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Business interview: Quilter chief Paul Feeney opens up on the scourge of City's last great taboo

Michael Bow

Paul Feeney is a man who knows his own mind. The chief executive of UK-­focused wealth manager Quilter speaks with such conviction that his words animate his body; his foot taps out the rhythm of his syllables, he pats his palm with a clenched fist on each sentence. Yet Feeney knows his mind can also be his undoing.

The 56-year old half-Irish Mancunian is many things: a FTSE 250 chief executive, head of a £120 billion wealth manager, the man who masterminded Quilter’s move to become an independent company (it used to be owned by insurance giant Old Mutual).

But he’s also a champion of mental health in the workplace, a rarity in the hard-driving world of FTSE CEOs.

“Mental health issues are a scourge because I know it from my own experience,” he says over cheese sandwiches in his glass-panelled corner office in the City. “I have mental issues I have struggled with and struggle with still. It took me two decades to even open up and talk about it. I couldn’t have conceived about opening up in some of the firms I worked in.”

Most people in the macho City don’t like talking about mental health — preferring sports, or weather, or floating rate credit derivatives — presumably out of embarrassment or fear it will harm their careers.

Feeney is on a mission to make it less taboo so those suffering feel comfortable putting their hand up to say they are struggling. He says many suffer in silence, turning to drink, drugs, sex and gambling to cope with the stress and anxiety of their jobs rather than opening up to their bosses. Worst of all, he says, HR departments are not equipped to cope with the problems.

“The best way to deal with those issues is to be open about them, and lead from the front on them, which is what we’ve been trying to do at Quilter.”

Feeney had a difficult upbringing in inner-city Manchester — money was so tight he shared a bed with his twin brother — and a strained relationship with his often-absent father.

When a family member nearly died from an eating disorder a decade ago, the sense of helplessness rekindled painful memories of his childhood and he struggled to cope. Today he recognises that as post-traumatic stress disorder, but at the time he didn’t have the mechanisms to deal with it.

“I was constantly going over things in my head, keeping quiet and not talking about things. I wasn’t able to deal with some of this stuff,” he says, wriggling forward in his chair.

He seems at ease now, dressed in the wealth manager uniform of white shirt, blue tie and black brogues. A chunky watch gleams on his left wrist. He climbs mountains to cope with stress (the latest being El Capitan in Yosemite) and has ­similarly awesome ambitions for Quilter, which he believes can be a FTSE 100 company.

The firm, which was spun out on to the stock market by Old Mutual 18 months ago, is the relative new kid on the block in the listed wealth management sector, running in a crowded field against rivals such as St James’s Place, Brewin Dolphin and Rathbones

It makes money by charging customers fees on investments and financial advice, targeting people with between £50,000 and £5 million of assets.

Shares sit a healthy 30% above their float price, after bouncing back from an early slump. Feeney says the rally is down to delivering on promises to pay off £300 million of debt and sell Quilter’s fund manager unit and assurance book.

The 30-year industry veteran, who earns £2.8 million, says he’s in the battle for the ­savings of middle Britain: teachers, nurses, pilots. Yet those people might not be as receptive to the world of finance as they once were.

The collapse of Neil Woodford’s empire has prompted another bout of scandal in the fund management industry, raising questions over the value of so-called “star” fund managers and their promotion by intermediaries.

Feeney won’t go into Woodford — whom he calls “Neil”, having known him professionally for several years — but it’s clear he thinks the doomed venture broke its “promise” to savers.

“If you set up an equity income fund, that’s a widows and orphans fund. Give me a dividend. I’m sorry, it is. You’ve got to fit how you invest to the promise you’re making,” he says.

Feeney was a key executive at Gartmore, the defunct British fund manager that relied heavily on high-profile fund managers to bolster inflows, but he says he would never

be seduced by the “star” fund manager cult at Quilter.

“We will never promote one fund manager. We will use often high-profile fund managers in our portfolio but they will be a small percentage. What we won’t say is ‘you should be in this fund with this fund manager’,” he says, leaning forward to pick a grape from a bunch sitting on a glass coffee table.

But didn’t Feeney, who also worked at BNY Mellon, hire fund superstar Richard Buxton from Schroders to bolster Old Mutual? Wasn’t that playing the star fund manager card? He rebuffs the idea. “I brought in Richard to help build up the asset manager which I then sold for £600 million,” he says, holding the grape between his thumb and fingers. “We didn’t have that as a proposition to the retail market. We built up a wholesale asset manager, not a retail one. Would I go out to all my customers and say you should buy Richard’s fund? Never. As good as Richard is, that’s too concentrated.”

Feeney’s plans for the future include increasing Quilter’s advisers and doing more on the mental health agenda.

Is he happy?

“I am happy,” he say after a long pause. “I’ve learnt you’ve got to be brave to be happy, you’ve got go through a lot of pain to be happy. I’m very lucky, that’s for sure.”