‘When I moved from Edinburgh to New York, I think that was the scariest thing I ever did, but it was worth it,’ recalls Marianne Ismail, the woman who took over as chief executive officer of European Wealth, as it geared up for major expansion last year.
Ismail has had an impressive career to date, so it is no surprise that she was chosen to lead the business, where she has also served as a non-executive director since 2015, when former chief executive John Morton stepped down.
After being raised in a small village in the north of Scotland, her first experience of a city was Edinburgh, where she went to university, becoming the first child from her family to do so.
Little did she know at the time that she would end up moving to New York to eventually become co-head of Morgan Stanley’s emerging markets business. While there, she built the business up from $3 billion (£2.2 billion) to $13 billion in assets under management over four years.
In 2002, she became head of Morgan Stanley’s private wealth management business in Europe. It was then that Citigroup came calling and she was asked to build up its UK and European business.
There she was responsible for around $50 billion AUM on the European platform.
After Citi, she took some time out to set up her own business carrying out due diligence for private equity, as well as raising her two children.
Over the years, she has been on a number of boards and currently sits on the boards of the Court of the University of Greenwich, Qatar Islamic Bank and the Town and Country Housing Group.
‘The most important feature in being a board member is to have your eyes and your ears in the business and to talk to as many people as you can. Because if you’re just attending board meetings and reading the papers, you don’t get the same flavour of what’s happening in the business, the culture,’ she explains.
She adds: ‘You have to look behind the figures. It’s a people business we work in. You’re there to challenge the executive in a positive way and sometimes that has to be done very quietly or occasionally in a board meeting you might have to challenge the executives because they haven’t thought of some of the downside risk.
‘One of the things I learned is that there is no question too simple to ask, because often the simplest question leads to the answer and actually tells you more about the business.’
Ismail says that one of the difficulties of being a board member for her is that a non-executive has to be there to challenge and support the executive, but that means that you cannot actually do anything. ‘Whereas I actually like doing,’ she laughs.
While ready for the challenge of leading a business as CEO, Ismail admits that she has learned valuable lessons during her time as a board member.
‘You need to talk to everyone in the elevator. Then you get a very good view of what’s really happening. For example, when I used to travel in the States, I would be picked up at the airport by a member of the company. Just asking them if there are a lot of people coming and going, and about the company, you can really get a sense of the business.
‘I think the other thing is that economics are really important, in terms of the country you’re investing in and the prospects for that. Certainly having covered emerging markets, but in terms of running a business, the business has to be profitable. You need to grow cash flows. If a business is generating cash it’s got good prospects. The role is to generate that cash in the correct way.
‘Another lesson is that it’s important to be really on top of regulations because of the amount of time spent sorting things out after something goes wrong. It is better to have good systems and processes in place from the beginning.’
She believes that the secret of being successful is to be able to convey the feeling of professionalism, coupled with energy and motivation, but also to build trust.
‘Showing you are human is one of the best things you can do. Sometimes bosses are thought of as people who sit in ivory towers. To do any job well you need qualifications, but personality is critical. That’s where the world has changed. Leadership is really important.
‘Another thing someone once said to me is that you need to have outside interests. The downtime you spend with clients, where perhaps you have coffee with them before a formal meeting starts, that’s how you make an impression as a trustworthy person.’
Ismail was just over a month into her new role when the company announced that it would acquire a US-based firm, and shed its ‘European’ branding.
European Wealth bought national broker dealer platform Newbridge back in October. It is funding the acquisition through a convertible loan of $17.6 million provided by Kingswood, which owns 39.99% of European Wealth.
‘It is important that integration starts the day you buy a business,’ Ismail says. For her, it is crucial that when a company is bought, on the following day people know they are coming into an integrated business.
‘Often mistakes are made when you’re buying businesses if you leave them for a while they will never integrate.’
It is how you can ensure that you do not end up with offshoots that do not match, she adds.
The combined company is expected to have $4 billion in assets under management across 20,000 clients. The two businesses have 90 full-time staff employed, although Newbridge has around 260 people across its network, the majority of which are independent brokers. In the US, Newbridge, which is headquartered in Florida, has 46 offices.
‘As soon as that is completed, we will have two legs: our traditional European Wealth business and the new Newbridge business, and we will rebrand as Kingswood.
'The businesses are quite complementary in the sense that European Wealth has financial planning, investment management and a brokerage business, whereas Newbridge has a brokerage business that’s unique in the US. They also have an investment banking business which deals in small capital raisings for companies,’ Ismail explains.
‘The brokerage business was attractive to us because you can build it out easily by acquiring teams. The synergies between the two companies will come from investment management – we can offer our services [in the US], as well as build the alternatives business.
‘We will be bringing to the retail investor the opportunity to invest in private equity, hedge funds and liquid products.’
Ismail says that she will continue to expand the Newbridge business and acquire teams in order to tap into the retail investor market in the US, where the individual can have anything up to $3 million of investable assets.
In addition to expanding operations in the US, she has plans to build an institutional service, specifically in Asia. ‘We have good investment management and good alternative products so the best way for us to tackle Asia is not to have lots of bankers over there, but actually white-labelling for the institutions and then they can distribute our products.’
In the UK, there has already been some restructuring. The first step has been to start grouping smaller portfolios, so they are managed together, which helps to free up certain individuals who have the skillset to build the institutional business.
In addition, the firm has initiated a program of moving staff into central hubs to make management and the sharing of information easier. For example, the Worcester office has been moved to Cheltenham.
The company now has hubs in Manchester, London, Brighton and Cheltenham, and will be focusing on growing those. Ismail says that if it can achieve critical mass in these hubs, the firm can also have a compliance officer based in each office.
She adds: ‘When [former chief executive] Morton decided to leave, I was the only person who was there to take over. But I was also ready to embrace the challenge. I love helping businesses grow, and I’m particularly interested in strategy and how you actually make things work.