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Peter webb

Unicorn Asset Management chief executive and chief investment officer Peter Webb took stock of the firm’s progress recently and decided that a shake-up was needed and now he is aiming to be a leader in small-cap investment. Interview by Philip Scott

When he was in his early 30s, Unicorn Asset Management chief executive and chief investment officer Peter Webb decided that by the age of 40 he wanted to be a millionaire. By the time he reached 40, Webb had achieved his aim without any assistance from Chris Tarrant.

He set up Unicorn in 2000 and assets under management have increased from £140m to £400m but Webb decided last year that he needed a break, “That six years of the business has been a very challenging time. From the beginning of last year through to the summer I really felt there were more important things to me personally.

“I did a bit of a reappraisal and during that time I took a real critical look at the business. It was not achieving the sort of heights I wanted and my wife said, well, either sell the business or change it.”

By the end of summer 2005, Webb concluded that Unicorn did have a future.

Looking back on his business success, he describes it all as “a bit of a fairy tale”.

Webb is one of five children and he grew up in Reigate in Surrey until he was nine when his parents divorced and he moved to Brighton and then on to Essex.

He joined the City ranks straight from school in 1979 with A levels in history and economics. Webb says he was not a big exam person and does not put a lot of value in degrees, preferring the commodity of experience.

His first job was at Lloyds and around the mid 1980s, when he held a managerial role in the firm’s Stock Exchange branch, the group started to recruit heavily among graduates. A lack of university education and the fact that he had not taken the banking exam meant that these recruits were coming in over Webb.

“I was lending money, albeit modest amounts to stockbrokers and City financiers and meeting these people, I thought, I want some of what they have got.”

In 1986, Webb joined Thornton Investment Management as an international settlements manager and his career really opened up in the following year when he was offered the chance to be a trainee fund manager.

“In a relatively short time after leaving the bank, I ended up as a trainee fund manager. I was very lucky I picked up the opportunity so I thought I had better stamp my mark on that.”

But to secure millionaire status, he knew he was going to have branch out on his own so in 1993, aged 33, he set up CW Asset Management. The firm’s first launch was funded by £20m worth of investment, giving rise to the UK smaller companies investment trust Eaglet.

“Within a couple of years my main competitor, Rutherford Asset Management, approached me to join them. I agreed and took over as investment director.”

But the group ultimately wanted to sell the business. Close Brothers made an offer but Webb wanted to be his own boss so he ended up buying his own business back for £1m.

He had to find another backer and did a deal with Granville Private Bank where he stayed until 2000 and then set up Unicorn.

Fast forward a few years and Webb saw that things were not going to plan. When he returned to the Unicorn fold last year, changes were carried out across the firm’s product range. Its line-up now includes two investment trusts, four Oeics, 2 offshore funds and two venture capital trusts.

“The clear mandate was to get out there and see what the outside world thinks of Unicorn. There were areas, like Eaglet, which were not doing as well as we had hoped. I had to be more hands-on and I also made some staff changes.

In January, Chris Hutchinson joined the firm from Montanaro Investment Management and today the company has eight staff.

Underperformance had been an issue, with Webb admitting that the Eaglet flagship portfolio had been disappointing investors since 2001, as it had been making strong returns before then.

But recent performance has improved following the trust’s reorganisation and, according to Wins Investment Trusts, Eaglet’s NAV is up by 22 per cent this year compared with 7 per cent for the FTSE Fledgling and 13 per cent for the Hoare Govett indexes.

“We had to look at each fund individually and we made changes right across the board,” says Webb.

Although he juggles being CIO as well as CEO, Webb is adamant that his best skill is as a fund manager. “There is no doubt that I am our best fund manager. It is all about people relations being a good judge of character, having good experience and a good knowledge of sector fortunes over time. I really do believe that fund managers should all get better with age.

“But we are all guilty of falling in love with concepts, sectors, companies and resting on your laurels. The wheel of fortune changes over time.”

Today with £400m of assets under management, the obvious goal is to get the business to the £1bn mark and Webb plans to do this over the coming two years. “I will be very disappointed if we cannot get there.”

He adds: “I believe that our skills and tremendous network of contacts right across the small-cap space could ultimately lead to quite substantial private equity business. That is an area I am constantly looking at.”

Apart from his business ambitions, Webb says that for the first time he has started to do things in the local community and admits that he has really struggled to settle as a person all his life.

He likes a flutter and owns racehorses but has recently sold a few and moved into breeding. As far as his track bets go, he admits one race cost him £5,000 but on another occasion he netted £30,000.

Born: 1960 Epsom, Surrey

Lives: Chelmsford with wife and three children.

Career: 1979-1986: Lloyds, 1986-93: Thornton Investment Management, 1993-95: CW Asset Management, 1995-96: Rutherford, 1996-2000: Granville Bank, 2000-present: Unicorn Asset Management

Education: Varndean Grammar School, Brighton

Likes: Horse-racing and everything related, from the races, to the people I meet. France, I go there a lot with my family, I love the wine, the quiet roads and the races there.

Dislikes: Nanny state, traffic lights and petty people. I cannot stand the darkness of winter, I am much more a summer person.

Drives: Aston Martin DB9

Hero: Unicorn chairman Bob Holt and Richard Branson

Favourite book: John Train Money Masters Series.

Favourite film: It would have to be a Bond film, Die Another Day, also love Wallace and Gromit.

Favourite album: I love all sorts, Keane, The Killers, The Clash but probably REM Greatest Hits.

Life ambition: To make less mistakes, to back bad people less often as a fund manager. Show a good example to my wife, family and friends.

Career ambition: Build Unicorn to be a leader in the small-cap sector and expand into private equity.

If I wasn’t doing my current job I would be…. Running my own investment consultancy and be involved in my racing interests.

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