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The comeback king

IN that daft radio quiz, where the DJ lists a bunch of things that happened one summer and you have to guess the year, this particular edition might go as follows: Rowan Williams was chosen as the new Archbishop of Canterbury; Brazil hoisted the World Cup for the fifth time; Ian Huntley and Maxine Carr were interviewed by police over the Soham murders.

Martin Gilbert has led the rebuilding of AAM from the dark days of the split capital investment trust scandal 10 years ago to reaching the FTSE 100 for the first time this year
Martin Gilbert has led the rebuilding of AAM from the dark days of the split capital investment trust scandal 10 years ago to reaching the FTSE 100 for the first time this year

Any ideas? Cue some very schmaltzy pop by Gareth Gates (a number one that summer), warbling: "I made a stupid mistake, it can happen to any one of us."

Which is much the same song that Martin Gilbert of Aberdeen Asset Management (AAM) was singing before the Treasury Select Committee that July in 2002, having been called to explain his company's role in the split capital investment trusts scandal. The supposedly super-safe investment vehicles had taken the mother of all poundings in the dotcom collapse, taking Gilbert's company, their biggest purveyor, to the brink while thousands of investors lost their life savings.

As if it was not bad enough for Gilbert that his company was unwinding after two decades and he had lost most of his own money, he now endured the public humiliation of being described by irascible committee chairman John McFall as a "sophisticated snake oil salesman". In those days, when capitalism's foundations still looked sturdy, he was told that AAM was its "unacceptable face". As far as most commentators were concerned, he was finished.

How wrong they were. AAM is wrapping up a momentous 2012, having reached the FTSE 100 for the first time and rising over £1.5 billion in value to be worth more than £4bn. It is now Scotland's fifth-biggest company – and had you been brave enough to buy £5000 of Aberdeen shares in October 2002 when they bottomed out at 25p, you would now be sitting on £68,500.

AAM specialises in long-term investments in companies from Asia and emerging markets. The company's funds under management rose 10% to £187bn, second only to Schroders in the UK and about 10 times its 2002 level, while pre-tax profits jumped 15% to £348 million. And most market-watchers think the company will keep growing in 2013 by becoming more of a draw for American investors and continuing to improve its performance in categories like bonds where it is not so much of a trailblazer.

The only cloud on Gilbert's horizon has been his chairmanship of ailing Aberdeen transport giant FirstGroup, where shareholders reputedly wanted him to step down a few months ago. Some believed he was too tied to the old regime and too busy to oversee a turnaround because of his day job, plus directorships at the likes of BSkyB and Primary Health Properties and membership of the Bank of England financial policy committee. In the end he breezed through the re-election vote at the annual meeting.

But despite AAM's resurgence, you get the sense that the horrors of 10 years ago are never far from his mind.

"I lost just about everything I owned," he says. "I don't know what I would have done if it had ended. An accountant or something like that. But I never really thought about it. I just thought about trying to repair the damage."

He offered his resignation, but was "rather pleased" the board didn't accept it.

"I thought, 'I am going to go in each day, do the best I can'. It was a huge, huge effort. We had to sell our retail division, our property division, sell a stake in our life insurer. We had to sell anything we could to survive. We were really fortunate we made it through. We did it with the support of the banks because we were heavily indebted at that point."

Those were Bank of Scotland and RBS, whose bosses would have done well to learn from this fall from grace on their doorsteps. Gilbert established a new rule for AAM at that time: that it would no longer borrow money to make investments – the risky strategy that did for many of his colleagues in 2008.

And having been burned handling so-called "retail money" – meaning private investors' savings – the company now focused on managing money from institutions like pension funds instead. This was effectively an acknowledgement that its reputation among private investors was probably beyond saving.

Gilbert says the only reason he had the luxury of making these strategic changes was because of a decision in the late 1980s to open an office in Singapore under chief investment officer Hugh Young, which laid the foundations of AAM's Asia business. Its ongoing contribution to the bottom line kept the business afloat.

Yet one well-placed source says few other leaders could have turned the company around. Long before it was out of the woods, Gilbert resumed AAM's strategy of growing through acquisition. In 2003, it used some of the proceeds from its sell-offs to pay peanuts for Edinburgh Fund Managers – also wrecked by the split capital scandal – before picking up a large chunk of Deutsche Bank's asset management business and various other bits and pieces between 2005 and 2008.

And it turned on the hoover as banks moved out of asset management, buying businesses from Credit Suisse in 2009 and RBS in 2010. Still headquartered in Aberdeen's Queens Terrace – though Gilbert spends large amounts of time in London – he says AAM is in a period of consolidation. It has 31 offices in 24 countries and employs nearly 1950 people.

"These last two years have been about everything coming together, the acquisitions, the strength of our Asian franchises, our emerging markets franchises," he says.

In the midst of this, AAM got caught up in Alliance Trust's problems. Alliance, a Dundee-based fund manager run by former AAM investment boss Katherine Garrett-Cox, went through a period of being pressured by then-shareholder Laxey Partners to make changes with a view to improving its indifferent performance.

Gilbert was quoted as saying he would be keen to take over the management of its £2.1bn fund, in a move that understandably ruffled feathers in Tayside. He says now he was acting out of concern that one of Scotland's "crown jewels" could end up run elsewhere. With a new Alliance strategy in place and Laxey no longer causing trouble, he now says cryptically: "Katherine texted me. She's a friend of mine so there was never any hostility. She's doing a good job there. She's got the portfolio down to a more limited number of stocks. I don't think there's any opportunity to manage it."

The key to successful fund management, in his view, is to keep your head – don't panic sell during a downturn and don't buy into overvalued stocks. For this reason AAM has always avoided Apple in favour of Samsung, which is now its biggest holding and worth about £5bn. His company may have missed out on Apple's stellar rise, but it won't get caught in a deflating bubble by buying in late.

Mostly Gilbert spends his time "managing a big company". Reaching for the self-deprecation button, he says: "It's all very dull. Well, not dull but it's all very boring. We are quite a boring company and we just grind on."

Boredom certainly has its rewards: Gilbert's package for 2012 was worth £4.5m, and he regularly makes more selling vested shares. In relation to the size of the business, he earns more than most other Scots chief executives. This year's average package for AAM staff, including pension contributions, was £155,000.

He is wary of saying much about social inequality. Asked whether he agrees with Warren Buffett's recent complaint that top earners are taxed too little, he points out that America's second-wealthiest individual was talking about his own country. He thinks that "during the difficult periods you have got to pay more than your fair share", but indicates that high earners are already taxed properly in the UK.

On the subject of the UK economy, he makes a well-worn point that AAM focuses on looking at companies from the "bottom up" rather than worrying about the macroeconomic picture. He believes the Government has done a good job, but mentions that the high price of gilts is not sustainable.

Yet if gilts fall, the UK's borrowing rate rises. Wouldn't this make the Government's already-questionable forecasts even harder to achieve?

"If I was the Government I would be issuing as much long-term debt as you can at the moment," he says. "I suspect they are. We would all like to see more stimulus, but George Osborne has got a very difficult path to follow; he's got to keep the ratings agencies happy and stimulate as much as he can - He knows that stimulus is required, but the first key thing is to sort out the level of debt."

If the Chancellor needs any advice on how to break debt addiction, there are not many degrees of separation between the two men – Conservative grandee Malcolm Rifkind was a longstanding AAM board member until recently (Gilbert was also at Aberdeen University with Alistair Darling). Pending such offers, he clearly has enough to be getting on with at AAM, FirstGroup and the rest.

"I'm always worrying about the future," he says. "I always think, 'God it can't keep being as good as this. Just enjoy.'"

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