Confidence, empathy and a winning smile (and of course great financial acumen) have propelled Petronella West, CEO of Investment Quorum, to the top. But it hasn’t always been the smoothest ride, writes Rasika Sittamparam
Among the most striking features of Investment Quorum’s co-founder and recently appointed CEO is her wide and welcoming smile, which dimples her face. There’s also a handshake that conveys both confidence and liveliness. A colourful silk scarf wraps up her personality, and I soon learn that the Gucci fabric has bit of history – it was a 50th birthday gift from her first boss, who became her mentor through the early days of her career.
Petronella West recalls the time he addressed her after an interview for a mortgage broker role at Halifax’s estate agency branch. ‘I was sitting at the front and he said to me, “Petronella, one of the reasons you got that job that day was you’re the only one who stood up, shook my hand, looked me in the eye and smiled – and I just got such a good feeling about you.”’ That was how West entered London’s financial services industry. At 18, she swiftly moved from mortgages into financial planning at Halifax Building Society’s branch network, where she first crossed paths with future Investment Quorum co-founder Lee Robertson. In her tenth year, she moved into the role of a fully fledged independent financial adviser (IFA) at the Halifax’s financial planning arm.
‘It was a natural fit,’ she recalls, one which she says saw her communication skills help her build a rapport and trust with a growing book of clients. But then the Halifax merged with Standard Life, which shut down the IFA arm West operated in. In 1997 she reconnected with Robertson, who had left the bank much earlier and was managing director at Capulet Financial Management. The working relationship resulted in the duo co-founding Investment Quorum in 2000.
West and Robertson’s partnership operated on the principle of recurring revenue stream – a much-needed assurance for HNWs who were facing the imminent collapse of Equitable Life. ‘We were quick to get a lot of people out of Equitable Life at that time, which was a really good foundation for the business,’ says West.
The boutique firm, then equipped only with the co-founders, a desk and a kettle, started with £10 million in client assets. They were early adopters of open architecture, which tasked them with finding out the most suitable funds rather than recommending in-house products to clients – a strategy that eliminates conflicts of interest.
‘We could say it’s like a Perspex box,’ West says of the mechanism, which aims to reduce the opacity of transactions. ‘Clients were able to build their savings on a technology platform that they could log into to get daily valuations, instead of waiting for annual pension statements that made no sense.’
The setup also meant fees were subtracted as a percentage off the annual earnings, rather than being flat fixtures. In 2006 Peter Lowman, a veteran investment manager with decades of experience at Cazenove and a stint as vice-president and private client executive at Morgan Stanley Quilter, joined as chief investment officer to open up Investment Quorum’s discretionary offering.
The firm grew to £60-70 million in assets under management, winning a string of industry awards, including Spear’s HNW Wealth Manager of the Year in 2015. Robertson stepped down as CEO last August, and West was the natural successor. The new CEO looks remarkably comfortable in the hot seat and exudes an unmissable air of authority. Even so, the issue of the glass ceiling has still been one of the ‘very difficult’ challenges she faced while rising within an industry where women are under-represented.
‘There is an element of expectation that the woman in the room is the one that is going to make the tea or the coffee,’ she says, pouring herself a glass of water. ‘Now I have quite a strong presence when I walk into a room or into a meeting.’ Her eyes twinkle. ‘I’ve got quite a good voice and I use that to ensure that there’s no doubt that I’m not there to make the coffee – I’ve got a lot of coaching about all that.’
She wants boards to be more supportive of women through executive positions, applauding Goldman Sachs’ recent announcement of a breast milk courier service to help working mothers express and deliver milk to their homes. ‘You don’t get the women up the rung if you don’t give them opportunities on the way, if you keep them down here,’ she says, lowering her palm closer to the ground.
The mother load
This is something that the working mother of two understands well enough. She recalls one morning when her two-year-old daughter cried out for her nanny, rather than her mother. ‘I remember that it really hurt,’ she says, her tone faltering. ‘Being a woman in business and leadership, you will have to make sacrifices. Unless you can afford to take the time out, you will suffer, because your natural maternal instincts will take over.’ A smile quickly reappears.
‘I haven’t missed all the school plays and all the sports days, though,’ she says. ‘You’ve just got to be tough.’ It is that grit and panache that helped her take Investment Quorum’s management buyout last year in her stride.
‘A client said to me yesterday, “I get the feeling your team are very driven and empowered at the moment, the way they talk about their roles,”’ West says, beaming. With her team members being shareholders, the buyout has undoubtedly allowed the firm even more independence and discretion over the £260 million they manage. The firm aims to reach the £300 million mark by the end of the year, and £500 million within the next three years. West shows an appetite for acquisition and organic expansion.
‘I don’t want to be too big, I don’t want to be Tilney,’ she says, furrowing her brows, ‘because you lose control and you lose the ethos and culture.’ However, she is keen to emulate the personal service provided by the Rothschilds on a grand scale, should an opportune moment arrive.
West keeps a keen eye on the vagaries of global markets and worries about the level of short-term volatility: ‘It’s a really weird economic situation,’ she says. ‘You’ve got central bankers potentially manipulating markets because they’ve got nowhere else to go – Trump gets off the plane and critiques [Federal Reserve chairman] Jerome Powell, and markets go all over the shop.’ Since that November outburst by Trump, she says, there has been an emergence of short-termism among investors. ‘In fact, our lowdown this week says, “Don’t start measuring things in quarters and years; you need to measure them in five-year periods and decades.”’
‘Money is going much more global,’ she adds, revealing that the firm’s tactical strategies are focused on funds related to robotics, cybersecurity, catalytic converters, cars and clean energy. ‘We want to embrace businesses that embrace change, and those are businesses that use technology to advance their output and profitability.’ Companies may shapeshift, but the fundamentals remain the same, West points out.
‘You need a company that makes a profit, makes something the world wants, and repeats that offering.’ She mentions Apple’s staggering growth, pointing out it has approximately $256 billion on its balance sheet. ‘Ultimately they could buy Disney,’ she says. ‘They could buy Tesla.’
West insists that traditional stock-picking will trump asset allocation in the foreseeable future. The trick, though, is to distinguish the managers who are ‘elite’ from the ones who are ‘just good’. ‘The elite bunch are a class of their own and we want to make sure we’ve got them in our core holdings and that we know what their outlook is.’ Naturally, client objectives count above all, and understanding them is what West truly specialises in.
‘There are four stages of learning and I’m unconsciously competent because I’ve done it for so long,’ she says, having personally seen the length of fact-finds shift from ‘a tiny paragraph at the bottom of the page’ before the Big Bang to what is now a 22-page document. It’s the enduring relationships that such a personal service forges that she loves most about her role as a client-facing CEO.
She recalls receiving a desperate call for help from a client whose husband had died – on her son’s birthday. ‘She phoned me not because I’m her friend, but because she didn’t know what to do, and she thought, “Petronella knows what to do because her mother died recently.”’ There’s an overwhelmingly human aspect behind the wealth that many in the financial services industry overlook, she stresses. ‘That’s what sets Investment Quorum above – I don’t know how many big wealth management firms could say they’d jump on a plane when somebody’s client dies.’
At its heart, Investment Quorum has a Christian ethos that West continues to instil. Meetings start with prayers, she says, and there’s a strong element of soul-searching that is encouraged, to ensure that her team are cognisant of both their personal lives and client relationships.
‘Everyone has an element of self-development. I’ll be saying to you, “Outside work, what’s making you grow as a person? Is it charity work, is it sport? What investment exams are you taking?”’
What West does outside her hectic role is support the charity Street Child, which helps underprivileged children in Sierra Leone. A highlight last year was the charity’s tenth-birthday gala at Kensington Palace, which was organised by the Duchess of York, who recently became patron of Street Child through its merger with Children in Crisis, which the duchess had founded.
Star-struck by Princess Eugenie, West requested a selfie – which ended up on the Daily Mail’s website. ‘Oops, my highlight of the year!’ she laughs, gesturing at her phone. How does West, who is also a governor at a south London school, find the balance between her children, client relationships, management of the company and charity? ‘I have an extraordinary amount of energy,’ she says with an infectious laugh.
Photography by David Harrison
This interview will be published in issue 67 of Spear’s magazine, available on newstands from next week. Click here to subscribe