‘Green-hushing’ was not a term I had come across before I caught up with Roger Miners (pictured), head of distribution for Europe at BNP Paribas Asset Management (BNPP AM) and CEO of BNPP AM UK. “Only last year, companies were shouting about their sustainable credentials from the rooftops but now many prefer to avoid the subject,” he says. “Ironically, that silence really tells you something.”
Not that BNPP AM could be accused of such reticence on Miners’ watch. “We are in the midst of a financial revolution, which is incredibly exciting,” he says. “I was saying to a colleague the other day, you could work a whole lifetime and not see a revolution in your industry. But here we are working in asset management and there is a revolution underway around sustainability.
“For years, we have seen things in terms of risk and reward – but now it is all about risk and reward, and impact. Clients – particularly the younger generations coming through to investing – fundamentally expect not just an appropriate balance of risk and return, they also expect you to understand the environmental, social and governance considerations within that.”
Miners – who joined BNPP AM as global chief marketing officer (CMO) in 2017, after 15 years in sales and marketing leadership roles at Allianz Global Investors, where he was CMO, and its predecessor, RCM, where he was UK CEO and global head of sales and marketing – draws an analogy with the emergence of accounting standards in the aftermath of the Wall Street Crash of 1929.
“People forget but there were no accounting standards before then – companies could publish whatever profits they wanted,” he points out. “Out of the Great Depression came accounting standards, and it is not dissimilar coming out of the pandemic. It will take time but we will see a revolution in environmental, social and governance standards and regulation.
“Sandro Pierri, who has since become CEO, and I started here at the same time and before we even arrived at the firm we were discussing the value proposition of what we wanted to build out from its history. We agreed we were going to be bold and put sustainability at the heart of the business – and, just five years ago, that was bold. But people understood what we were doing and could see we were serious about it.
What do you stand for?
“Later, of course, sustainability became the commercial move and, a year or 18 months ago, our life became really tough because how do you differentiate yourself when everyone is claiming the same space? Now, however, I think it is pretty evident to clients the asset managers where sustainability is fundamentally part of who they are and those who just move to where the commercial interest is.
“Years ago someone told me, when times are tough, you have to know what you stand for – and it is the same with businesses. When times are tough, either you genuinely stand for something or you are willing to move around and play things multiple ways – and the latter route tends not to end well. For good or for bad, we are absolutely committed to this journey.
“That is why we have this strapline at the heart of our brand – ‘the sustainable investor for a changing world’. We are not perfect but, when clients come to us, they know they are dealing with a business that is sincere about trying to do the right thing on risk, reward and impact. People need to be careful about greenwashing and ensure companies’ claims stand up but, as I say, ‘green-hushing’ is a concern now as well.
“It is clear some companies no longer want to talk about sustainability but, if you truly believe in something, you have to be prepared to talk about it – and be challenged. That is difficult at times because not everything in this field is super-clear and you can become a target. But sustainability is part of our DNA and perhaps this is an opportunity for clients really to see what sort of companies they are dealing with and make their choices.”
DNA composition or not, has the poor run for ESG-oriented investments over the past year or so not given the company pause for thought? “It has been tough because, of course, a lot of the quote-unquote ‘dirtier’ stocks have performed very well – and the green sector not so well,” Miners acknowledges. “Our view, however, is this is a short-term issue – society’s need for food security, for example, or energy security has not gone away.
“Clients are looking for opportunities to invest. I have travelled across Europe over the past 12 months and it is very clear to me there are a lot of advisers and intermediaries out there who are looking to move into active strategies and thematic ETFs to find those opportunities. Maybe there will be some short-term pain but there is also a lot of long-term appetite, interest and demand in this area.”
The good and the great
Miners began his career in sales, later moving into marketing because his then-employer “wanted someone who had worked with clients and who had sold, retained and defended assets”. Given his earlier thoughts on a business standing for something – and, indeed, standing out from the crowd – how can an asset manager best go about building a brand?
“One of the things that sets the great in asset management apart from the merely good is that, when you think of them, you go somewhere – you think of them as an authority on bonds or emerging markets or whatever. So we spent a lot of time thinking about what that might be for us and looking at the company’s history – because it has to be a true element of the business. You cannot just try and brainwash the market into accepting what you want.
“Then you put this at the heart of your philosophy and position the company, which then defines your brand because it defines your behaviours and your value proposition overall. In contrast, the worst place to be, as we have already implied, is trying to be everything to everybody everywhere. People talk about the risks for mid-sized asset managers but it is not just a size thing – you have to make sure you are very clear what you stand for.
“Great asset managers know what they stand for and this sets – from the very top – how you make decisions and target your investment. So, for example, we have identified sustainability as being the heart of the firm, which led us to Jane Ambachtsheer from Mercers as our global head of sustainability and to build up a sustainability centre with 30 analysts.
“What worries me in this industry is people confuse brand and advertising. Brand is built through every single interaction every person in your firm has with other people – both inside and outside the business. Advertising is something very different. It may sit right at the top of your sales and marketing ‘funnel’ but it is not the most important part of your business.
“By far the most important part is having a very clear value proposition and clear behaviours that drive your values – and then that drives your culture. After 20-plus years of industry conferences and roundtables, you learn that the big strategies everyone talks about – the role of passive, the democratisation of private assets and so on – they do not change that much.
“What fundamentally does change asset management firms for the better is how you build into the organisation a culture that is appropriate to your positioning.
“We are a people business and, if you put diverse minds in an environment where they feel valued and can be at their best, in a high-performing industry, where the difference between winning and losing is so thin, it is the biggest difference between good and great.”
Importance of leadership
Beyond clear positioning and culture, Miners picks out leadership as a third key ingredient of a successful asset management business – or indeed any successful entity. “The importance of great leadership has become really clear to me over the past six months – the power of one individual or a few to have a positive or a negative force on any organisational structure, be it a company or a sports team, an economy or a country,” he says.
“On the negative side, you only have to look back to last autumn to see what happened to our own country in a very short period of time. On the other hand, great leadership can inspire all the changes we just talked about – in terms of values and behaviour and caring about people. Furthermore, in asset management, a good leader will help with culture because there are lifelong tensions that exist – and will always exist – in these businesses.
“Take the natural tension between fund managers and sales as an example – a fund manager might ask, Why aren’t you selling my amazing strategy? And the salespeople might reply, If your performance was better, we would. But good leaders operating in a good culture take those natural tensions and make them constructive, rather than destructive.
See also: Ask the experts: How will ESG investing weather a recession?
“And, in an asset management firm, the best way I know to bring people together and drive these more constructive relationships is to focus on the client. Put your clients at the heart of what you do as an organisation and then, whether you are in good times or bad times, you are focusing outward on them, not inwardly on yourselves. That is a fundamental element if you are going to be a successful business.
“On the other side, I can observe that, under poor leadership, you do see toxic cultures in asset management – and M&A can pose a particular challenge here. Often, a leadership team will not properly deal with two different cultures coming together but a red team and a blue team do need to come together as – what would it be? – one purple team as you are all now in that firm together.
“Importantly, those are the sorts of businesses that will not retain their talent – and this is at a time when attracting talent to our industry is becoming increasingly difficult. One of two areas we want to build up, for example, is our data and technology capability, but that puts us in direct competition with the Amazons and Googles of the world. We need to have a strategy for ensuring these people want to join us instead.”
Not unsurprisingly, BNPP AM’s other main area of focus when it comes to attracting new talent is sustainable finance – and here Miners sees education as key. “If you look around the world, there are no more than a handful of places that offer a graduate course in sustainable finance,” he says. “As an industry, of course, we have the ability to grow people and education is a great way of doing that.
“To show how serious we are, we have asked all our client-facing folk to do a professional ESG certification – so the PRI or equivalent – and across Europe, where I head up distribution, we have now hit 100% and are aiming for 100% globally. I am not aware of another sales force of an asset management firm across the whole of Europe that can say that – but it changes the way we engage with clients and how they engage with us.”
Q: What is the best piece of advice you have ever been given?
The golden rule is ‘Treat others as you would want to be treated yourself’.
Q: What would be your ‘top tip’ to PA readers to help them run a better business?
Focus on controlling the controllables – and don’t underestimate the importance of culture.
Q: What single issue should most concern professional investors at present?
Q: Does anything about your job keep you awake at night?
This may be a more literal answer than you were expecting but sleep and recovery are super-important in any kind of leadership role. The two are often confused but you can sleep for eight hours and get very little recovery – and that can be dangerous over an extended period of time. Leaders will spend a lot of time thinking about the stresses and strains of their jobs and how to control that but, in my experience, the bigger issue is the other side – thinking about your recovery. It is so important not to have things keep us up at night but my watch gives me scarily accurate data on the recovery I get from sleep – and I know I sleep very well.
Q: And what most excites you about your job?
Making a positive difference to others – both to our employees and our clients.
Q: If you were head of the FCA, what would be your priority?
Building towards greater consistency on sustainable regulation. Different regulators work in different ways and, as a global organisation, that can complicate things. As we mature as an industry and the regulators do their job, I would hope to see increased commonality around sustainable regulation.
Q: What advice would you give to someone starting out in investment today?
Be courageous. Be curious. Be kind.
At the start of 2022, BNP Paribas Asset Management (BNPP AM) moved its ETF arm into the spotlight alongside its active funds – but does this decision not run counter to Roger Miners’ warning that businesses should not try to be “everything to everybody everywhere”? “I have never run an asset management firm where you are trying full-on to be both active and passive,” he begins. “It must be incredibly difficult culturally.
“What we have done, however, is elect to offer ETFs but only in the sustainable thematic space – and that changes the way you interact with stakeholders. We are not suggesting we are the next ETF giant – all we are saying is, these are the huge themes out there that are going to make a difference over a generation, they need to be invested in – and you can either do this actively or you can do it passively.
“And, from making this tactical and strategic move to focus purely on sustainable ETFs, we ended up as one of the three fastest-growing ETF providers of last year – which just goes to show the importance of focus. For me, it has been a lesson learned in that, having been very much concerned with whether you can do both active and passive, I now realise that was the wrong question.
“The important question is, what do you stand for? If you can answer that, you can go on to understand your value proposition and how you can serve the client best within that, which could be actively or passively.” And Miners sees no inherent contradiction in the idea of taking a passive approach to what many argue should be a very active area of investment?
“I think it is clearer when you are offering the solutions,” he replies. “Take biodiversity as a theme. We have an active strategy or we can play it passively, if that is the client’s choice, but it is all under the same sustainability trend. To your point, however, it is tougher when one is thinking about investing across broad indices – although, from a stewardship and voting engagement perspective on the active side, we are currently rated second out of 77 asset managers by ShareAction, so that is third-party evidence we are voting with our feet.”
EDUCATION, EDUCATION, EDUCATION
One area where asset management has an increasing role to play, believes Roger Miners, is in providing more – and better-quality – information “further upstream”. “We need to be thinking harder about how to help advisers help the end-investor,” he elaborates. “One recent example for us would be the educational work we did around the Sustainable Finance Disclosure Regulation and also MiFID II, which was hugely well-received.
“This is not pushing our funds or our products but us saying, we have got to do this work ourselves – because, of course, we actually have an adviser-network business in France – so let’s use the resulting information and knowledge more widely. I expect we will do the same thing in terms of education and support around the subject of net zero, where we are now doing a lot of work.”
Miners, who last year became patron of the FT’s Financial Literacy and Inclusion Campaign goes on to describe two not-unrelated areas – financial literacy and countering the sort of confusing jargon that torpedoes it – as close to his heart. “I really hope we can move on as an industry in terms of the quality and the quantity of the language we are using to help end-investors because they just get lost,” he says.
“There is a huge societal need to encourage financial literacy and clearly, as an industry, we can contribute by simplifying and clarifying our language so end-investors can better understand what we are doing. Things are more complicated still in the world of sustainability where many more acronyms are coming into play. We need to make sure we choose our language very carefully.”
That is perhaps easier said than done in the field of sustainable-responsible-ESG-impact-ethical-etc investing, where practitioners struggle even to agree on a single name, let alone a common language. Still, more broadly, what practical steps can asset managers take to improve the situation?
“The first step has to be to try and remove the jargon,” Miners replies. “Hiring good writers is increasingly difficult in itself. Where we already have them, though, we need to recognise that clear and excellent writing – writing that avoids jargon, speaks to stakeholders and, particularly, can help intermediaries help end-investors – is a skill in its own right. Rather than moving writers to do something else or manage a team, say, we have to ensure they can continue to do what they are good at.
“Sustainability and what we are doing to the environment are crucial to our future but arguably the next biggest issue of our generation is financial literacy, which sadly impacts women and those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds disproportionately.
“Ultimately, it is in everybody’s interest that all end-investors understand the basics of risk and return and impact, and the decisions they have to make around that.”
This article first appeared in the April edition of Portfolio Adviser Magazine