Wrong Side of the Tracks
Overcoming early life struggles to becoming an established presence in the City
Courtesy of Terry Mellish - Board Director at Natixis Investment Managers
Cheapside was a very scary place, full of privilege when I began my career at Schroders. Directors had their own toilets, their own dining room. Everywhere you turned there was Lord X or Sir Y or Right Honourable that. And for a boy from the wrong side of the tracks, it was a world away from what I was used to.
I was born in my grandmother’s front room in a council house in Essex. Growing up in what people today would term as poverty alongside my mother and my sister, I struggled with lots of personal issues. I passed the 11+ exam, and went to an all-boys Grammar school, but was one of only two kids in my year who had access to free school meals, and free school uniform, with a blazer that was purposely so big that it lasted me for two years. And with my mum falling ill during my final years in school, I decided to get in touch with a relative of mine who ran a bank branch in the city. He gave me some names, taught me how to draft a CV and helped me apply to merchant banks as they were known at the time. For whatever reason I decided to take the job at Schroders, working initially as part of their rotational programme across their operating divisions.
Because of my upbringing, I was committed to knuckle down, work really hard and constantly ask questions, something I always tell people to do today. I had to learn everything my directors did, why they did it, pre-empt what they were thinking and have everything ready for when they wanted it. That constant desire to learn is what awarded me the opportunity to manage my own small team at an early stage in my career. I ended up overtaking some of my colleagues who were initially more senior than I was, although I had to be patient all the while.
In saying that, however, I did resign once while at Schroders to take on a role with more responsibility after a friend of mine convinced me to join him at a competitor. I was counter offered by Schroders in an effort to get me to stay, even though they wouldn’t be able to fulfil all their promises immediately. However, I decided to trust them and ended up staying for a total of 33 years. There was an exciting decade up until 2000 when the firm enjoyed a real purple patch up where my team would get 10, 20 phone calls a day asking us to pitch for new business.
With that growth in responsibility, I always wanted to push my team forward and get them to share in the glory of new business wins. After setting up the first consulting business in the UK for Schroders, doing work in Europe and supporting teams around the world, it was quite a tough time in the early 2000s when we lost clients to fund managers who were investing heavily in the dot-com bubble, but subsequently crashed when the bubble burst. Schroders was subsequently proven right, but as a value-oriented business, we still felt the impact of those clients who had gone elsewhere.
In that time, although the investment and client-side division received bad reviews, the consulting team which I managed achieved top quartile ratings for three straight years. That was a response to the incredibly hard work that the team put in in spite of challenging times. Furthermore, Schroders wasn’t a firing fund manager, as it was and still is family-owned. It thought about the future in a longer-term planned way, which was always encouraging to people within the business.
Sadly, you can’t stop people from leaving. I always fought very hard to keep people I wanted to stay by making them an offer they couldn’t refuse, or so I thought. The truth of the matter is that sometimes the grass is greener and sometimes it’s not. You can’t just look at something at face value, but rather you must look at it from an all-round perspective because every firm has got its troubles which you probably haven’t seen in the interview process.
I have never been one to crow about success and thus, I was never internally competitive as I was externally. In some ways, that ultimately led to my downfall especially after changes at the leadership team, some of which in fact turned out to be mistakes. After a series of infighting and a falling out with the global head of sales, I decided to join a start-up boutique fund manager which then postponed their launch for 12 months while I was still on gardening leave.
That period was one of the scariest moments in my life, especially after the wrench of leaving Schroders which was like my family. I ultimately got a job at Credit Suisse Asset Management shortly after, using that as a springboard to be innovative and be a better leader – for example, we launched one of the first ever Managed Balanced Funds which was a great success. Unfortunately, the asset management business at Credit Suisse was always the poor relation to the Investment and Private bank, and therefore nowhere near as competitive as it needed to be at the time to win any meaningful business. Hence, leaving Credit Suisse was an easy thing for me because it was a job and not a career.
Fortunately, the great thing about our industry is that we all talk to each other. That includes clients, consultants and competitors, although we never give trade secrets away. After being approached by quite a few firms, I decided to join UBP as their Head of UK Institutional Sales. It was a family owned private bank, with an amazing fund of hedge funds business and an absolute return focus that was perfectly positioned for the way the industry was going. Unfortunately, two years into the role, it quickly became a very scary place after the Madoff scandal. Like sharks sniffing blood in the water, a lot of firms know when other firms are in trouble. If there are good people there, they will come hunting for them.
Consequently, I was invited to have conversations with a number of firms which is always nice. Natixis Investment Managers (as they are called today) were one of those. Having already worked with two Swiss firms, I initially wasn’t keen on working for another foreign business in all honesty. However, I was very impressed by the quality of everyone I met, including some affiliate asset managers, and the leadership team in the firm then, and I was won over by the idea of being a part of its multi-affiliate business structure.
The amazing thing about Natixis was that they gave me everything I needed to build a strong team and to fulfil the promises that I had made to them in my first business plan. I was backed by an incredibly supportive boss, and one thing I recognise having been around the block is that you can survive at a firm if you have good bosses who believe in you. That translated into putting on the firm’s first client conference in London, supporting affiliates we had never supported before and being able to build a franchise and a very diversified business, and ultimately seeing the staff grow from fewer than 15 to more than 140 today. We are at a stage now where we are so much more competitive, with amazing fund managers and market-leading solutions, that recruiting exceptional people is now much easier for us in the UK and globally.
Joining at that time when we had a small number of people in London has created authentic friendships with those still currently in the firm. That element of trust and allyship means that when the bad times come around, as they do for every asset manager, we can just work through that, which is a very powerful thing to have in a business. I am incredibly proud of what we have put in place within my old consultant team, and RFP team for example.
After decades in the industry, and having been a ‘global traveller’ for many years, that required me spending more time in Africa, the Middle East, Asia and the US, I felt it was time to focus on other areas I am passionate about including government policy and diversity and inclusion. Our industry has a very bad record at recruiting ethnic minorities, black people in particular. In Natixis IM in the UK, black people represent around 7-8% of our employee workforce, about four times the UK investment management average. With respect to gender, we don’t want to be a box ticker. We always insist on seeing CVs of women who will have every chance of getting high positions in the firm, demonstrated by our incumbent Global Deputy CEO, Head of Compliance, and Head of Marketing and so on. Our industry needs to do better and we promote this message to our staff, our clients and the industry as a whole through different initiatives in which we are involved.
One thing I am immensely proud of is the partnership we have established with two outstanding East London-based charities, Providence Row and Inspire!. These two charities, respectively, are tackling homelessness and trying to make sure kids don’t fall off the tracks by getting involved in gangs, in prison and other seriously bad things. As partners, we’ve studied their business plans, advised them on strategy, built a greenhouse to grow vegetables, provided CV writing support and social media training amongst other things. People across our global affiliate network that have nothing remotely to do with these charities have personally and financially supported them in light of the global pandemic. What greater sign is that of a big family! And with the clock winding down on my career in finance, my goal is to keep helping people so that they have a better life than their circumstances have unfortunately given them.
Terry Mellish is a Board Director at Natixis Investment Managers and currently leads their Diversity & Inclusion and Government Relations efforts.