPMorgan’s ability to assist advisers and add value to their business, he is quick to point out that the whole industry is still feeling the lie of the land post RDR.

“There are a number of unanswered questions about the RDR. The key question is how much advisers will outsource and this will determine whether they use solutions-based or block products. It is still too early to work out. We shouldn’t underestimate how big the changes of the RDR will be. They will be significant both in the UK and globally. The consequences will be unprecedented. The fund management industry will work out that, after advisers, they will be the next to be impacted. The RDR will impact products, prices and distribution.”

He believes that the conversation on super-clean share classes is a tricky one but something the group has to address. He admits that the group has not yet decided if it will offer them but adds that if it goes down that route it could be impossible to turn back, and then it may be a race to the bottom. Berens says that he wants to ask ‘what is a fair price for investments?’ and discuss it with the market.

A glance at JPMorgan’s UK fund list shows the group has an extensive suite of products – the range totals 65; 43 sterling-denominated oeics and 22 investment trusts – and Berens has made it his mission to make sure they are hitting the mark.

In some areas JPMorgan has been innovative and market-leading. Berens points out that the group was the first to introduce a US equity income fund into the UK market; the mandate has proved popular and has grown to $2.3bn (£1.5bn) in the four years since its launch. In July 2010, spurred on by its success, JPMorgan launched the Global Emerging Markets Income trust. 

Another successful launch, the trust is now £275m in size and is unique, Berens says, in that it has run at a premium every day bar one for all of its three years. No surprise then that an Oeic version was launched last July. “This is exactly the type of product we should be launching and building,” Berens adds.

Among the solutions-based products, JPMorgan has the £304m Cautious Total Return fund, launched in 2005, and the £203m Multi-Asset Income fund, which Berens describes as a one-stop shop for advisers, providing an income stream and capital growth. More recently the group created the Fusion Fund range, a five-strong suite of funds-of-funds run by Tony Lanning, who joined the firm from Henderson in May.

In the past two years the market has been awash with risk-rated propositions as fund groups have rolled out the funds to meet advisers’ requirements for cost-effective solutions that accommodate clients’ needs and reduce administration. Is it fair to say that perhaps JPMorgan was late to the party on this one?

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‘We can compete with M&G, Jupiter, Standard Life and BlackRock. We could be top three in terms of sales in five years’

Berens admits: “There was a considerable chunk of advisers we thought we could get to through the multi-asset whole-of-market funds. But advisers said they liked what we do but they wanted whole-of-market fund of funds.” 

JPMorgan’s assets under management in the UK funds business total £20.5bn, taking into account the Oeics, investment trusts and the Luxembourg Sicavs available in the UK. Berens says this places it in the top 12 fund groups in terms of both assets under management and sales.

“We don’t want to be the biggest, we want to be the best,” Berens says. “The UK is horrendously competitive – there are more managers per capita than anywhere else in the world.

“My ambition is to be one of the leading asset management groups in terms of sales. We can compete with M&G, Jupiter, Standard Life and BlackRock. We could be top three in terms of sales in five years.

“We are getting our stars aligned. We need outstanding investment performance, which is coming, a strong brand, which we have, a strong reputation, which we are developing, and a strong, focused sales team, which we now have. Put all together, that is what makes a group successful.

“M&G, Invesco Perpetual and Fidelity – they have done what we are now doing. The benefit of history is to think of which groups have been successful.”

With that thought resounding in my head, I make my way out into a rather grey day in London, leaving Berens to contemplate his weekend. A Saturday afternoon spent playing cricket awaits, and perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that he has played for the same team for 25 years. Berens – steadfast to the last.

Quickfire questions:



What would our readers be surprised to know about you?

   

They would be surprised to know that I once worked as a motor-bike courier, and that Catherine Oxenburg (Amanda Carrington) of Dynasty fame is my Godmother. 

What have I learned in the past week?

Two things. Firstly, I am fortunate enough to be responsible for both our open-ended funds in the UK and also our closed-ended investment trusts. The successful launch of our JPMorgan Global Convertibles Income Fund has proved that the closed-ended fund market and industry is very much alive and well and that as more and more advisers build ever better portfolios for their clients, they avoid the breadth and diversity that investment trusts can bring them at their peril. Secondly, I have learned that my ability to absorb a given level of alcohol has reduced each passing year.