RFP: Diary of an institutional salesman, part 6

This week, Will finds out where the bodies are buried.

Two simple words strike fear into every businessman's heart: legacy clients.

Yes, those segregated accounts for S$400,000, earning the firm 12.4 basis points per annum. Any firm that's done business in Asia for more than a decade undoubtedly has a book of business that nobody owns up to having taken on. The two-year average turnaround doesn't help either.

I've been working with our client servicing team all week, to build the right on-taking package for our latest new business win. In my first real institutional deal in Asia, Integrity will take on a HK$5 million portfolio of Asian credit for Taylors Group Retirement Scheme. What made it all the sweeter was the fact that the mandate was previously managed by Swiss Heritage. It was like taking candy from a baby!

Just one hitch, however, from an entirely predictable corner. Dear old Edna, one of our client-servicing veterans. The old battleaxe has been lingering here since the very start, back in 1995.

No two-year average length of service for Edna, no sirree. Every firm has someone who's become part of the furniture, and I'm not talking about the fancy Italian stuff they sell at Horizon Plaza. I'm talking about that sagging armchair in your granny's house covered in lace doilies.

She's one of those people who just knows stuff. She's useless but too expensive to terminate, and she knows the value of her knowledge of the old relationships... and the old systems. Especially the systems. She's the only one here who can operate some decrepit record-keeping programme that must be maintained for the sake of clients as ancient as she is.

A conversation in the boardroom goes like this.

Me: "Let's migrate our systems onto a single platform, so we can ultimately save on manual labour costs and react more quickly to client needs!"

Edna: "But what about our commitment to [client X]?"

Me: "These clients cost us more than double what we charge them each year." What I don't say: Without these clients, dearest Edna, you are straight out of a job.

Edna: "You know they're close personal friends of Charles [our former CEO, still active in the business!]."

Current CEO Kim [with one eye on a global role in the States]: "Edna has a point."

The Taylors deal is good business. They have wanted to give me money since our first meeting way back in spring of '09, but they've been waiting for the right time and strategy. Although starting with a relatively modest sum, they will likely more than double that in the next year, and it opens the door for almost unlimited cross-selling opportunities.

It's crucial that we impress them with this take-on and our servicing capabilities (not to mention some decent performance!) so that they don't lose the momentum that will, I'm sure, turn them into a billion-dollar client.

Many of our legacy clients should really have gone into our pooled funds, either at the outset or when we launched relevant vehicles. It would have been so much more efficient, but these clients want to impose some crazy rules.

We have one that won't allow us to sell any stocks at a price lower than what we paid for them! This caused no end of problems in '07 and '08, when the manager couldn't exit any positions, and an interesting situation thereafter, when we had to wait for the stocks to pass their previous highs before anything could be done in the portfolio. The portfolio management team almost mutinied and the client had the chutzpah to berate us for underperforming his benchmark.

Fortunately, the Taylors account has no such quirks. Naturally, for operational reasons they must have a separate account rather than going into the pooled fund, and obviously we're not allowed to invest in any of their own bonds. Edna complains (as usual) about how that will be coded into The System.

Seems fairly straightforward to me -- just tell the manager not to buy any goddamn Taylor bonds -- problem solved. She still resists and I need to use all my charm and deal-making ability to persuade her to help me set up the account. I end up promising to have a word with the local management to pare back some of the legacy business.

I wonder how often this conversation has taken place in the past decade, but convince her that this time it is indeed different: I will be in her corner on this one. But first, she has to get the Taylors account operational.

We're on the verge of great things with Taylors -- I've been thinking about what strategies I should sell them next. Global resources are hot, and consultants love our European 130/30 product. They drove a hard deal on fees for the Asian credit portfolio, but I was willing to come down a bit to get my foot in the door. This is shaping up to be just the kind of legacy business that will keep my name known at Integrity for many years to come!

William T Fitzgerald is a fictional character, as are all the other individuals and companies in "RFP Diary". Any resemblance to the living or to real firms is purely coincidental. Will's adventures continue fortnightly. 

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