He started his financial career at Hambros Bank in 1986. “It was a binary option. I could use it as a gap year while I was doing my course in medicine or I could see how I go and stay in the City.”
Willcocks says the bull market he walked into in 1986 before the Black Monday meltdown of 1987 meant that many of his peers were becoming successful and the job managed to turn his head so much that preferred to stay rather than go back to medicine and become a medical officer in the Royal Navy.
“I quickly realised my skills were in communicating so I ended up netting a sales role in East Anglia and the West Midlands covering onshore and offshore funds.”
It was seven years before moved on, joining Aberdeen as investment sales director and he spent eight years there before joining US fund manager MFS when he moved to help the firm establish itself as a main player in the UK market.
In 2005 came the opportunity to move to M&G. “I really enjoyed my time at MFS but the chance to join M&G as its head of sales was too good to turn down. The company had a great platform for business but at the time was outside the top 10 for gross and net sales.
“This is a phenomenal business but we felt that the performance had not had the full recognition of the market. For the two years before I joined, we had strong returns across equity, fixed interest and property but the marketplace had yet to see it. We had everything but it was all a case of raising market awareness.”
A year later and Willcocks was promoted to managing director of UK sales. This gave him the resources to raise the firm’s profile and he says this is now starting to pay off.
“We had record growth and net sales in 2007 and those figures have trebled in the past two to three years thanks to the depth of performance within our range. It is a great situation to be in as all of our sales guys can go out with a full set of clubs to offer clients opportunities in any asset class or region.”
The past few years have seen a number of M&G funds outperform, with examples such as Graham French and Tom Dobell on UK equities, Graham French on the global side, Aled Smith on global leaders and Richard Woolnough and Jim Leaviss covering bonds.
“M&G has to aim to be number one fund group in the UK because we have depth and breadth of product as well as having a huge sales team and mass exposure to open architecture partnerships. All the channels are there for us.”
Willcocks says that the situation now i a far cry from that he experienced at the outset of his career in latter half of the 1980s.
“Aside from the huge brick phones we were all saddled with, it was all about the IFAs and the stockbrokers who did all their own research and bought all their own funds. Then all of sudden, you had the boom in multi-manager in the mid to late 90s and suddenly stockbrokers became wealth managers and teams of researchers appeared everywhere.
“The biggest change, however, has been the introduction of supermarkets, which was a shock for some advisers who had never had all these different fund management firms to choose from with all the admin on one platform. Add to the big shift of life companies to open architecture in a bid to offer a best of breed proposition.
“Less than 10 per cent of IFAs now buy a fund direct from M&G. That is how much the landscape has changed.”
One part of M&G’s range which may concern advisers is the property fund, after the firm applied a 90-day notice period for redemptions by institutional investors in its offshore property fund. Since then, several other firms have put their funds on notice periods to protect long-term investors. Willcocks feels that investor antipathy to the asset class is bottoming out and that the long-term story for property is strong, given that rental growth is still there.
“We still have the notice period in place but we are gradually seeing inflows begin to outstrip outflows again, thanks to the sentiment shift among investors.
“For IFAs who have taken the long-term view, there has never really been a worry as ups and downs are likely. A correction was coming and has been accelerated by the credit crunch. However, opportunities are now appearing and we have a number of international buyers back.”
Willcocks says prospects are bright, with sales strong across the platform and, importantly, across numerous funds.
“In 10 years time, I still see myself at M&G. I love the industry and the culture and lifestyle at this firm. The environment is right to stay here for the long term.”
Born: Stockholm, 1967
Lives: East Sussex
Career: 2005 to date: managing director UK sales at M&G; 2001-2004: UK sales director at MFS Investment Management; 1993-2001: investment sales director at Aberdeen Asset Management; 1986-1993: regional sales manager for Hambros Bank
Likes: Family, cricket, Arsenal, food and wine and the piano
Dislikes: Rugby league, buses
Drives: Jaguar Sovereign
Favourite film: The Godfather
Favourite book: PG Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster books
Favourite music: Frank Sinatra
Heroes: Mike Brearley, Arsene Wenger, Winston Churchill
Career ambition: To make M&G number one.
If I wasn’t doing what I do, I would be… A pilot in the RAF