The former regional head of institutional business development at First State Investments, Robert James, is busily engaged on a new project: to build Comgest Far East in Asia-Pacific.

James joined this Paris-headquartered asset manager at the start of the year as managing director and head of business development for Australasia, based in Hong Kong. In this role he reports to Philippe Lebeau, the firm’s global head of business development based in Paris.

It comes after James resigned from First State in Hong Kong last September and went on gardening leave.

His new remit is to develop brand awareness and Asia-Pacific client penetration for Comgest, an equity-only house established in 1985 that specialises in global emerging markets.

He is, in fact, Comgest’s first Asia-based business development head. The firm has operated as a lean organisation, with a global staff of 85 and $17.5 billion in assets under management.

“In the past, fund managers were responsible for their own business development on top of their fund management duties,” James explains. “Around five years ago the decision was taken to start building business development capabilities, starting in Paris.

“Comgest operates on the basis that every one of the investment professionals is an analyst and some are also fund managers.”

James’s arrival brought the number of staff in Hong Kong to 10, comprising five analysts (three of whom perform portfolio manager roles), reception, back office and compliance. Comgest also has two analysts based in Singapore and a staff of eight in Japan.

The firm’s style is bottom-up stock-picking across seven regional strategies (Asia, Asia ex-Japan, Asia-Pacific ex-Japan, global emerging markets, global, Latin America and pan-European). It also has four single country strategies (Greater China, India, Japan and the US).

Of its $17.5 billion in assets, global emerging markets accounts for $12 billion. Its flagship fund Magellan (not registered in Hong Kong) was launched in 1994 and has an annualised return of 9.16% versus 4.77% for benchmark.

The firm has just over $1 billion in global equity and also runs approximately $400 million in US strategies.

In terms of Asia-Pacific, James notes that it manages around $2.5 billion in assets. As far as client split by region goes, Comgest has roughly 80% in Europe (including the UK), 14% in North America and 6% Australasia.

James has evidently been hired to boost the latter and is targeting institutional and high-net-worth clients (no retail at this stage). He estimates that around 60% of its asset base is invested through its range of funds, and about 40% through segregated accounts at present.

While James admits Comgest has taken a low-key approach to promotion so far, he says he has no plans for a large-scale advertising campaign, but rather more of a soft approach.

He lists priority markets as Hong Kong, China, Singapore and Australia, and from a personal perspective Korea, which he describes as “one of the best markets in the region, very deep and sophisticated”.

He notes that he will be looking to add client servicing capabilities over time in line with client acquisition. “Ultimately I would like to have someone to assist on North and South Asia and possibly Australia, although that could be some way out,” he says.

Prior to Comgest, James was head of institutional business at First State Investments where he spent over five years.

A spokesperson for First State confirms that Alexis Ng has taken on additional responsibilities from last November as head of institutional business for Asia, as well as managing director for Southeast Asia.

“The appointment of Alexis to this expanded role will result in the creation of one cohesive institutional sales and client service team responsible for institutional business across the Asian region,” she tells AsianInvestor.