Should Investors Care about an Asset Manager’s Culture and Brand?

Asset managers spend a great deal of time cultivating their brand and extolling the virtues of their culture. Although as an investor it is easy (and enjoyable) to be dismissive of these activities, they do matter. Investing in a firm with a toxic work environment and invectives wildly misaligned with our own is unlikely to lead to positive outcomes. If a firm or team’s culture is at odds with its investment philosophy, the culture will win out. Culture is critical but gauging it from the outside is incredibly difficult to do. The only way to better understand it is to ignore the words and instead focus on behaviours.

We should not think about culture without also considering the issue of brand. The two are deeply intertwined and can be considered different sides of the same coin. One external to a company and one internal. A brand is the perceptions held about the behaviours of a company by outsiders. A culture is the expected behaviour of insiders within a firm – what is permitted, enacted, and rewarded. Asset managers are unlikely to sustainably and successfully reset a brand without also addressing the underlying culture.

The cynicism that meets much of the talk around brand and culture within the asset management industry is entirely fair. It is so often vacuous nonsense – a superficial effort to manage perceptions. Establishing or transforming a brand is not about slogans, fonts or colour palettes, it is about changing the beliefs held about a company’s activities. If a company changes its name but its behaviour is consistent with the past, then existing opinions will simply transition to the new name.

If there is an effort to modify the brand and culture of a business, it is critical to ask – “what actions and behaviours are changing and why?” Not – “what is it you are calling yourself now?”

Given the industry’s focus on performance, it is possible that strong brands can exist when the team culture underlying it is poor. Investment returns can be impressive in a bullying, exclusive environment where client outcomes are subordinate to that of the business, but they are unlikely to be sustainable – the culture will lead to a reckoning at some juncture. Even if strong returns do persist against such a backdrop, we should ask ourselves whether it is the type of business with which we are happy to entrust our money.

Situations can also exist where a company has made material strides in improving its culture, but its brand remains tarnished because of past deeds. In such instances, shifting the optics (changing the name or logo) might help to allow the brand to reflect the evolving culture but will be insufficient. There needs to be consistent and meaningful evidence of what is changing. Skoda’s brand image would not have evolved had they not also improved the quality of their cars.

Assessing the culture at an asset management business is not easy. The starting point is to dismiss everything that you are told and anything that appears on a PowerPoint deck, and instead focus on tangible actions. It is easy to extoll the virtues of an inclusive environment in which the many different forms of diversity are paramount, but what is actually being done about it? Have concrete policies been put in place to facilitate this?

If the purported culture is based on putting the long-term interests of the clients first, how is that achieved? What remuneration structures are in-place to incentivise behaviours that are aligned with this mindset? How is the firm overcoming the pressure of meeting short-term financial objectives?

There is often a yawning gulf between what a firm says about its culture and what it actually does.

When assessing the culture of an asset management business, we should start by asking two questions: i) What are the cultural features (expected behaviours) we would expect to see at a high quality investment organisation? ii) What are the cultural elements that would support the application of the specific investment approach we are considering?

As an outsider there are a variety of ways to build a better understanding of culture within a firm or team. Those with privileged access can attend internal meetings and obtain details on incentive structures and historic staff turnover. It doesn’t have to be that difficult, however. Sites such as Glassdoor can be insightful, as can conversations with previous employees. We can also observe how the company engages with different stakeholders. The messages given by management to shareholders may well differ with those offered to potential investors in their funds – shareholders will hear about cost cutting and improving short-term flows, investors will hear of continued investment in the business and the paramount importance of adopting a long-term approach.

What we are seeking to understand is whether a firm’s behaviours and expected behaviours (its real culture) are consistent with what it says and what it is trying to achieve. There is no magic bullet to judging this, but we can easily build a framework or checklist, and reach our own conclusions.

Asset management firms should care about culture not because it sells or helps improve the brand, but because it leads to better outcomes for all stakeholders. Investors should care because our outcomes will be driven by the behaviour of the individuals in the firm with which we are investing.

It is so easy to poor scorn on culture and brand as amorphous and frivolous concepts, particularly when most asset managers play the game of saying the right things to best support and furnish their desired image. Culture is frequently discussed without anyone taking the time to explain it; but this doesn’t mean we should dismiss it. At its heart culture is about behaviour, and there should be few things as important to investors as that.