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Martin Gilbert

Martin Gilbert seems slightly embarrassed about winning the Scottish Financial Entrepreneur of the Year award. With qualification for the UK finals and the possibility of a place at the global business Oscars next May, he is getting recognition as an innovator.

The Aberdeen Asset management chief executive is no stranger to awards. Last year alone, Aberdeen won seven awards, including Best Scottish Small Cap Company from the London Stock Exchange and a commendation from a trade title for investment group of the year.

In the 17 years since he took a role in the running of the company, Aberdeen has grown to be one of the UK&#39s most popular Isa providers. From a mere £50m of funds under management at itsbirth in 1983, it now manages around £20bn.

Gilbert attributes the company&#39s success to a steady programme of acquisition and organic growth. In recent times, the firm has focused more on the organic and internal development, most prominently with the launch of its new US team in September.

Gilbert has drafted in Katherine Garrett-Cox, along with her entire US team from Hill Samuel, to lead a new US investment department. Until now, Aberdeen has sub-contracted the management of its American funds to Phoenix but this move will ensure all funds are now managed in house.

The son of a rubber planter, Gilbert was born in Malaysia but he moved to Aberdeen where he went to school and university. One degree was not enough for Gilbert so he read both accountancy and law at Scotland&#39s ancient university.

After graduation, he worked on the investment side of a chartered accountancy firm. But within a year, the investment arm was bought out, with Gilbert appointed as one of the three partners inthe newly formed Aberdeen Asset Management.

He says: “Asset management firms in Scotland almost all started as law firms and we were no different. The investment department were looking for a law graduate thatwas also a chartered account, and that&#39s how I got in. I was incredibly lucky.”

Lucky or not, much of the firm&#39s subsequent development was down to Gilbert, who says the hardest part was reaching the landmark of £1bn under management. In 1987, the firm made its first acquisition, Baltic, and has not looked back. Today, the firm is in the FTSE 250 and has made around 20 acquisitions in the past decade alone.

Its purchase of Sentinel in 1988 came as a major boost for the Far East department, and formed the basis of the firm&#39s operations in Singapore.

Further acquisitions led finally to its merger with Scottish Provident&#39s investment arm Prolific three years ago. Since then, its funds under management have risen to around £17bn.

Gilbert says the firm will continue to look towards small acquisitions if the potential buy is a good match with the company.

However, for the moment, attention has turned to the acquisition of Aberdeen&#39s parent company Scottish Provident, which has made it clear it is looking for a buyer. Speculation is mounting as to who the main contenders are, with CGNU and Old Mutual being considered among the principal bidders.

Gilbert insists the acquisition of Scottish Provident does not worry him. However, he says he would not particularly favour a merger between Aberdeen and the asset management arm of Scottish Provident&#39s new owner.

He says: “It is very early days at the moment. I think it will be another three months before we know who&#39s going to take us over. But we look on this as an opportunity nota danger.”

Aberdeen now has a tough task to continue with the success it has seen in the past few years but it still has a lot of room to grow and a name to build. The firm is looking at a number of technological developments to ensure it offers full online trading capability. By the end of this year, it intends to see a system up and running where clients will be able to trade and access their accounts online.

Gilbert is also positive about the development of fund supermarkets which are set to change the face of the industry. Aberdeen is already signed up with Fidelity&#39s supermarket and Gilbert is confident it will also join Consolidated Funds whenit launches in November.

He says: “Our strategy is to be on as many shelves as possible and if we build a strong enough name then people will pick us up off them.”

Having seen the company through from its start, Gilbert is in many ways what John Duffield was to Jupiter – apivotal figure.

He admits, however, that in his 17 years at Aberdeen the business has moved incredibly rapidly and he finds he has less input.

“It has got a life of its own,” he says.

Despite Aberdeen&#39s great success over the past 12 months, Gilbert says there is no room for complacency. For now, his aims are to continue to build on the performance of the last year, to see the American operation become a success and perhaps even to win a global business Oscar next May.


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