The Bond Man Conquering U.S. Hearts and Dollars
TwentyFour Asset Management’s CEO has set out to win over U.S. investors — it seems to be working.
Ah, Bond Men. Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, Sherman McCoy in The Bonfire of the Vanities, Michael Lewis, author of Liar’s Poker. And now on my list, Mark Holman, who in spectacles resembles a younger brother of Hugh Grant, only minus the floppy hair, with better teeth and no trace of a stammer. He’s the chief executive officer and a founding partner of TwentyFour Asset Management.
It’s January and Holman is visiting New York City from London, where his fixed-income-focused boutique firm is based. I want to take him to my favorite restaurant — a six-table, bring-your-own-booze hole in the wall on Amsterdam Avenue and 103rd Street called Buster’s — but sadly it went bust in 2016. So I look for somewhere outside his comfort zone, deciding on the first place that pops up on Yelp when I search “farm to table” on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. I haven’t spent too much time down there myself (though Orchard Street was the place to go for discount Diane von Furstenberg wrap dresses 40 years ago), and it turns out to be out of my comfort zone too.
Once the city’s streets lose their numbers and run off its logical grid, New York can be mighty confusing to navigate. But Gentleman Farmer is perfect — tiny without any whiff of preciousness, ten tables and attentive service. And rather dark. It requires commandeering three votive candles in front of my notebook so I can see the lines.
Holman, 50, brings along his New York–based wingman, Chris Walsh of Vontobel Asset Management, as a chaperone. The Zurich-based asset management arm of Vontobel, a Swiss private bank, acquired TwentyFour in 2015 and planned to expand the British fund manager’s global reach.
This is Holman’s seventh trip to the U.S. in 14 months. He’s been to meetings in Seattle, San Francisco, Denver, Houston, Cleveland, Charlotte, Milwaukee, Chicago, Minneapolis, Atlanta, Miami, and, recently, St. Louis, where he stopped last summer. Holman notes the spread between the temperature then and now, a frigid day in Manhattan, is exactly 100 degrees. Spoken like a bond man.
It’s crystal clear Holman, who grew up in Sussex and attended Lewes Old Grammar School, is serious about making inroads with U.S. investors. Aside from his frequent presence, he’s also installed two TwentyFour portfolio managers in an office on Times Square, and a son (one of four) in middle field on the Boston University Division I Patriot League soccer team. Holman consistently says “soccer” — not “football,” as a Brit typically would — yet another sign that he’s intent on conquering hearts, minds, and investment dollars in the U.S. market.
We turn to our menus. Holman suggests ordering for me. I consider what apparently is a family stunt: When someone’s tardy to dinner out, Holman takes it upon himself to order for the dilatory individual, who on arrival could discover that he or she will be feasting on liver topped with truffle oil and Gorgonzola. The notion is terrifying; I envision bison tartare and a rabbit cassoulet. I demur. He goes for the foie gras’d sea scallops and boar chop; I request beets and burrata and bison steak, cooked. Walsh orders pâté and tournedos. It’s all excellent, thank goodness, since my choice of restaurant was a shot in the dark.
Holman and Walsh don’t waste any time making their business pitches, as earnestly as if I were a target investor. TwentyFour has 50 employees, including 21 investment professionals, and $16 billion in assets under management; the New York office of its parent Vontobel Asset Management is also boutique-y with 69 employees and $40 billion in assets. TwentyFour rolled out its first U.S. fund through Irving, Texas-based American Beacon Advisors last year. The American Beacon TwentyFour Strategic Income Fund is the Yankee version of the U.K. TwentyFour Dynamic Bond Fund.
The name TwentyFour refers not to Jack Bauer, the heroic character in the television series 24; nor to Bruno Mars’s 24K Magic album; nor to the number of carats in pure gold, books in Homer’s Odyssey, hours in a day, or blackbirds baked in a pie. I was told off the record how the name came to be and, trust me, it’s not that exciting. How the firm came to be, however, is.
It was a dark and stormy night in the world of investment management when TwentyFour was birthed — September 2008. While the financial world was falling apart, says Holman, “the sun, the moon, and the stars aligned” as he was able to cobble together a team of solid professionals. “We were missing just two things,” he recalls. “A favorable market — and assets.” The firm’s starting assets under management: $0. In British sterling, that’s £0.
There was no place to go but up. “We took the rulebook and ripped it up,” says Holman. “We knew everything had to change and everything we did going forward would need to embrace that change in terms of products, management style, and customer service.” The strategy worked. By December there was $80 million in the pot, and assets have been rising ever since (with a few exceptions, which Holman notes prospective investors love to home in on).
Holman’s passions include golf, skiing, and blogging. The 24 Blog is highly respected. Of particular note is Holman’s annual outlook, published under the recurring headline “This Time Next Year Rodney.” This meme originated in a 1996 special episode of Only Fools and Horses, a British series that was popular in the 1980s and early ’90s. Here, a dimwitted comic character named Del declares to his brother, “Don’t worry, Rodney, this time next year we’ll all be millionaires.” To which Rodney responds, “This time last week we were millionaires.”
Holman’s a nearly 30-year veteran of the financial industry, having started his career in fixed income at Morgan Stanley in London in 1989 before joining Lehman Brothers Holdings and then Barclays. But he’s not ready to hang up his boots yet; his mind is as sharp as the fancy-schmancy, razor-sharp Laguiole knives at our place settings. (Totally unnecessary; our meat cut like butter.) This is a guy who skied Colorado’s Breckenridge once, more than 20 years ago, and recalls with ease the name of his favorite run on Peak 9 — the leg-burning, double-black-diamond Devil’s Crotch. (I confess, I have gazed down it and then skied on.) Not only that, he has a three-year-old at home, Oscar. Kismet! Our wonderful waiter’s name was . . . Oscar as well.