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All boutiques great and small

Sometimes, a perfectly reasonable word turns itself into a fashionable concept, and starts to grate,” wrote Charles Moore recently in his weekly column for The Spectator. “We have reached that point with the word ’hub’. Everything – a city, a café, a church, a school, a website – feels the need to claim that it is a hub or, even better, a ’community hub’.”

Honestly, what’s a chap to do when his favourite magazine takes a pop at a significant part of his job description? Take the higher path I suppose, pausing only to note that, quite the trendsetter, has been a “hub” for more than three years – and to suggest there are plenty of clichés that should be attracting The Speccie’s ire more than the poor defenceless “hub”.

OK, so not quite the higher path then. Indeed, I hadn’t intended to mention any of this at all – the wounds are still too fresh – but for the perennial question of exactly what, in investment circles and without wishing to tread on the toes of my neighbour Mr Smith, constitutes a ’boutique’.

Yup, this is another thinly veiled plug for the 2010 Unique Boutiques roadshow, which I have the privilege to be chairing in the early part of March. It features five companies – Baillie Gifford, Cavendish, Liontrust, Pictet and SVM – not all of whom, some might argue, are necessarily the purest embodiment of the quality of boutiqueness.

Still, reeling as I am from Mr Moore’s analysis and not wanting to stand accused of hypocrisy, I feel I should dig deeper into the nature of the word than simple measures such as assets under management. After all, BNY Mellon manages to keep a straight face when it talks about its “multi-boutique” structure and it runs a fair few quid.

To my way of thinking, boutiqueness is more a state of mind. After all, there are plenty of small investment firms out there who aren’t averse to a spot of quasi-tracking so why shouldn’t it work the other way round for bigger players with strong active management processes and a readiness really to value their staff (as opposed to merely talking a good game)?

So what will our quintet of differently-sized boutiques be talking about? How kind of you to ask. Well, Baillie Gifford’s Dominic Neary looks to have one of the easier jobs as he will be discussing global income. “The traditional home for equity income investors, the UK, faces significant economic challenges, and long-run real income growth is likely to lag global growth rates,” he notes.

No major argument from me there so it will be interesting to see how UK managers Anthony Cross of Liontrust and SVM’s Neil Veitch fight their corners. “I would invest in companies whose earnings have a high degree of robustness and whose valuations are not dependent on a sharp economic upswing,” offers a taster of Cross’s approach while, for his part, Veitch sees the real opportunities in the small and mid-sized parts of the capitalisation spectrum.

If I do need help refereeing the UK versus global debate, I could always call on Julian Lewis, Cavendish’s chief investment officer and manager of the firm’s worldwide portfolio. That said, I see he’ll be focusing on the future long-term value evident in emerging economies – oh, as well as the outlook for more established markets as they recover from a period of prolonged volatility.

On balance, that evens things up to two against two but I’m not necessarily expecting Pictet to offer a casting vote. Its stance will be more thematic in nature as managers Gertjan van der Geer, Philippe de Weck and Gabriel Micheli focus respectively on agriculture, clean energy and timber.

I’m particularly looking forward to the presentation on clean energy as there’s going to be an awful lot of money heading that way over the next decade or two and you’d have to hope some decent investment opportunities consequently occur.

If your interest in Unique Boutiques has now been piqued, the roadshow will visit venues in Stirling (March 2), Harrogate (March 3), Knutsford (March 4), Birmingham (March 5), Bristol March 9) and London (March 10). There’s still time to register or find out more by visiting www.unique boutiques.

Julian Marr is editorial director of


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