Managing US$1.8b in assets is a far cry from developing rural land and loading torpedoes in a submarine. But Gerald Ambrose, MD of Aberdeen Asset Management, says, “Enthusiasm will get you anywhere”.
HAVING worked on farms in his native Britain at a young age, Gerald Ambrose, managing director of Aberdeen Asset Management Sdn Bhd, dreamt of becoming a farmer. But life has a way of throwing a curveball. After graduating from Cambridge University with a Master’s degree in land economy (which considers the role and use of land, real estate and environment within an economy) in 1980, he became an agricultural surveyor, advising on the management, development and use of rural land. To his dismay, he hated the job.
“It was a lonely job, and the pay was low,” he recalls. “I soon realised that it would be nice to own a farm and get someone else to do the routine work. So, I thought to myself, ‘Which job is not lonely, pays quite well and allows me to meet people with the same state of mind?’ The Royal Navy was the answer. My uncle was also a submariner, so I joined the Navy in 1981 and went into the submarine service.” Not wanting “to spend his whole life driving boats thousands of feet underwater”, Ambrose moved to London in 1987, going into a totally different field at stockbroking firm First Pacific Securities.
He got his big break while covering Asean equities as institutional sales director of Kim Eng Securities Pte Ltd (now known as Maybank Kim Eng Securities Pte Ltd) in Singapore. Hugh Young, managing director of Aberdeen Asset Management Asia Ltd in Singapore, invited Ambrose to run the Aberdeen Asset Management outfit in Malaysia when it received its fund management licence in 2005, an offer that Ambrose gladly accepted. “I just happened to be the right person at the right time,” he says. “Young was an old friend, and an ex-client of mine from my First Pacific Securities days. I knew how the capital markets and financial services work. Plus, I’d lived in Malaysia for a long period and knew a little about the country’s culture.”
Ambrose, who converted to Islam before his marriage in 1992, said, “I feel more at home here than I’ve ever been in any other country, even in my native UK. I have friends of every race here. Malaysia is more integrated racially than any other country I know, and it’s a great place to bring up my kids.”
Here, Ambrose talks about success, his worst investment mistake and his retirement plans.
I believe that success is having a job that you really enjoy. I enjoy what I do, but I think I’m just a tiny little cog in a big machine.
The path to my current career was an evolution of random events. I have a Master’s degree [in land economy], I have an ocean navigation certificate and I know how to carry out a torpedo attack. But they are of no use to me at all [for my current career]. My maths was atrocious and I failed my O-Levels physics. I don’t think you need to be qualified in any particular specialisation to be a fund manager. The key is to be enthusiastic about what you do. Enthusiasm will get you anywhere. You will learn an art or pick up something very quickly if it interests you.
At Aberdeen Group, we are very open-minded. We have employees from different professions, ranging from a vacuum-cleaner salesman to history and marketing graduates, as well as employees of various nationalities — French, German, Scottish and Irish. To be our fund manager, the one thing you need is the interest in finding out what is really going on in a company.
Worst investment mistake
I had just qualified as a registered representative of the London Stock Exchange when First Pacific Securities sent me to its head office in Hong Kong for three weeks. It coincided with Black Monday in October 1987. [On Oct 19, 1987, the value of the global stock markets plunged significantly. Computer programmes that automatically executed large volume tradings for institutional investors were believed to be the main culprits.]
The market was going mad. Every stock was shooting up. Someone on the dealing floor said Asia Commercial Holdings Ltd [which engages in the trading and retailing of watches and luxury products] was going to shoot up to HK$10 by the end of the day. So I put some money in the company without knowing anything about it. The next day, the market fell by 20% and over the next few days, the market fell a lot more and it took me two years to recoup the investments I had made. When you just follow the herd, you could make the biggest investment mistakes.
I’m not a good saver and I have not set aside enough for my retirement. I’d like to be able to have a cushion for my retirement. If my daughter married a billionaire who really loves his in-laws, that would be fantastic too. However, I will stick to what I am doing now, which I enjoy. All my investments are in funds managed by Aberdeen.
I would love to have a place in the West and in Asia [as my retirement homes]. My real dream would be to have a house by the sea in the west of England, with adjoining agricultural land to keep a herd of pedigree Hereford cattle.
However, I’d like to come back to Malaysia when it is winter there.