A boutique wealth-management firm that combines the impeccable address book of Ali Spencer-Churchill, the undisputed financial smarts of Alan Miller and the looks of Emily Compton? Well, why not, says William Cash
It wasn’t the most likely place to bump into two of London’s newest asset management aristo marketeers. Whilst recently at a beach club dinner hosted by Raffles nightclub in the unglamorous Playa d’en Bossa suburb of Ibiza I encountered the impossibly thin Lord Ali Spencer-Churchill, for once not decked out in his trademark Pogson and Davis navy suit; and a few minutes later I was chatting to his ‘partner,’ the impossibly well-connected and foxy Lady Emily Compton.
Whilst newspapers have gossiped about a close friendship between two of London’s most eligible bluebloods, the truth is they’re just old friends. What I can reveal, however, is that they have recently signed up as social gatekeepers for the new asset management firm Spencer-Churchill Miller, headed by the much talked-about former New Star hedge-fund manager Alan Miller.
The ranks of the financial classes have always included the odd high-flying, number-crunching-accountant maverick, like Miller, whose first love was not the piano-playing teenage girl-next-door but rather the markets. And wherever you find such financial ‘gatherers’ you also invariably find — chasing the smell of the money — ex-model marketing and sales girls with brains as sharp as stilettos, and titled, debonair/dishy aristocrats who can get a table at any London restaurant at five minutes’ notice and whose most valuable assets — by their own admission — are their family address books.
But rarely do you find these three types teaming up as partners, especially in the middle of the worst recession since the 1930s. Yet earlier this year Spencer-Churchill Miller, a new investment firm based in Knightsbridge, was born. It is aiming to shake up the complacent club of wealth-management professionals.
Its colourful founders — the 10th Duke of Marlborough’s 26-year-old socialite grandson, Alexander Spencer-Churchill, and the infamous 43-year-old Alan Miller, who studied accountancy at Birmingham University and whose father was a chartered patent agent — are London’s new financial Odd Couple.
No less interesting is the outfit’s third partner, Gina Miller, Alan Miller’s third wife. The daughter of the Attorney General of Guyana (formerly British Guyana), Gina is beautiful and financially savvy. She was sent, aged ten, to Roedean boarding school in East Sussex, and after studying law at London University she turned to modelling and then to organising events for the BMW racing team. This led to her setting up a marketing agency, which is how she first met Miller, while organising the launch of New Star at Madame Tussaud’s.
‘I didn’t actually remember meeting Alan, but he clearly remembers meeting me,’ Gina says. At the time she was married to the controversial muscular Christian businessman Jon Maguire, 48, whose £400 million financial services empire has recently been crumbling faster than the New Star share price did last year. Bizarrely, Maguire recently attempted to reassure investors that he has struck a ‘deal’ with God whereby in return for Maguire helping to set up farming projects in Africa, the Almighty will ‘look after’ his UK business interests.
Gina is swift to distance herself from her ex-husband, whom she divorced in 2002. ‘This was way after my time,’ she says of her ex’s eccentric pronouncements, which have also included attacks on homosexuals. ‘I was totally unaware of his activities or company until recently. I have not had any contact with him, as I did not seek any financial settlement. Not a penny.’
This must have been music to the ears of Alan Miller. He is unique within the hedge-fund community for being as notorious for the amount of money he had to give away to his American second wife, Melissa, as for the amount of money (estimated at £65 million) he made as chief investment officer at John Duffield’s New Star Asset Management in the 1990s.
During his divorce, Miller appealed a High Court ruling of 2004 that had ordered him to pay Melissa £5 million after only being married for a childless two years and nine months. The trial became a test case and Miller became a hero in the financial community for speaking out about what many rich men saw as the ‘Gold-digger’s Charter’ element of the UK’s 50/50 divorce system. Miller thought the divorce laws in this country were unfair and, since he had the money to fight the ruling, he challenged the Law Lords.
Never afraid of a new fight, now it is the UK’s greedy wealth-management game that Alan is taking on. The good news is that, having been out of the markets for the past two years, Miller is untainted by the sort of poor performance that has caused so many rich clients to take their money away from their private bankers and asset managers in order to shop around for new investment opportunities.
The story of Spencer-Churchill Miller demonstrates how the credit crunch has provided the best opportunity, perhaps since the 1950s, for ambitious new boutique start-ups in the financial world to succeed, even for business partners with such diverse backgrounds as Blenheim, Birmingham and British Guyana.
Nobody doubts that Miller has the talent to succeed again. His previous career, before taking time off after the stress of his court case, culminated in him running the New Star Asset Management flagship UK hedge fund, which at its peak was worth over £200 million and, over his nine-and-a-half years of management, had compounded at an astonishing 17 per cent per annum.
Although he was highly respected in the City as a manager, Miller’s fund was hit in the final year of his stewardship by a number of bets he took investing in online gambling companies. He was eventually replaced as chief investment officer of New Star by Stephen Whittaker and left the company (now taken over by rival Henderson in January following its share price collapse last year) by mutual agreement following his sabbatical in early 2007.
As for all ambitious would-be Masters of the Universe who graduated in the 1980s, seeing Wall Street was a rite of passage for Miller. But on meeting him — as I did for the first time for breakfast at the Berkeley Hotel — it’s obvious that he never modelled himself on Gordon Gekko.
‘I didn’t have the hair. Or the braces. I just wanted to do something that interested me. Right from my first day at university, I remember a lecture in economics, and the lecturer asked the class what the gold price was, and I put my hand up and said it was $430. He didn’t believe me, and he checked it, and it was right. I like analysis. The great thing about investing in markets is that it constantly changes, and you’re constantly being proved right or wrong: you know where you stand from day to day.’
Miller, if anything, is the opposite of Gekko. He’s too nice, too polite, and a bit too nerdy, saying that the best thing about not having been running money — except his own fortune — for the last two years is that he has been able to spend mornings working out at the Harbour Club, and spend time with Gina and their young family at their £6.5 million house in Chelsea. ‘The biggest positive by a long way is that I have got so much closer to my children — that’s more important,’ says Miller. The couple have two children: three-and-a-half-year-old Luca and two-year-old Lana.
The concept behind Spencer-Churchill Miller is a smart one. The idea is for ‘Ali’, the third and youngest son of interior decorator Jane Churchill whose uncles include Henry Wyndham, head of Sotheby’s, and the 11th Duke of Marlborough and whose best friend is Ben Goldsmith, is going to be using his inherited Churchill charm honed by stints working for chef Marco Pierre-White and socialite property mogul Anton Bilton to introduce Alan
Miller to some of the richest, best connected and financially browned-off individuals in the world.
In many ways, it is a perfect time to be starting a business of this sort as so many wealthy clients are shopping around having been disappointed by private banks or asset managers who have recently — and usually unapologetically — lost them large chunks of their fortunes.
‘There has been a disgraceful decline in trust and honesty,’ says Miller. ‘Clients have been treated very shabbily. We are going to change all that.’ To prove his point, Alan is not taking a penny of salary but only earns money if the company makes money, charging a 5 per cent performance fee. Instead of the normal ‘two and twenty’ fee structure common to most private client funds, the Spencer-Churchill fee is a very modest 0.75 per cent, with access to money within seven days if a client wants it back.
There will be no fancy back offices, no trading floors, and no Damien Hirst paintings decorating their boardroom. The fund will comprise only two portfolios in three currencies. ‘There are no hidden charges,’ says Miller. ‘The way that many wealth managers have treated their clients with regards to fees has been a disgrace.’
All this sounds very in tune with the times. But I ask Ali if, at the age of 26, he really thinks he has the experience to be marketing a new fund that aims to attract the heavy-hitting names he knows socially. Isn’t he just using his name to get Alan into meetings? ‘It’s about what you deliver,’ says Ali. ‘People may agree to see me, but Alan is the person who will close the deal. I am not running the money, make no mistake about that! I will open that door regardless of whether I go through a cat flap or go through the back door, but I will get through that door.’
That Ali will not personally be running any of his family friends’ money will no doubt come as a relief to both his entrepreneurial mother and his father, Charles Spencer-Churchill, who is the younger brother of the 11th Duke of Marlborough and worked for many years in the hotel business with Rocco Forte. There is no doubt, however, that Ali is extremely good and amusing company and sincerely believes that setting up this new firm is his opportunity to break away from his background and reinvent himself as a serious businessman.
Spencer-Churchill was educated at Stowe School and brought up in a range of houses, all of which were fixer-uppers subjected to immaculate makeovers, always in either Chelsea or Belgravia. Using her houses as showcases for Jane’s decorating talent, the Spencer-Churchills have changed address around six or seven times over the past two decades. ‘My mother likes to move faster than the wind,’ says Ali. ‘She’s like me in that respect.’
Although his mother and father have been separated for some years, Ali says, ‘they have been incredibly supportive to me throughout my childhood and very generous to me and in life, in everything that I do going forward. Whether it’s charitable work, or business work, I was always taught to try to give something back to the world.’
In this financial climate, ‘giving back’ means getting a return for clients; it also means continuing his high-profile charity work with Ben Goldsmith, in particular co-chairing the biannual ‘Irish Evening’, a glitzy ‘green’ dinner for 300 wealthy and environmentally correct socialites paying £1,000 a ticket which in May raised over £1 million for the Ecology Trust, £380,000 of which was from the auction of a Damien Hirst skull.
Ali and Ben were also involved in last month’s private and successful conservation-themed Ormeley Lodge Dinner at Annabel Goldsmith’s home in Richmond — co-hosted by Zak Goldsmith and Damian Aspinall — which raised £1.3 million between just 25 tables. The proceeds also went to the Ecology Trust, set up by the Goldsmith Family and the Aspinall Foundation.
Ali has two older brothers, to whom he is ‘incredibly close; both work in the property business. He has also been guided in his life by a group of close friends. ‘There have been eight people who have been very influential to me,’ says Ali. ‘They have all said to me that if you ever do stuff, do come and knock on my door. I like to call them my G8.’ He won’t mention all the names, but prominent among them is his uncle Henry Wyndham, who he calls his ‘Godfather’.
‘I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m talented,’ continues Ali. ‘I would say I’m brave. One thing I learnt from Anton [Bilton] was: never give me something or present me something unless it’s absolutely up and ready. You can never give somebody 60 per cent.’
Ali’s high profile on the charity circuit means that his address book is dazzling, which can only help when it comes to introducing potential clients to Alan. And after years of watching from the sidelines as his friends and former bosses made millions, Ali is now intent on trying to build up his own fortune.
‘I woke up one morning last year and simply decided that I wanted to go out myself and put my own flag up above my own business, but I had to find the right partner,’ he recalls. ‘I realised it would be pointless to go into business with anybody who had the same skill sets. I had known Alan for about four years so I took him to lunch at Scott’s, where I plucked up the courage to ask him to be my partner.’
In many ways, it required extra courage from Ali as he did not go to university himself, having suffered from dyslexia at school. ‘You have to start somewhere in life and having the ambition that I inherited from my father and mother I decided that I had to start at the bottom and work my way up,’ he says.
‘When I made that decision in 2008, to put my name above a business I believed in, I knew I would only do it with the right person, and that person I believe is Alan. I decided I would simply not take “no” for an answer. I was going to hound him until he became my partner. When I heard he left New Star, it was like Christmas had come early for me.’
The unlikely business partners met five years ago, when Ali was working in front of house for Marco Pierre-White at Drone’s Club. From this meeting, they quickly became friends, with the younger man taking Alan under his wing and introducing him to the glitzy world that comes with being a Spencer-Churchill.
Having spent much of his earlier life growing up in north-west London and then in various suburbs, from Kingston to St Albans, I asked Miller how quickly he adapted to his new fast-lane life once he had made his fortune. ‘I discovered that there was a world out there which was fun and interesting the moment I stopped accountancy,’ he says.
Miller and Spencer-Churchill decided to go into business together in December 2008, when the Madoff affair was raging through the moneyed halls of Palm Beach, Mayfair, New York and Gstaad. It took the pair just five months to get their operation up and running, partly thanks to Gina, the dynamo behind the scenes. Meanwhile, with their doors having only opened back in April, several über-wealthy clients have already handed over their fortunes — or what is left of them — for Miller to manage, while the firm has recently hired Lady Emily Compton, former social editor of Tatler magazine, as an introduction agent.
‘We have been contacted by a mix of ultra-high-net-worth individuals, family offices and entrepreneurs,’ says Gina. ‘One entrepreneur who has just sold his business for £12 million said he had met with over a dozen other firms, but he had just had enough of the way they just seemed to be lining their own pockets — he liked our fees and investment transparency, and Alan’s track record.
‘Alan is principled, not controversial — he only pursued his divorce case to the House of Lords because he felt an unfair precedent would stand,’ adds Gina. Not only is Alan Miller a romantic but, in making Gina his third wife, he is also a living example of Dr Johnson’s adage that a second marriage is the ‘triumph of hope over experience’, because despite being cleaned out by Melissa, with whom he did not sign a pre-nup, he decided to head down the aisle without a pre-nup again. Now that’s what I call having faith in human nature.