The deal-maker with a point to prove

Martin Gilbert © Getty images
Good for Gilbert – but are SLA’s investors smiling?

Over 35 years, Martin Gilbert has built a small Scottish investment trust into a £660bn powerhouse. Yet the jury is still out on how successful his constant deal-making has been. Jane Lewis reports.

People meeting Martin Gilbert often note how he “bursts” or “swaggers” into rooms. It’s all in keeping with his reputation as the “Scottish bulldog” who came “within a hair’s breadth of disappearing from view” when his firm, Aberdeen, was embroiled in scandal in 2002, noted the London Evening Standard in 2014. “Others have seen their careers ended, their reputations trashed for less.” But not Gilbert.

After rebuilding Aberdeen from the ashes, he pulled off the deal of his life last year when he merged the firm with Standard Life to create an investment powerhouse managing £660bn, says the Financial Times. That was the 43rd deal he’d struck since taking over the running of a small Aberdeen investment trust with two colleagues in 1983. “However, the fact that he agreed a merger with no premium tells the real story.” With its cash-cow emerging-market equity business struggling, Aberdeen had suffered 15 consecutive quarters of net fund outflows. It had to get bigger or shrink further.

Yet a year on, “SLA seems to be going into reverse” – the merger has been plagued by “disappointing performance, flighty investors and falling staff morale”. In March, SLA lost its single biggest client when Lloyds Banking Group pulled out £109bn. And there is still concern over the group’s co-CEO structure, which teams Gilbert with his opposite number at Standard Life, Keith Skeoch. Gilbert has insisted that “their friendship, based on salmon fishing, will keep things sporting”. Not everyone is so sanguine.

A business built in Aberdeen and Asia

Although “a proud Aberdonian”, Gilbert, 62, was born in Malaysia where his parents “had followed other Scottish farmers to work on rubber, cocoa, and palm oil plantations”, said The Daily Telegraph in 2013. He was sent back to Aberdeen aged nine to attend school and stayed on to study law and accounting at Aberdeen University. When he started out in fund management it was “still a tiny little cottage industry”, he once observed. But he had ambitions right from the start. His big break came in 1988 when he acquired Sentinel, a deal that brought in Hugh Young – once described by Gilbert as “really the brains behind Aberdeen’s whole equity investment process”.

In 1992, Young moved to Asia and began building the emerging-markets (EM) business. Back in Britain, Gilbert kept bolting on acquisitions. But it all came to an abrupt halt in 2002, when the split-capital investment trust scandal erupted. Aberdeen was the biggest of several fund managers accused of mis-selling investments that had been touted as having “more safety features than a Volvo”, which collapsed triggering £650m of losses for 50,000 investors. Gilbert was branded a “sophisticated snake oil salesman” by MPs, but clung on: the board said “you got us into this mess, you’d better get us out”, he later recalled.

The split-capital debacle was a “life-changing experience,” Gilbert told the Daily Mail in 2008. But what followed was “one of the most remarkable business turnarounds in modern financial history”. The key to revival was Young’s Asian business, but Gilbert has become celebrated for it. Critics, though, continue to regard him as a “chancer” and addictive deal-maker, whose splurges tended to jeopardise the cash cushion Aberdeen needed when EMs turn down, says the FT. They point out that its rival Schroders has grown just as fast without acquisitions. One view when the SLA deal closed was that “like so many conglomerates built on acquisition, Aberdeen has been found out”.