Once a surveyor in the construction industry, Leigh Harrison has built a reputation as a fund manager by running one of the most prominent funds in the market before becoming head of UK equities at the UK’s fourth-biggest asset manager, Threadneedle.
Like so many of his peers, fund management was not Harrison’s first career choice. Construction is a very cyclical industry and he found himself trying to forge a career in the middle of a recession in the early 1980s.
Harrison prides himself on being proactive, so the decision to switch trades was not long in coming. “The truth is that I was bored so I went to see a recruitment officer who told me they were looking for a portfolio manager’s assistant at Hill Samuel. I went to the library to look up exactly what that meant, unsure whether it was the right thing for me, only to find at the interview that I needed numerical and analytical skills topped up with an outgoing personality.”
As with most people who begin a new trade, Harrison found himself dealing with a number of mundane tasks. “In those days, it was all about pension funds, so I ended up doing tax returns, paying underwriting commission and lots of accounting jobs.”
It was an inauspicious start but, once Harrison realised how much the job suited him, he could not be stopped. A keen rock climber in his spare time, he also quickly scaled the fund management ladder, running money successfully at the likes of Hill Samuel and Sun Life of Canada.
Following Credit Suisse’s purchase of Sun Life of Canada, Harrison found himself working for a new employer whose business was structured completely differently. One of the good things to come out of the takeover was that Harrison ended up working with income guru Bill Mott on the group’s flagship income brand.
He actually outperformed Mott on the alpha portfolio before taking on the whole range back in 2003. But it was a time of mixed feelings for Harrison. “I enjoyed running the money and loved working with Bill but I think he, like myself, felt that he could contribute so much more to the industry when it comes purely to running money.”
The income funds performed steadily under Harrison, something which was arguably overlooked at the time, considering the way performance has tailed off following his time on the funds.
“I took over Bill’s franchise and I defended it but there was precious little opportunity to take the business forward. I was not forced to be a safe pair of hands, as there is scope in the sector to grow all three income franchises, particularly on the alpha income side.
“The defensiveness of the vehicles came out of my investment style in comparison with Bill’s, as he is known for taking big thematic views while I invest with conviction. My investment style is not based around huge bets. That stereotype came out of the contrast.”
At Threadneedle, Harrison has his dream – the opportunity to work for a big firm and run money knowing where the fund management ends and sales and marketing begin.
He now has the role of head of UK equities, following the retirement of Michael Taylor. It was something Harrison knew was coming but not in the way it actually unfolded.
“I started to talk to Michael back in 2005 after he had just restructured the UK team and he was looking for someone to come in and rebuild. At the time, I thought I would be doing the retail while he did the institutional and hedge. It gave me a focus and a team to work with.”
Taylor was head of equities alongside his role as head of UK equities. “It seemed logical that he would step back to be just head of equities so I would have the opportunity to apply for the UK role. I was not expecting him to retire or leave Threadneedle but it became apparent through 2006, as I took on more duties, and from the middle of last year I was running the process.”
Harrison has been happy with his first 12 months at the firm. “We have got a terrific opportunity here at Threadneedle. We have re-energised the process and achieved our first goal of building momentum in the business. Our small and mid-cap offerings, as well as our equity income offerings, have done particularly well while our growth funds have been stable and in general we are happy with the start.”
Harrison’s role means different responsibilities but one thing he wants to ensure is that his main focus is managing money, not people. “We have a young and talented team so I will have some work to do on that side of the business. We will also look to grow with new funds and managers to keep ahead of the market. But I would not be able to sleep at night if I knew I was not managing other people’s money to the best of my abilities.
“My first priority is to investors in my UK equity income and alpha income funds so I will resist the lure of some meetings to make sure that my main focus is ensuring I look after the best interests of the client.”
Born: Hampshire, 1958