Edward Bramson: the quiet activist barging into Barclays

Edward Bramson may have failed to secure a seat on the board last week, but past form suggests his Sherborne investment fund will soon be back to shake things up. 

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© Matt Greenslade

© Matt Greenslade / www.photo-nyc.com

Slightly longer than a year ago, when Barclays woke up one day "to find a bull called Bramson in the shop", the City prepared for some sport, says The Guardian. "An activist investor out of New York, with a taste for barging into boardrooms and metaphorically smashing up the crockery," Bramson had taken a 5% stake in the bank in hopes of dictating terms. His chief aim drastically shrinking Barclays' underperforming investment arm put him in direct conflict with CEO Jes Staley (an American, formerly of Morgan Stanley) who had staked his reputation on reviving it as a key engine of the bank.

Trousers from another era

At last week's annual general meeting, Barclays was partially relieved of a troublesome thorn when shareholders voted overwhelmingly to deny Bramson a seat on the board. But this saga is far from over. The financier and his Sherborne investment fund have vowed to fight on and the battle will doubtless be closely followed. Not least because Bramson, who was born in Britain but left in 1975 aged 24, cuts such an intriguing figure not just among corporate raiders but in the 21st century itself. "His suits feature high-waisted trousers from another era and he speaks with a patrician transatlantic accent that gives the impression he has just stepped off the set of a 1940s film," says David Crow in the Financial Times. As one vanquished chief executive later acknowledged, he is also "very quietly spoken, so it's often difficult to hear what he says".

Bramson is such a reserved, not to say reclusive, individual that commentators can't really agree about his character, even though he has been targeting a hotch-potch of underperforming UK companies from his Manhattan eyrie for the past 15 years. In previous tussles, notes The Guardian, Bramson has "never been accused of being excessively charming". Yet the Financial Times singles him out for praise as "the polite activist". Bramson is probably at his most accommodating once a victim has rolled over. After ousting Keith Hopkins, the boss of chemicals group Elementis, in 2005, he wrote "a very kind letter" thanking him for minimising the "disruption" and dangling non-exec roles in "some of his other ventures" as a reward, Hopkins told Crow. One thing almost everyone agrees upon is his extraordinary power of tenacity, says The Daily Telegraph. Behind that "stony face" lies great reservoirs of "steely patience".

Fleeing Labour in the 1970s

Bramson, 68, was born "transatlantic", says The Observer: his mother was British, his father American. Although he spent his early years in England, he upped sticks to Manhattan as soon as he could in the 1970s to get away, he later said, from a country in the doldrums run by a Labour government he viewed as "dirigiste". Once in New York, he got into private equity and wasted no time starting his own firm.

Over the years, Bramson developed a distinctive modus operandi. He "typically" buys a sizeable stake, demands a seat on the board, and then pushes "for cost-cuts, payouts to shareholders and other changes that boost returns". There have been setbacks: in 1987, Bramson reportedly lost $60m when a deal to buy a recording company went pear-shaped. But the over-riding arc of his career has made him immensely rich.

In recent years, the Sherborne fund has reaped average annual returns of 22.8% and attracted big investors such as BlackRock and Aviva. For Bramson, that is sweet revenge for past insults. In a rare interview in 2015, he said he had been called "pond scum".

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