“I couldn’t have told you what but I knew something in finance would be interesting,” he says.
When Bennett graduated in 1981, the UK was in the grip of a recession and jobs were in short supply. He had moved south to London to find a job but an advert in the Yorkshire Post for a consultant at Reed Stenhouse (now Aon Consulting) lured him back North and gave him his first job on its graduate trainee programme.
In all Bennett spent 12 years with the consultancy. “They kept promoting me. “By the end, I was a consultant with a portfolio of consultancies. That was back in the good old days when you were a bit like a GP and you consulted on everything. I used to do manager selection before it got very specialised and got to know asset managers.”
One of the firms he covered was Britannia Asset Management, which was looking for someone to grow the retail side of the business. “My career took a complete 180-degree turn, I went from the buy side to the sell side of the business.”
Having never worked in that part of the industry he says it was a steep learning curve, both for him and the business.
“I got a blank sheet of paper with a few names on it. They did not really know anything about mutual funds and neither did I.”
Bennett clearly enjoyed the experience as four years later he found himself doing a similar job with Aegon Asset Management. Britannia had acquired a large book of business from Scottish Amicable and with it came a lot of staff. Bennett says he realised at the time it would take time for everything to settle down and progress at Britannia was likely to be slow until it was all done. He got a call from Aegon and again took on the challenge of growing the retail business.
Bennett sees his role as broadening and deepening the business’s current reach.
Aegon Asset Management has established a reputation as a fixed income and ethical manager but Bennett says the equity funds can sometimes be overlooked. “If people looked at us historically, people by and large would say we have a fixed income, and probably ethical, background but that overlooks the fact that certainly we have got superb retail equity performance.”
He says that retail demand for the Aegon range has held up over the last 12 months or so and, unlike some companies, he says it has seen net inflows rather than redemptions over this period.
He attributes part of this to the distribution model. By using intermediaries, investors are more likely to understand the product and select the right one. For this reason, he says the business will remain intermediary-only.
Without the huge marketing budget of some of its rivals, Bennett says Aegon Asset Management has to work to target its audience specifically. On the retail side, this means IFAs, particularly businesses that are trying to become more professional.
As a result, he remains relaxed about the outcome of the RDR and says it will bring benefits to the industry.
“We can argue about the detail but I do not think anyone can argue with increased professionalism, better capitalised IFAs, better levels of education, models at least go some way to ensuring there is not bias in product.”
Bennett is also involved in the institutional sales for the business and says the two parts are very complementary and offer the opportunity to use the experience from one area to help the other.
“We have got some really good strategic thinking from the multi-asset group and we have got a great institutional product called the asset allocation service, so we are looking at can we take some of that thinking and translate it into the retail market?”
The influence can also go the other way and he says they are looking at successes from the retail side being applied to the institutional market.
“It works the other way round, of course. Take our high-alpha UK equity proposition, is this something we can take to the institutional market?”
Other areas for development for the retail market are long/short equity funds and UK equity income.
“It is more about, what is the right structure for long/short capabilities, so we are looking at that. The other thing we are looking at, probably a gap in our armoury, is UK equity income.”
Overall demand for funds in the business has held up but Bennett says it has been a quiet Isa season.
“The current environment has frightened some people into inertia. The things that have held up are areas like pension investing.”
Bennett can also take some comfort from the fact that the UK business has fared much better than the equivalent market in Europe.
He recently took on responsibility for growing the Aegon AM business outside the EU. “We launched a Dublin range of funds just over a year ago. That was about planting a flag, just demonstrating that we have pan European aspirations.”
The Aegon group is a Dutch company and has many linked businesses to use to grow into this new market but it has been a challenging time for anyone seeking to get European retail investors to invest.
“If you look at the fund flows in Europe last year, the UK has held up reasonably well – that is probably due to the quality of the intermediation, whereas the European retail market ran for the hills, with massive net redemptions.”
This leads Bennett to face quite some challenge in his efforts to expand the Aegon Asset Management business into new markets, many of which are dominated by local banks.
“We have to step up to that plate, that is the challenge but what an opportunity.”
Education: BA Economics, University of Leeds
Career: Aon Consulting 1982-94, Britannia Asset Management (now Ignis) 1994-98 and Aegon Asset Management 1998 to date
Likes: Spread betting
Drives: Mercedes ML
Book: Trilobite by Richard Fortey
Film: Blade Runner
Album: Largo by Brad Mehldau
Career ambition: Building a successful pan-European distribution organisation
Life ambition: To see my children happy and in their late 60s
If I wasn’t doing this I would be…Painting in Mallorca