Although he has never worn a wig or wielded a gavel – not to MM's knowledge, at any rate – Schroders sales director Neil Bridge is a master at holding court.
Most often seen telling (occasionally clean) jokes and laughing raucously in a bar, Bridge is one of the industry's more colourful and best-known characters. He is also one of the sharpest operators around and was a major factor in Schroders' renaissance after its dip in the late 1990s.
“We probably had become slightly complacent by then. We were suffering quite poor performance and from a sales and marketing perspective we were not trying hard enough. Firms behind us were catching us up and overtaking.”
With his long-time boss and de facto partner Robin Stoakley, Schroders' head of UK retail, Bridge set about rebuilding the sales and marketing divisions in 1998 after his promotion to director, head of UK sales. The following year he split the sales team into two, allocating the discretionary managers, multi-managers and private banks to one part and the third-party distributors and high-end IFAs to the other.
The result has been vastly improved sales and further distribution agreements. Schroders now has partnerships with more than 20 life companies, including a place on Standard Life's fund platform and a multi-tie with HSBC. “Groups who think one group of people can do both types of sales are deluding themselves. There is such a different focus and it is a tricky skill set. We were one of the first movers in this direction and it has paid dividends,” says Bridge.
He believes the sale of the investment bank in 2000 was also a factor as it left Schroders as a pure fund manager with more than £500m in cash on its balance sheet. But a more important driving force has been excellent fund performance, prompted in part by the introduction in 1999 of its prism system – a high-tech tool that allows managers to ascertain where the risks in their portfolio lie.
Bridge says the prism system, combined with the work Schroders undertook in 2000 on risk and return, looking at how its fund managers could achieve top-quartile performance, has made all the difference. But he also points to the recruitment of talent such as UK alpha plus fund manager Richard Buxton who, along with the existing management team, has firmly re-established Schroders as a leading light in the industry.
“We have lots of home-grown talent, such as Adriaan de Mol van Otterloo, but we also have the resources to bring in people like Richard. The alpha plus fund has now pulled in £250m and managers like Andy Brough and Denis Clough are outstanding. The company has recognised their talent.”
Bridge himself demonstrated a talent for sales early in his career. After leaving the De La Salle grammar school in Salford in 1979, he followed his father into the car trade, becoming the first ever management trainee at Ford Motor Car distributors. Frustrated at the slow pace, he tried his hand in several other departments and found he enjoyed sales most – certainly more than the service department, in which he was continually harangued by irate customers.
However, he left within two years and, in one of his more unusual career decisions, decided to join Colgate-Palmolive as a trainee salesman selling toothpaste. He was immediately dispatched to Edinburgh. “If someone was off work, you had to cover that patch. So in the first week I was sent to Scotland, where I had never been before. But what you do get with them is very good training.”
After being made redundant in 1983, Bridge joined Fisons, where he sold horticultural products – including growbags and bales of peat – to garden centres. It was here he was almost sidetracked after being offered a job as a junior marketing manager but the position's conspicuous lack of a company car put paid to any notions of a career change. Instead, he joined Searle Pharmaceuticals, this time spending his first weeks in Monaco, and began selling drugs to doctors.
“It is very similar to the investment industry. Both in some ways are about future promise, there is something slightly intangible there. You approach them in much the same way.”
After a short spell at Napp Laboratories, he joined Aetna, which was establishing a specialist unit trust team. As a company with a weak brand in the middle of a bull market, Aetna was forced to recruit from outside the industry, which is how Bridge, who knew “absolutely nothing about financial services”, came to join its ranks, which also included a certain Robin Stoakley.
After the man who recruited them both, Rod Duncan, left to join Schroders, it was only a matter of time before they followed, Stoakley as a manager and Bridge as a salesman, in 1989. Fourteen years later, they are still working together.
“Robin has been my boss for a long time now. It works well because we have different skill sets. I will be out with clients until 5am and he will be tucked up by midnight. I probably have more ideas but he is good at finding ones we can do something with, testing them and doing the business planning.”
One example of the way the partnership works is when Bridge realised how much money the company was wasting on roadshows. With Stoakley's backing, Bridge and M&G managing director Phil Wagstaff decided to jointly shoulder the burden, which is how dual roadshows became commonplace.
Schroders has also allowed Bridge, a Manchester United fan, to remain in his beloved Manchester, which has helped him continue with his many hobbies, which include water skiing, wake boarding, riding motorbikes – he owns a Harley Davidson and several trials bikes – driving his speedboat and shooting.
“I am not the most athletic person in the world but once I am around water, in particular, I feel in my natural environment. I think we are all drawn to water in one way or another.”
He also spends as much time as possible at his holiday home in Wales with wife Robin (“I know, I've got two bosses with the same name”) and his two children. But his job dictates his schedule to a large degree, which is why he is most often witnessed, drink in hand, regaling IFAs and whoever else with eyebrow-raising stories in bars around the UK. You suspect it is just the way he likes it.
Born: November 13, 1960.
Lives: Worsley, Manchester.
Career: 1979-81 Ford Motor Car distributors. 1981-83 Colgate-Palmolive. 1983-85 Searle Pharmaceuticals. 1985-88 Napp Laboratories. 1988-1989 Aetna. 1989-present day Schroders.
Career ambition: “For the people who work for me to be successful. It sounds corny but it does gives me great pleasure.”
Life ambition: “To retire before 60 and do some sailing.”
Hobbies: Water skiing, wake boarding, driving speedboats, shooting and riding motorbikes.
Dislikes: “People not being prepared to try new ideas.”
Likes: Training and developing the sales team. “I like winning, to be honest.”
Car: Mercedes 4×4. “I hardly drive it but I have been loyal to Mercedes since I joined Schroders.”