Defections land a heavy blow on Fortis

With Robert MacPherson''s departure the fund administrator is left rudderless in Asia.

Robert MacPherson, director of business development at Fortis Prime Fund Solutions in Hong Kong, has resigned and is reportedly joining Bank of New York, which is looking to muscle its way into the Asia fund administration business.

BoNY executives in Hong Kong declined to comment and MacPherson couldn't be reached.

Players in the fund admin and prime broking world believe MacPherson is headed to BoNY in part because the firm has been trolling the market to hire someone to spearhead a push into fund admin.

Another rumour suggested hedge fund admin rival Citco was keen to get MacPherson in the wake of former MD David Leahy's departure last month for CSFB's prime broking business. But everyone interviewed agrees BoNY is a more likely destination.

The standard rumour has MacPherson taking 23 people with him, although many market participants are sceptical, and Joost Lobler, chief commercial officer at Fortis Prime Fund Solutions, says "There is no such exodus in planning." A Fortis client also says there is no evidence of a mass resignation. Other market sources say it is unlikely, first of all, that so many people could keep quiet. Secondly, a brand new business (assuming the defection is to BoNY) wouldn't need such a large team (a bolt for Citco, which is mainly staffed in Sydney, would be another story). On the other hand it is very plausible that MacPherson will take a core group of supporters with him. Fortis Prime Fund Solutions has approximately 60 people in Hong Kong.

Regardless of where he is going and how many people follow, the move spells trouble for Fortis' fund admin ambitions.

The firm pursued a novel business model of combining administration with prime broking for hedge funds. "It's not working," sniffs a rival.

Fortis has lost its senior talent globally over the past several years. Mark Beames, who had ran Asian hedge fund administration, was retired in January. Ex-Hong Konger Robert Schultz, who ran the Americas operation, bolted to Bank of Bermuda in New York, as did Brian Wilkenson in Dublin two years ago, while Schultz's deputy Robert Chin left for a local rival in Curacao.

Now mid-tier managers such as MacPherson are jumping ship. Tom Mann, who had been co-head of the Hong Kong operation with MacPherson, is expected to take the reins of what's left.

If the BoNY report is true, it is a bold move for a bank not known for splashing a lot of cash around. Competitors say Bank of New York doesn't tend to put a lot of money on the ground. It isn't expected to follow up a big hire by making further investments. MacPherson is probably going to have to build the business from the ground up. He has some loyal clients from Fortis whom he may be able to bring with him, or at least win promises of business for future fund launches, but rivals predict it will be a slow build.

On the other hand, BoNY and MacPherson may have wagered that with HSBC's acquisition of Bermuda removing any alternative fund administrators from the scene, the region is open to a new entrant - and that they must strike while the iron is hot.

Jame DiBiasio contributed to this story.