Global focus, Yorkshire roots

Global focus, Yorkshire roots

Andrew Aitken, head of UBS in Yorkshire, has perfectly respectable Yorkshire roots, even if he and his firm have enough global knowledge to help you invest.

For many years it was a subject of gossip among many financial advisers and wealth management professionals working in Yorkshire.

Would UBS, one of the biggest global names in the wealth management industry, finally open an office in Leeds, as many of its competitors already have done?

Given that the organisation already had offices in both Manchester and Newcastle, worked by staff who were already serving Yorkshire adequately, the question might seem superficial.

But a presence in a region matters, especially when you consider that UBS has more clients in Yorkshire than in any other region in the UK outside London.

Last year the bank finally ended the rumours and opened an office in City Square. And not only is it now present in Yorkshire, but the person it has chosen to head the new Leeds office can claim to be an authentic Yorkshireman, - by way of Kentucky, New York, and, latterly, London.

Andrew Aitken was born and brought up in Guisborough (the more pernickety person might claim this is in Teesside, but officially anywhere south of the Tees still counts as Yorkshire).

His foray across the Atlantic came about because he proved to be a champion swimmer, and won a scholarship to study at the University of Kentucky, where he says the sports facilities, and the way the university course was run, were much more attuned to the needs of someone who was bidding for a place in Olympic history.

“I know it’s probably better now,” he says, “but back then in 1991 there were probably only five to six competition-standard pools in the whole of the UK. And yet there were three within the University of Kentucky campus alone.

"I also don’t know how the guys I was competing against who stayed in the UK then managed to do a degree, because unlike in the UK over in Kentucky everything was structured and built around our training.”

As it turned out the closest Andrew got to medal glory was being in the final of the men’s backstroke race in the Commonwealth Games in Victoria, Canada, in 1994.

He failed to make the grade to be in the Great Britain Olympic team for Atlanta in 1996, and so his swimming career came to an end – although he has admired from a distance the success of the swimmers in Team GB at London 2012. But even at this point, he says, support for sports students in looking at alternative careers was much better in the USA than it ever would have been in Britain.

By 1996 his degree course was coming to an end, and thanks to the American system of not letting you specialise in your first year he had already discovered that economics, rather than biology, was what he was really interested in.

But the university also arranged for him to have a number of internships in financial services companies. “The support for student athletes over there is much better,” he says. “They were always talking about what happens at the end of your sporting career. “But then, perhaps they have to. After all, there are sometimes 100 guys in an American college football team, yet only 1% of them will make it to become professional.”

It was thanks to those internships that he got into financial advice, and there then followed a career first in New York and then from 2005 with UBS back home in London – with a wife from Tennessee – before he came north to run the Yorkshire office at the start of this year.

He has already done his research well, however, as the place he has chosen for our interview is the Star Inn at Harome, one of Yorkshire’s most celebrated dining pubs.

And although he has been here a couple of times before with his wife for a glorious lunch when they were still living in London, it turns out he has tested it out more recently too: the restaurant provided the catering for a UBS event at nearby Duncombe Park earlier this year.

“But I was so busy running around speaking to clients that I didn’t really have time to enjoy any of the food,” he says. He makes up for it now. From an extraordinarily extensive menu he goes for the pan-roasted fillet of sea bass with ‘Pommes Biarritz’, langoustine gravy and deep-fried devilled whitebait with York ham.

The sea bass is a replacement for North Sea monkfish, which are temporarily unavailable. I opt for one of the specials, baked macaroni of Harome shot hare with yellow chanterelle mushrooms, York ham, and Chianti gravy.

I pause only to contemplate that I am about to eat for the first time a creature I would probably have difficulty distinguishing from a rabbit in the wild. It turns, out, however, to be rich and fulfilling, and Andrew is equally pleased with his sea bass.

We later finish the meal with two espressos, thoughtfully accompanied by shots of water to relieve the bitter taste. So, getting down to business, now that he is back in his native county, how does he find the clients he meets from there, especially compared with those he might have met down in London?

“The major difference with London is the mix of clients,” he says. “In London our customers are more likely to be professionals and executives. London is also a lot more transient: people who work there aren’t necessarily going to retire there, or even in the UK. Here in Yorkshire in contrast a very high percentage are business owners with no plans to leave.”

This does not, however, mean that they are more conservative, he says. “They perhaps have a different perception of risk. Outside people might think it incredibly risky to have all your investments in a private firm, and we preach diversification to them daily. But you have to recognise that if you are the person in control of that risk, as you are when you are the business’s owner, you don’t regard it as a risk.”

That sounds as if he is battling against a fair few people who have betrayed a bit of classic Yorkshire stubbornness, and insisting that they know what they want. But if so, Andrew politely deflects such a question by pointing out that such attitudes are not new to him anyway.

“I think you will find a typical hedge fund manager client down in London will certainly know what they want,” he chuckles.

He is much more effusive on what UBS can offer the wealthy people of Yorkshire - those with liquid assets in excess of £1m – which other providers possibly cannot. “UBS is one of few global financial firms focused solely on wealth management,” he says.

“Unlike the wealth management arms of the big corporate, retail and investment banks, the core of our business is wealth management. That makes a huge difference in the resources we provide. When I was looking for a job back in London in 2005, UBS had far and away best platform for clients.

"The resources we can bring along are far greater, as is our depth of expertise. We have over 100 analysts in the UK just looking at wealth management, not asset management or anything else. That’s often the size of the whole research department of your average asset management firm.

“Then if we want a view on German equities, for example. we can tap into that through our German office. And for the client it is nice to know that the analysts have no corporate relationship there.”

He says the bank has been boosted particularly last year by the appointment of Alexander Friedman, who previously ran the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as chief investment officer. I quip that anyone who used to advise Bill Gates must be worth a go. Andrew smiles.

“Yes, but his team will look at the world, and tell you as a customer that they think you should be in certain areas. We might even get Mohammed El Erian from Pimco give his views. We manage one trillion Swiss Francs worth of assets, so we can get other investment managers we have large funds with and use them.”

In recent months some media attention on UBS has unfortunately focused on the trial in London of Kweku Adoboli, a former UBS trader accused of a £2.3bn fraud. Andrew is quick to point out, however, that Adoboli was a lone player, and UBS is a huge global firm. The real challenge for him, he says, is distilling all that expertise and advice down into something that can be useful at the local Yorkshire level.

“We need to be identifying what the client needs, and getting the right people in front of them. We know that business owners usually take a long time to build networks. We want to be part of that network. That kind of operation works very well in regional offices. But it is difficult to do that from London.”

UBS clearly takes such relationship building seriously, because Andrew says he and the three other client advisers will typically only deal with a maximum of 30 clients. And although he wants at least to double staff numbers in the next five years, that ratio he insists will stay the same.

Most other wealth managers, even those with as high an entry threshold as UBS, I imagine, would be prepared to dilute their client-customer relationships a little more. So what has he noticed about these client’s attitudes these days?

One thing he says is very noticeable is that they are moving away from preparing for an “Armageddon” scenario. Back at the start of the recession, in the wake of the Lehman collapse, there was very real fear that the world was on the brink of a financial apocalypse, and so there was a big rush to gold – always seen as a stable investment in such scenarios – and a vogue for putting your money in cash deposits that would be easily retrievable. Andrew says such attitudes are beginning to change.

“People don’t think that the world is going to end any more,” he says, “and they are not happy about the returns they are getting from cash, because they are lousy. There is certainly more appetite for taking on risk assets.”

At the same time, however, there are still customers who are nervous about taking on a hugely high level of risk. “Clients want very transparent structures,” says Andrew. “They want to see what is going on in their portfolio, and want to move away from hedge funds and alternative risks.”

That’s why he says UBS’s third party cash offering is proving popular. “It may sound dull and boring,” he says, “but with it the client can open a UBS account, but then invest cash among different providers.

"We make it easy for clients to transact in such a way. On the other end of the scale we have fantastic private equity investments. We can have a feeder vehicle which will invest in a range of companies, or you can invest in a single manager who will invest in companies underneath, or you can invest in fund which invest in a number of funds of funds.

“The choice, we would appear to be concluding, is up to you. The adviser is there to help you, but in the end the client is the one making the decision.”

Andrew says that is one important lesson about life that he learned through swimming. “You can only control what you can control,” he says.

“When you get up for the start of a race, you are in your own lane, and it really doesn’t make any difference what the guy in the next lane does. If he is going to do a world record then he will do a world record. You should only focus on yourself. You have a huge team to get you to that point, but then it’s up to you.

"That’s certainly true for clients. Sometimes you have to block out the noise and focus on what you as a family are looking for, what you are trying to achieve, and the best way of getting there. We are there to help you.”