AllianceBernstein’s acting CEO for Asia ex-Japan, Ajai Kaul, says it’s business as usual despite the recent exit of former incumbent Augie Cheh to a rival firm.
Cheh quit this month to become president of Janus International. He is on gardening leave and is understood to be working out terms before an expected start date in March or April this year.
Although details on his new role are being finalised, it is believed he will be managing the entire P&L for Janus Capital’s international business, not just sales. The firm’s Asia-Pacific head Jack Lin and Europe & Middle East head Ric van Weelden will be reporting to him.
With two pre-primary school children, Hong Kong-born Cheh would be a candidate to relocate, although AsianInvestor understands a decision on where he will be based has yet to be made.
It represents an interesting move, given Janus’s goal to expand its fixed income capabilities globally. Cheh spent almost seven years focusing on fixed income at JP Morgan. It follows the arrival of Richard Weill as Janus Group CEO from fixed income specialist Pimco last February.
Other hires Janus has made recently include Fred Horsey as its Asia-Pacific chief operating officer last September. Like Cheh, Horsey is also ex JP Morgan.
Personal ambition appears to be the driving force for Cheh’s move into what would be an expanded global role.
He had spent seven-and-a-half years with AllianceBernstein and had built up what was widely acknowledged to be a strong distribution team in Asia. He had started as director of business development out of New York before relocating to become CEO of Hong Kong in 2005. He assumed the Asia ex-Japan CEO position in 2009 amid an organisational restructure.
Interestingly, AllianceBernstein is also striving to build out in fixed income regionally and Cheh would have been deeply involved in that process.
But Kaul, who takes on the Asia CEO title at AllianceBernstein in the interim, similarly has a strong fixed-income grounding, having worked as a fixed income product specialist and fixed income manager at Bankers Trust prior to joining AllianceBernstein in 1994.
He says the firm remains fully focused on its regional strategy. “We are starting to see an increase in confidence return to the equity market,” he says. “We have our own thematic services, we have Asia ex-Japan value equity services and we are possibly looking at Asian bond services. We are weighing what we might want to do in Asian fixed income.”
An internal replacement for Cheh remains a strong possibility for AllianceBernstein. Asked whether he was well placed to fulfil the CEO role on a permanent basis, Kaul replies: “I am not unfamiliar with North Asian markets nor with institutional and retail business, so I do have the ability to contribute to the need of the hour.
“I have played a variety of roles for the firm over my career, so it’s natural for them to ask me to step in while they reflect and think what is best for AllianceBernstein and do what’s best for a region that is very important to us.”
Previously Kaul led AllianceBernstein’s Southeast Asia sales team. He has also led its Asia ex-Japan sales team and been CEO and country manager for Alliance Capital Asset Management (India).
Asked whether the emphasis under him would be on retail or institutional clients, he says: “Our retail business has grown from strength to strength across the region, and the institutional business is equally important. I don’t think we are going to emphasise one over the other.
“I think retail has done very well, but the institutional channel has been more thoughtful and cautious and has reflected deeply about how they want to look at their asset allocations and what they want to do. So maybe the decision-making has taken a little more time there. But we expect this year to be a very good year for institutional searches and mandates.”
He notes, too, that AllianceBernstein has been winning mandates on the strength of its thematic research service. “We have very strong expectations and hopes that we will be able to build that out. It is something that is quite topical and is of interest to investors in Asia.”
But Kaul bats away a question about whether he has a mandate to hire staff: “It is too early to talk about that. For now we are in good shape. Should our business require it we will certainly be hiring. But that is about all I can say at the moment.”
At the end of last year, AllianceBernstein had global AUM of $486 billion. Its assets sourced from Asia-Pacific stood at $90.9 billion, a healthy 20.4% year-on-year rise, according to AsianInvestor numbers.