‘Coronavirus is a wake-up call to rethink society,’ says Candriam chief

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Having arrived in France as a political refugee from Lebanon aged 12, Naïm Abou-Jaoudé had to fight hard to establish a name for himself in Paris’s cliquey investment world.

More than 40 years on, he has risen from being an outsider to leading Candriam, one of Europe’s fastest-growing fund managers.

We speak over video call and the coronavirus pandemic pervades his thoughts. Despite his private and relatively low-profile demeanour compared with some of his more colourful industry peers, the 54-year-old does not hold back.

Sitting in his light-filled kitchen in London, Mr Abou-Jaoudé speaks passionately, gesticulating as he covers everything from how policymakers “missed the warning signs” on environmental and social changes to their the woeful lack of preparation for the current crisis.

He blames underfunded healthcare systems across the world and short-term corporate thinking for exacerbating the emergency, and believes a new economic system is needed comprising responsible capitalism paired with ambitious public spending.

The pandemic, he says, “is a wake-up call, a unique opportunity for all of us to rethink our societies and economies to make them more inclusive”. He wants a new social contract, modelled on President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, where companies are granted state support with “green” strings attached.

While Mr Abou-Jaoudé sometimes ventures into the kind of gushing, inspirational speak common to corporate leaders keen to turn being virtuous into a personal brand, his words are backed up by the sustainable credentials of the asset manager he has led since 2007.

Candriam, whose name is an acronym for conviction and responsibility in asset management, is one of the leading lights in responsible investment in Europe, with more than 50 per cent of its assets managed according to sustainable criteria.

Candriam

Established 1998

Assets under management €130bn as at December 31 2019

Headquarters Brussels, Luxembourg, Paris and London

Ownership New York Life Investments

Employees 600

The company, which has made sustainable commitments in the way it runs its own business, such as becoming completely carbon neutral last year, competes in an increasingly crowded arena, as fund houses jump on the responsible investment bandwagon.

It was not always like this. In 2006, Candriam was “shouting in the desert” when it came to investing based on environmental, social and governance factors, says Mr Abou-Jaoudé.

He is wary of the threat of greenwashing — we speak as environmental campaigners protest against the appointment of BlackRock as an adviser on EU sustainable banking rules — and calls for policymakers to move faster on defining industry-wide ESG standards.

Despite this, he believes Candriam’s strong record in responsible investment speaks for itself. “Investors know the difference between those asset managers that are really doing ESG and those that are just saying they are doing it,” he says.

Candriam is a world away from the turbulence it endured after the last financial crisis. He recalls how the company was “left for dead” when its former owner, Franco-Belgian bank Dexia, received three government bailouts in 2008, 2011 and 2012.

A drawn-out sales process for Candriam, then known as Dexia Asset Management, ensued, with uncertainty plaguing the company until it was finally scooped up by New York Life Investments in 2014.

The US insurer-owned asset manager offered Candriam “the best of both worlds”, says Mr Abou-Jaoudé, providing it with a strong financial backer while allowing it the agility to operate within a multi-boutique structure. Assets under management, which stagnated during the sale process, have rebounded, jumping from €65bn in 2014 to €130bn at the end of last year.

Despite this, midsized Candriam increasingly faces the challenge of staying relevant in a world where the largest 1 per cent of fund houses control 61 per cent of industry assets. Mr Abou-Jaoudé’s next task will be expanding the company’s global footprint, making it better known in Asia and in the UK, where it is dwarfed by established market leaders. Mr Abou-Jaoudé’s move from Paris to London in 2014 was partly to help him spearhead this international push.

Naïm Abou-Jaoudé

Born 1966 Beirut

Education 1989 Master’s in economics and finance, Université Paris II

1990 Graduate studies, Institute of Political Studies, Sciences Po

Total pay Not disclosed

Career 1990-96 Partner, Transoptions Finance (subsidiary of Crédit Agricole Indosuez)

1996-98 Co-head of alternative management, Alfi Gestion (acquired by UBS Asset Management in 1998)

1998-99 Member of the management board, UBS Asset Management France (acquired by Dexia in 1999)

2000-06 Chief investment officer and member of executive committee, Dexia Asset Management

Since 2007 Chief executive, Candriam Investors Group (formerly Dexia)

Since 2015 Chairman of New York Life Investment Management International

He is also focusing on fostering greater distribution links between Candriam and its parent company as part of his role as chairman of New York Life Investments’ international operations. This includes tapping private asset funds manufactured by New York Life Investment subsidiaries for sale in Europe.

Candriam’s core product range has long centred on traditional asset classes, a sign of its historic links with European banks, which mainly sell equity and bond funds. But this is changing as low interest rates depress yields, and Candriam is keen to catch up.

It is keeping its eye on potential acquisitions in private debt, private equity and infrastructure after buying a 40 per cent stake in London-based real estate manager Tristan Capital Partners in 2018.

Candriam also plans to add to its range of thematic funds, strategies that allow individuals to invest in line with a particular cause close to their heart. It has launched oncology, biotech and climate action funds in recent years and will roll out a circular economy strategy in the next few months.

Although these funds manage only a few billion euros between them, they have helped burnish Candriam’s responsible investment credentials. A similar initiative is the company’s sponsorship of Forest Green Rovers, the world’s most eco-friendly football club, which it has just renewed for another three years.

The Gloucestershire team, which competes in the fourth tier of English professional football, is the first club certified by the UN as carbon neutral thanks to its organic pitch, stadium powered by renewable energy and the all-vegan refreshments served to fans.

“What [club chairman] Dale Vince has built at Forest Green Rovers goes beyond sport. It is a different way of life,” says Mr Abou-Jaoudé.

Despite his accomplishments, Mr Abou-Jaoudé has one big career regret: his failure to follow his father and brothers into medicine. “My father saved lives and delivered babies; I always thought of it as the most beautiful job in the world,” he says wistfully.

After completing his French school education, Mr Abou-Jaoudé embarked on a medical degree but, disillusioned by what he saw as the limited pay progression in return for years of training, he threw in the towel after six months.

He recalls feeling discouraged by the fact his older brother who was working in a Paris hospital barely earned more than minimum wage at 30. “In general doctors and medical professionals are not paid enough considering all that they do for the population,” he laments, turning once more to the long-term consequences of the pandemic.

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