Ray Tilson lives in a beautiful estate in Kilternan, Co Dublin. Or at least I think he does. The lockdown has ended face-to-face interviews, but the view of the property from Google Earth is certainly splendid. The estate dates back to 1834, boasting the original features of the period as well as splendid views of the Dublin mountains. In the distance, you can see the Irish Sea.

Tilson maintains a low profile. Yet, he is a highly astute investor who, along with his friend Matt Minch and their team, built a significant wealth management business in Dublin over the last quarter of a century.

Tilson and Minch have experienced much over those 25 years – from founding a wealth management firm together in 1995, to selling it in 2011. Unlike many sellers, they stayed on, expanding the reach of the company further under new ownership.

Even today, after recently closing the purchase of the private wealth arm of Investec, they are both still involved in the business, which is now owned by London listed finance house Brewin Dolphin. With assets of some €5 billion in Ireland, it is a substantial operation. Yet, like Tilson himself, it has been a remarkably low profile success.

Indeed, the story of how it all happened has never really been told, and that is something I am keen to talk about with both Tilson and Minch. But before we begin talking in earnest, Tilson turns his iPad towards a window in his home.

“I don’t know whether you can see them but there’s a whole lot of horses,” Tilson informs me. “That’s the Comer brothers.”

Luke and Brian Comer, the plasterers whose shrewd foresight has propelled them to billionaire status, became Tilson’s neighbours after they bought a huge estate and hotel in Kilternan for €7 million during the last crash. In a sign of those austere times, the deal was a 95 per cent discount on what it cost to build. But that wasn’t enough for them.

The Galway-born brothers tried to become even closer neighbours until Tilson managed to outbid them for an adjoining field. “I paid a silly price for it,” Tilson admits, but he doesn’t seem to regret it:  “Since a quarter past seven in the morning they’ve got ten jockeys out there exercising 80 horses a day.”

Tilson is sporting an impressive beard, grown since lockdown. It makes him look like a returned Arctic explorer. He laughs when I mention photographs. He is, however, the same intelligent person that he was when I last interviewed him almost a decade ago. Tilson rarely speaks to the press, but he is one of the most consistent Irish investors in the stock market, with a gimlet eye for overlooked value.

On the other half of my laptop screen is Matt Minch. Despite being the boss of one of Ireland’s biggest wealth management businesses until very recently, I had barely heard of him over the years.

Minch lives in Monkstown in south county Dublin in a home bought by his parents in the 1960s. It is sited on 1.3 acres and located near the boutique and restaurant strewn coastal village.

Minch was chief executive of Brewin Dolphin in Ireland until very recently. Brewin, a London listed wealth management company which traces its origins back to 1762, has a market capitalisation of more than £850 million.

Like Tilson, Minch usually shuns publicity. However, having just stepped down from the top job, he is happy to talk openly about the last 25 years building a substantial private wealth management business with Tilson. Neither man is leaving Brewin Dolphin, but they have both now stepped back from the day-to-day running of it, and are prepared to share war stories.

Tilson and Minch have a dry sense of humour that marks a long-standing friendship and respect. They are both a pleasure to talk to. They never shirk a question and happily confess to failure. Unlike many, they seem intent on downplaying success.

This is the first time they have ever been interviewed together – albeit apart, thanks to the need for social distancing. I have a list of questions to ask them. Many relate to their own story. Others to the history of wealth management in Ireland. And I have a few on where things are going to next.

But first, a simple one: how did it all begin? “Do you want to go first there Matt,” chimes Ray Tilson quickly, “and I’ll see if I agree with you?”


A plan hatched in Austria

Matt Minch: “I think we’re both absolutely straight down the middle, dead-honest guys. I think that was key to it.” Photo: Bryan Meade

It began in Obertauern. It was there, on the pristine slopes of Austria’s highest ski resort, that Ray Tilson and Matt Minch first really thought about going into business together. It was 1995 and the two men were friendly as opposed to the firm friends they would later become.

Joining them on the excursion was a businessman called Tony Nicholson and Philip Odlum, a scion of the well-known milling family.

Tilson had managed some of the Odlum family money for many years. The Odlum family traces its roots in milling back to 1845 before Greencore bought the business for cash and shares in 1988. It left its 80-plus family shareholders, spread across generations, with money to invest.

Tilson was close to the family as his grandmother was an Odlum, and his father, Cecil, had worked with the family as technical director. Later as a banker, and then with Goodbody Stockbrokers, he had advised the family on managing its wealth.

Nicholson was friends with Tilson from their late teens when they both trained as accountants. They were both “five-year guys”, as neither went to university.

Nicholson’s father, Desmond, had been president of the Irish Stock Exchange in the 1980s, so like Tilson, he was fascinated with shares from an early age. It was his first ski trip, and he would later become a director of the wealth manager for 16 years. He would also, in time, emerge as the best skier of the four.

It was an opportune trip. Tilson had loved working for Goodbody, but he was less enamoured with the business once it was bought by AIB in 1990. He previously told me before about being grilled by a young Colm Doherty (later chief executive of AIB from 2009 to 2010) over why private client commissions had fallen by 20 per cent in a week.

Tilson was flummoxed by the line of questioning and couldn’t answer. A colleague rescued him by saying the stock market had been closed for St Patrick’s Day that week, hence there had been a day less to trade.

Tilson, a confirmed long-term value investor, knew at that moment it was time to leave Goodbody. “So, I came home, and my wife, I said to Sarah, ‘Gosh, I really had a bad day today, this thing, I can’t understand it.’ And she said to me, ‘Ray, you know, I think you should set up your own business’ – she said, ‘You’ll get a good following if you do.’”

Goodman at the gates

Matt Minch was also at a crossroads when he met Ray Tilson high in the Austrian mountains. His family had until a few years earlier owned 24 per cent of Minch Norton Plc, once Ireland’s largest manufacturer of malt for the brewing and distilling industry.

Minch went to a Benedictine-run boarding school in Sussex called Worth Abbey. Unlike Tilson, he went to university – studying business in Trinity College Dublin before qualifying as a barrister. “So then, I went over to England for a year to go around the malt industry get some experience,” he said.

“I came back, and my dad said, ‘I’ve no job for you.’”

Instead, Minch went into consultancy, then working on restructuring businesses. However, the family business was going through a testing time. Minch’s father, also called Matt, decided to dismiss William O’Grady, the managing director of Minch Norton.

O’Grady was not pleased. He was a significant shareholder in the business, and he teamed up with a group of young hungry businessmen, including John Teeling, to make a bid for the business.

O’Grady told Matt Minch Sr of his plan in May 1987 at a brewing conference in Madrid. Matt Minch Sr felt ill on the trip. Upon his return, he was diagnosed with serious cancer, and he died that August.

Matt Minch Jr had come back to the family business in 1982. By November 1986 he had worked his way up to become managing director. He now faced barbarians at the gates, all eager to take control of the business. “I didn’t have very long to establish a presence,” Minch recalled.

After the approach by the O’Grady consortium, the company appointed Richard Hooper of IBI to defend its position. It was a torrid time for Minch Norton. The grain harvest was bad, and Guinness was putting the squeeze on grain margins. Making a profit was difficult. Hooper decided it was in the best interest to sell the company.

Minch Norton was now in play. A group including Philip Lynch’s IAWS and another consortium involving the co-op Avonmore placed rival bids. The IAWS grouping submitted the highest bid, and a deal was agreed in principle. However, following a number of complaints by bidders, the process was reopened.

Matt Minch: A scion of the Minch Norton dynasty. Photo: Bryan Meade

Larry Goodman now played his card. Swooping in, the beef baron acquired O’Grady’s shares and others, giving him a 10 per cent holding. Cooper held an auction for the business, and Goodman emerged victorious in October 1987. He was prepared to pay £4.30 a share, a hefty premium on the original £2.75 offer that first triggered a process.

Goodman paid £10 million for the business. The Minch family did well, but Goodman did better. Crops improved and the situation with Guinness eased within a year or two afterwards.

Matt Minch was still managing director, but the relationship didn’t last.

“Larry and I didn’t get on terribly well,” Minch recalled. “Eventually I was asked to go to Australia, and I took that as a good reason for a constructive dismissal claim, so I sued him and he settled with me in 1990.”

He settled with Goodman in May, 1990. A few months later, on August 2, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Goodman was owed a small fortune by Iraq, and the Gulf War caused him to lose, for a period, control of his meat empire, and almost forced him to bankruptcy.  

Minch, meanwhile, had agreed his settlement.

He was doing some consultancy work when he went skiing with Tilson. They knew each other – both professionally and socially. Tilson had advised his mother, Ann, on how to manage her wealth after the sale of Minch Norton.

“I knew Ray both on a personal and on a business level, and he knew me,” Minch recalled.  

On the ski holiday, Tilson asked Minch to join him. “Ray asked me to join him for three reasons, he said at the time,” Minch said. “One was that I had a reasonable understanding of stocks and shares, which he found out from dealing with me on my mother’s account.

“Second, I knew slightly more about computers than he did, and could put together a set of accounts, if necessary. And third, he felt that if it didn’t go terribly well at the beginning, he wouldn’t need to pay me, because he knew I had some money already,” he laughed.

In July/August 1995, Tilman Asset Management started trading. Minch was 40 and Tilson was 42 when they became entrepreneurs. The name of the business was inspired by a British mountaineer and sailor called Bill Tilman. It came from Philip Jacob, Tilson’s old boss in Goodbody Stockbrokers, who was a sailor. The first logo was a compass.

An apt name and a fitting logo – in the years ahead the business would hit peaks, and weather storms.

Dobbins, Sean FitzPatrick and an empty bottom drawer

Ray Tilson: Obsessed with investment from a young age. Photo: Bryan Meade

Ray Tilson was obsessed with investment from a young age. “In those days, there was no internet but from the age of 13 or 14 years I was always passionate about stocks and shares,” he said.

His father would buy him The Financial Times on a Saturday and he would pore over it. Tilson grew up in Portlaoise, but in the 1960s his life was uprooted when he was sent to boarding school in Cheltenham called Dean Close where his father’s cousin was the headmaster.

“I went to public school like Matt in the UK, and I came back in 1971. I didn’t have enough to get into university,” he explained.

His mother convinced him to try accountancy and he got a job in Stokes Brothers & Pim which soon after merged with Kennedy Crowley & Co to form Stokes Kennedy Crowley & Co (which today is KPMG).

“I studied hard. I got through the first four accountancy exams incredibly quickly before the age of 21, and then I failed the final one a few times,” he said.

Gerry Murphy, an early chairman of Anglo, gave Tilson his first job in banking. “I did a job that I found very boring, at the time, paying salaries and things like that,” he recalled.

A young estate agent called Paul Newman [today the chairman and co-founder of DNG estate agents] tried to poach him to join Druker Fanning & Partners estate agents. Tilson decided that if he did not pass his accountancy exams one final time he would take the job. This time however, he passed.

“I always wonder at times could things have been different if I had gone into property,” he mused.

Accountancy was, he said, his university. Some of the people he met there later became clients as they moved up the ranks to become partners or became successful in business. The financial training also stood to him in his later career.

“You need to be able to read balance sheets and stuff when you’re buying shares,” he said.

Tilson took a diversion after accountancy into banking with City of Dublin Bank. Back then Dublin had many tiny banks, of which large numbers were teetering on the brink of going bust. The Central Bank was encouraging consolidation, and it asked City of Dublin Bank to merge with Irish Bank of Commerce after one of its shareholders collapsed.

Among the clients of City of Dublin bank were the Odlum family. Tilson worked on its account as he knew the family. In 1980, City of Dublin merged with yet another bank in difficulty to create what became Anglo Irish Bank.

Gerry Murphy, an early chairman of Anglo, gave Tilson his first job in banking. “I did a job that I found very boring, at the time, paying salaries and things like that,” he recalled.

After a couple of years Tilson moved into Anglo’s office on St Stephen’s Green alongside Sean FitzPatrick, then an up-and-coming banker. Tilson was 26, and FitzPatrick was 31.

“Sean was just a very bright, busy accountant…” Tilson recalled. “I remember one thing he taught me, I remember we were working late one night, and we were going out to Dobbins [a restaurant in Dublin 2] or something, and there was a lot of stuff on the table. And he said, ‘Ray, just put that stuff away now and we’ll lock up and go.’

“And I was trying to pick up all the stuff and put it into a filing cabinet, and he said, ‘Ray…’ and I was trying to stuff the stuff in, he said, ‘Ray, the thing you should always do, you should always make sure that the bottom drawer in a filing cabinet is empty – you can bung everything and lock it up and go off quickly.’ That’s an example of something he taught me.” Tilson recalled.

“And actually, it’s a very good idea, I still do it myself!”

Tilson developed his own unique lending rules while at Anglo, Minch chipped in. “I know one was, don’t lend to people who go to mass every day. Another one was, don’t lend to someone who doesn’t fight on the interest rate. And a third was never to lend money to any man that has too many rings on his fingers.”

Banking, however, was not Tilson’s destiny.

In 1985 Ray French, then chairman of Goodbody Stockbrokers, as well as Philip Jacob, head of its private clients’ business at the time, wrote a letter to Tilson offering him a job. “They knew me from buying shares with Goodbodys and looking after the Odlum family,” Tilson said.

Jacob was 56 at the time and preparing to retire. The offer to Tilson was that, provided he proved himself, he could take over Jacob’s job in time.

Being head of private clients at Goodbody, Ireland’s oldest stockbroker, was, and still is, a prestigious position. Back then, Goodbody had over €300 million under management in its private clients business. This was a step up from Anglo.

It was big and blue-chip versus a minnow. Tilson decided to go for it.


Thinking long term

When they started, Tilman Asset Management rented a 1,400 square foot office building in the Beech Hill Office Park in Clonskeagh owned by the Odlum family. “We rented one floor. And got it fitted out with IT and stuff, and of course Goodbodys were 20 per cent shareholders in the business at the beginning, because the managing director at the time Peadar O’Shea, decided that he’d prefer to have a stake in Ray’s business, rather than just chucking him out and fighting the whole way,” Minch said.

“And so that was quite useful for us. We didn’t need to set up our own systems and back-office and stuff at the beginning. And that was the genesis of the… I suppose ultimately, in 2012 we were still on the Goodbodys back-office platform, and that led to a legal case, which was a bit unfortunate. But that was how we started. So, we were able to essentially concentrate on looking after the small number of clients we had at the beginning.”

Tilman bought out AIB/Goodbody’s stake within five years, and used these shares to incentivise its management. The Odlum family, however, remained a stakeholder in the business, and they shared in the spoils when Tilman was eventually sold.

Back then setting up a wealth management business was easy. “We just had to write to the Central Bank and they gave you a licence without any problem,” Minch recalled. The amount of capital required to start out back then was tiny compared to what it is today.

Tilman lost money in its first month but, remarkably, it made a profit every month after that right up until it was acquired by Brewin.

“We were paid pretty low salaries,” Tilson laughed, explaining how it made money so quickly. The biggest thing, however, was that it started with about 20 clients, and it was also working with the Odlum family.

“I would say we’d have started with £60 million, counting the Odlums,” Minch said. “Quite a large number of Ray’s clients then started to come over to him from Goodbodys post us setting the business up. So, I’d say we were up to £80 million by later that year, and probably gone well over a hundred million then by the following year. And it just grew from there.”

“We thought about investing money long term, versus short-term opportunities.”

Ray Tilson

Why did clients choose to work with them rather than others? “I think personal attention and we were gettable,” Tilson said – when clients rang, they were answered by principles directly and never avoided calls, even if the call was at lunchtime.

It also helped that Tilson was a talented investor, and with Minch, they had a good but small team.

A low-key diversified approach to investment appealed to their client base who wanted to consistently grow wealth, not take moon shots. Minch said they could never have done it without the loyalty of that early cohort of clients.

“In 1995, starting with £60 million wasn’t a bad place to be,” he said. “We had a base, and we thought we could look after it pretty well.”

Company values, he said, were another secret.

“Honesty – I think was a key ingredient in terms of integrity and in terms of the way we looked after clients,” he said. “Because, particularly in those days, the larger firms could be potentially compromised by their other activities.”

Tilman looked exclusively after its private clients. It didn’t have a corporate brokerage, therefore removing the potential for any conflict or perceived conflict of interest. “I think we established a name for honesty and integrity as we went along,” Tilson added.

“We thought about investing money long term, versus short-term opportunities.”

While others funnelled clients into high-risk CFDs, it avoided such products.

“All our portfolios were, and still are, low turnover portfolios,” Minch said, adding that its business model was to charge a management fee, which removed any pressure to generate income by encouraging clients to be constantly trading in and out of stocks.

This was innovative at the time in the Irish market when they introduced it as most brokers relied on commissions from dealing. “It was in our mutual interest to look at the long term for our clients,” Minch explained.

Weathering storms

Matt Minch: “We just liked decent, solid companies with strong balance sheets that pay dividends.” Photo: Bryan Meade

From the year Tilman was founded until 2000, the ‘smart’ money piled into the new world of tech stocks, causing the Nasdaq to surge by 400 per cent. However, as others ploughed in, the fledgeling wealth management company was wary; its team just could not get its head around how that early wave of internet stocks were being valued.

Companies like Dublin-based Baltimore Technologies were de rigueur for other investors with the internet security company at one stage being valued at $13 billion. Even sensible companies like Fyffes, a fruit producer and distributor dating back to 1888, got in on the act. It sent its share price rocketing after it grandly announced the first internet fruit market to be called worldoffruit.com. It was all, however, a bubble. And, in March 2000, the bubble burst in spectacular fashion.

Tilman avoided the wreckage. “I’d say that we probably weren’t sophisticated enough to be involved too much in tech,” Tilson laughed. “Most of those companies didn’t make any money, so we didn’t like them.”

“We were definitely underweight in terms of the tech sector in our portfolios,” Minch said. “We just liked decent, solid companies with strong balance sheets that pay dividends.”

A piece of advice given by Brian Davy, one of the principals in Davy Stockbrokers, who had been on the board of Minch Norton, stuck with him. “Brian always invested in things that he knew,” Minch said. “And it wasn’t a bad philosophy.” 

After the tech crash came the property bubble. Driven by booming banks, there was a surge in the Irish stock market for some years. Contracts for difference, a very risky way of betting on shares, were in vogue, among Dublin investors.

Ireland’s then richest man Sean Quinn took to CFDs with gusto, betting hundreds of millions on various stocks before placing one colossal multi-billion bet on just one share: Anglo Irish Bank. When ultimately the bet went against him, it would eventually lead to Quinn’s bankruptcy.

In those final, helter-skelter, years of the Celtic Tiger, all anyone could think about was the quick money that CFDs offered. In a rising market, investors were making fortunes as the Irish stock market kept going up and up. Few considered the risk that if the shares ever fell they faced steep margin calls.

Tilman was seen as old-fashioned because it avoided CFDs. “We didn’t like doing them because you had to watch the bloody things like a hawk,” Minch said. “You wouldn’t sleep easy,” Tilson said.

To see what the fuss was about Tilson and Minch opened a personal CFD account with Goodbody and took a €3,000 position on AIB. “We were so worried about it we sold our position out and closed the account up about three weeks later,” Minch said. “We never got involved in that business, thankfully.”

Property syndicates were another popular choice for investors. From 2000 on financiers like Derek Quinlan and Kevin Warren started putting together groups of high net worth individuals who stumped up cash, which when combined with debt, allowed them to do huge property deals.

Groups of moderately wealthy Irish people backed by Irish banks went off to places like London and started to outbid Middle East royalty and billionaires for prime assets.

Tilman did invest client funds in property, but much less so than its rivals. “We only did three or four property deals in total,” Minch said. “We generally stuck to what we knew.”

Kevin Warren invited Tilman to take a stake in the Goldman Sachs building on Fleet Street. Warren Properties had bought this landmark building for £246.5 million in 2001 in a joint venture deal with Green Property Company.

When Green reduced its exposure a year or so later Tilman came in. “Kevin got me involved and I bought that for the Oldham family and a few other clients, and it worked out exceedingly well,” Tilson said. 

“Obviously, politics is more difficult to avoid as you get bigger and when you get taken over by a larger entity but that was always key to us.”

Matt Minch

In 2006, the building was refinanced with a UK bank releasing profits back to investors. In 2011 the entire building was sold to Hong Kong-based property company Chinese Estates for Stg£280 million.

Another property deal Tilman was involved in was the 1996 acquisition of Lansdowne House in Ballsbridge along with property advisor Bill Nowlan.

Tilman’s investors made a profit of about €17 million when it sold this building to the state for almost €30 million in 1999. This was a good deal for Tilman – but within five years they were seen as selling out too cheaply as developers like Sean Dunne and Ray Grehan, both of whom would subsequently go bankrupt, paid vast sums to buy nearby sites in the final years of the property bubble.

“There were a lot of clients, being blunt about it, who were saying well why aren’t you doing property deals? Why aren’t you investing us more in Anglo Irish Bank shares?” Minch said.

“Ray, from having worked in Anglo Irish Bank, didn’t get the story. We were grossly underweight Anglo Irish Bank.”

“Avoided it entirely,” Tilson added.

According to Minch: “We didn’t own Anglo because of Ray’s attitude to it. But we were coming under a lot of pressure there on that and then, of course, the whole thing imploded and we didn’t hold a single Anglo Irish Bank share when it went up.”

Tilson said he knew too much about Anglo from his time working there. It had skirted close to the wire with its lending practices, so he didn’t like the stock. Long-term clients and Minch kept him focused on solid rather than racy investments. “My close friends kept my feet on the ground,” he said.

“The way I was brought up, middle-class Protestant, was we were always very worried about a lot of debt,” Tilson said. “It’s enshrined in me that debt was very important and not to have a lot of it.”

This followed into Tilman’s own business: Tilman built up its reserves prudently and within five years in business, it had enough cash to pay its team wages for three years.

“We were very apprehensive of debt and we did lose out because we were,” Tilson said. “I mean lots of new guys came in and made an awful lot of money. We didn’t and I’m sure we lost some whiz kids, you know, some new money as a result of that.”

Tilman did, however, retain its staff despite its rivals sometimes offering more money.

“We paid low-ish salaries, but we paid very good bonuses and we were always profitable,” Minch said. “We never lost a fund manager in 25 years. We had two retire but we never had one leave, ever.”

“One of my proudest achievements within the firm is that we cared about our staff and we looked after them well. We never had to cut salaries. Even in the crash of 2009 we still paid a bonus, although it was obviously reduced,” he said. 

“We’re really proud to think that the people who came and joined us really enjoyed working with us and we were totally straight and up-front with them. There was no politics.

“Obviously, politics is more difficult to avoid as you get bigger and when you get taken over by a larger entity but that was always key to us.”

Money is like manure

The financial crash in Ireland destroyed vast swathes of wealth in Ireland. Billionaires went broke. Dozens of developers moved to the UK and declared bankruptcy. Thousands of people were forced by Nama to sell almost everything. Stock markets tumbled, banks fell over, and businesses were sold off as they ran out of cash. The bubble bursting rippled across Irish wealth impacting the wealth of business people, professionals and high net worth families.

Tilman was impacted but it was fortunate that it had never gone after the “ballsy” new breed of Celtic Tiger investor who were all now upended. Its close-touch relationships with its clients stood to it. “We didn’t have panicky clients,” Tilson recalled. “We were very well spread. We’d have had a lot of investments in the UK because that was my niche.”

Like almost every wealth manager it did lose out of course. “We would have lost substantial money on bank shares; Bank of Ireland, AIB, no doubt about it,” Tilson explained. “In fact, being very critical when you think about it, it was bloody stupid to own those two stocks in one portfolio.

“I think our clients and even in the recent shakeout, you know, they’ve really got on with it. There’s been very little of people ringing up panicking asking to sell here or there.”

Tilman was more exposed to the FTSE than the Iseq and this stood to it as Britain rebounded faster than Ireland. Tilson had experienced investing in the volatile 1970s as a young man, so he knew it was important to keep his nerve. “We stuck it out with well spread portfolios. In most cases dividends were paid.

“Our eggs weren’t in one basket. Money is like manure, you spread it. We did substantially reduce our bank shareholdings before they became absolutely the worst. We didn’t get out completely, but I think we protected our client wealth as well as anybody else in that sector and we stuck it out in the other sectors. The recovery when it came was pretty quick as well, you know.

“This is a long-term business and we tell all our clients look, you want to be in this game for five years because if there’s a crash and you need the money you don’t want to be selling out at the bottom.”

Hits and misses

Ray Tilson: “Reading, reading reports, that’s how you find out about stocks.” Photo: Bryan Meade

Matt Minch and Ray Tilson have seen pretty much it all when it comes to investment over the last quarter of a century. I ask them about some of their investment hits as well as misses.

Minch cites DCC, the diversified fuels-to-technology group founded by Jim Flavin, as an example of a great company they invested in. “We bought that back in the early days. Everybody talks about Warren Buffet but if you actually look at the share price performance of DCC over time it has been remarkable.”

Tilson picks Weetabix, the maker of a popular British cereal, which was founded in 1932. In 1971 the business had created Alpen after a director tried Swiss muesli while on holidays in the Alps, before in 1991 it bought Ready brek porridge. Tilson and Minch started buying in from £2 a share, and kept buying as it rose to £8.

The stock was a classic Tilman investment in many respects as it was listed in the UK, family backed, not too big, conservatively managed and dividend-paying. It was also, in time, a takeover target. In 2003 Weetabix’s controlling shareholder, the George family, sold the business to US venture capitalist Hicks Muse Tate & Furse for £53.75 a share or £642 million.

“This is the thing, at this stage of my life now, 66, it’s great to be able to read and research which sometimes you don’t have enough time to do when you are running a business day-to-day.”

Ray Tilson

“People didn’t know about the stock,” Minch recalled. “Most people thought it was a subsidiary of some major multinational food group. Some people didn’t even realise that Weetabix was an independent company and that shares could be bought in it.”

How did they come across it? Tilson said he had heard about the business through the Odlum family. “They talked about it and I found out about it and found you could buy the shares,” Tilson said. “So, I bought some and then did very well out of it.”

“Reading, reading reports, that’s how you find out about stocks,” he said. “This is the thing, at this stage of my life now, 66, it’s great to be able to read and research which sometimes you don’t have enough time to do when you are running a business day-to-day.”

And what about something that went wrong? “Well, we did one property deal that didn’t work out terribly well,” Tilson recalled.  This was an investment in a fund called Glanmore Property which bought secondary UK properties.

The business was small and conservative when Tilman bought in, paying a solid dividend. Then it was taken over by new management who geared the business up and expanded it to at its peak having assets valued at £1.2 billion. When the 2008 financial crash came it breached its covenants and blocked shareholder redemptions as its value fell by 95 per cent.

“You couldn’t get out. And then the bank debt overtook the asset value and the thing eventually just imploded. That was the end of that,” Minch recalled. “The lesson is we’re pretty reluctant to put money into any property unit trust nowadays because of the lack of liquidity.”

The exception, Tilson said, was IPUT, which he said he liked because it was a long-established, lowly geared, conservatively managed property fund that thought long-term.

Selling up

The decision to sell Tilman Asset Management was not taken lightly. Tilson was the majority shareholder while Minch had a smaller holding. Brewin Dolphin had made a tentative approach to buy the business as far back as March 11, 2005 when some of its team met Tilson the day before Ireland played France in the  Six Nations rugby tournament.

Over the years there had been back and forth, but no deal. “We were being told all the time by people that the longer you left it and the older you got the more the value of the business would diminish because the clients were all yours and the asset was inside your own head,” Minch said.

“So, I think we mutually agreed in principle it was the right thing to do and so. Brewin had been courting Ray since 2005 and were the obvious people.”

In 2008 Tilman appointed PwC to sell its business and Brewin made the highest bid. Then the financial crash came, and Brewin pulled out. In 2011 Brewin returned. This time Tilman did not run a bidding process.

“We felt we knew these people. We trusted them and we felt that they had similar values to ourselves and would look after us and our staff reasonably well,” Minch said. At this stage, Tilman had about €800 million in assets under management.

“There was risk in that we took paper rather than cash,” Tilson added. “It was a very big risk. A lot of friends of mine said you’re mad!”

“I’m still a substantial shareholder,” Minch said. “I’ve sold a number over the years but we would both have substantial shareholdings in it still.”

Minch said they’d tried to get cash for the business, but Brewin wouldn’t offer any.

“The original deal in 2008 was 70 per cent cash and 30 per cent shares and then the second deal was 100 per cent shares,” Minch said. Brewin didn’t want to pay cash for internal reasons as it was doing a quasi-rights issue.

The deal worked out well, however.  Its shares were about £1.60 at the time of the purchase of Tilman and peaked at over £3.80 last January. Like most stocks, Brewin’s share price has slipped back recently and is currently about £2.70.

In return for Tilman, its shareholders got about 4.5 per cent of Brewin Dolphin which had a market capitalisation of about £400 million at the time.

This valued Tilman at €20.8 million upfront, but there was also an earnout. “We did an earn-out as well which they thought would be worth another one of two million but it came to be worth €12 million,” Minch said. “So, it was in the thirties.”

Are you still shareholders? “I’m still a substantial shareholder,” Minch said. “I’ve sold a number over the years but we would both have substantial shareholdings in it still.”

In its first few years under new ownership, the business was left largely alone. It had the advantage of having a strong parent company and balance sheet to support it, but its investment advisors had considerable autonomy.

Brewin was more focused on its own business which had been impacted by various regulatory changes in Britain. In March 2013 Jamie Matheson stepped down as executive chairman as former Morgan Stanley banker David Nicol came in as chief executive amid a broader board and management shake-up.

“We had to re-establish our relationships with the new kids on the block,” Minch recalled. He said he suspected Brewin Dolphin’s new team might have been a little sceptical at first about Ireland as it was still in the middle of a bailout by Europe and the IMF.

“We had dinner in One Pico and they were surprised as it was a Monday and the restaurant was full,” Minch recalled. Brewin Dolphin’s new management had expected doom and gloom but instead experienced lots of signals that the economy was poised to recover.

“We won them around and they still largely left us alone,” Minch said. The business was going well, and this gave Brewin Dolphin the confidence to go further.

In November 2019 Brewin Dolphin bought the wealth management arm of Investec for €44 million. This business had strong roots in Ireland tracing back to its origins in Dermot Desmond’s NCB. 

Following the Investec deal, Ireland accounted for 10 per cent of Brewin’s entire business and it was its third largest office after London and Edinburgh. “Naturally, they’ve gotten more involved in the business since that deal,” Minch said.

Prior to the Investec purchase, Brewin Dolphin in Ireland had about €1.6 billion assets under management so it had already doubled in size since its Tilman days. Eddie Clarke, previously head of Investec’s wealth business in Ireland, became a director of Brewin Dolphin Ireland, reporting at first into Minch, before replacing him recently as chief executive.

“Given the ongoing evolution and change within the wealth management industry, we believe there is a clear strategic rationale for us to come together at this time,” Clarke said after the deal. “We have known and admired Brewin Dolphin for many years. They have led the way in bringing a high touch personal approach to discretionary investment management in Ireland,” he added.

One of Ireland’s biggest banks AIB had originally been expected to buy Investec’s entire Irish business, but pulled out. This then led to a dogfight as every stockbroker in town bid for Investec’s wealth unit. I ask Minch and Tilson why their team won?

“I think they were very impressed with the guys from London, from Brewin,” Tilson said. “The second thing is I think a lot of the staff would prefer our culture. Say someone like Davys would be very different.”

The third factor was that both Minch and Tilson had a good relationship with Investec’s chief executive Michael Cullen going back over a decade.

“We had built up a personal relationship and also a commercial relationship with Investec Bank because we had prior to them closing down their deposit business at the end of 2017, the majority of our client cash was on deposit with them,” Minch said.

“So, we had a very close business relationship with them which was very successful.”

Prior to the financial crash, he said, Tilman had previously used Anglo to hold cash used to buy and sell shares, but it had then moved this business to Investec, post the crash.

“That worked out really well. We got on very well with Aisling Dodgson [head of Investec treasury] and with Michael [Cullen]. So, I think that was an important ingredient.”

“I don’t think they would have sold it to us if our price wasn’t competitive mind you,” Minch said. “I think we had to be there or thereabouts on the price and I think they were then willing to take a view.

“I don’t want to be quoted too loudly on this, but I do think that a lot of Investec staff would have been reluctant to go to say a Davy. They definitely didn’t want to get taken over by a bank either, because they knew they’d be on their way out.”

“We understand Davy’s and AIB were the last people standing,” Tilson said. “And yeah, I think it was quite a surprise that we got it. We paid a good price for it. But I think there were other factors that were pretty important in us getting it.”

Brewin Dolphin took on 50 of Investec’s 80 staff as part of the deal. This was much more than might have been expected if another bidder had been successful.

The plan was to move the combined Brewin Dolphin and former Investec team into the one building in Dublin city centre prior to Covid-19. Working remotely the combined businesses have pulled together and completed the complex task of asset migration to combine the two businesses successfully.

“Brewin Dolphin have been great partners,” Tilson added. “They have taken the business very seriously and really helped it grow and expand.”

“I give incredible credit to Brewin for the remote working systems they have,” Tilson said. “I would say they’re better than anyone else over here.”

He said this meant the team could deliver their clients the service they were used to despite movement restrictions.

Minch said he believed the combination of Brewin and Investec wealth arm in Ireland would strengthen each other. “We were underweight in resources and financial planning for instance,” he said.

“They have an investment strategy team led by Ian Quigley for example and other great people who are bringing an interesting focus on stock selection.”

From a product perspective, he said, the combined company would be able to offer their customers more. “There are a lot of good things there,” he said.

“We actually think in terms of private clients or discretionary fund management we’re probably number two now,” Minch said.  “We say we’re number three but if we were to take the discretionary book, we reckon that it’s possible.”

“We’re not as big as Davys because they’re obviously the biggest, but it could well be bigger than Goodbody’s discretionary book.  But we don’t know for sure. We reckon we’re there or thereabouts.”

The combined entities discretionary book is about €3 billion – so regardless of whether it is number two or not – it certainly has scale. In total the combined business has funds under management of about €5 billion.

It has 6,500 client accounts, but some of the accounts that came across from Investec are execution-only for trading shares, so not every account would require as much support as others. Certainly, the two businesses are both managing the wealth of quality customers.

Having both previously run the business, what advice would they give their successor Eddie Clarke?  “I’d say look after your clients well, look after your staff exceedingly well, make it a fun place for them to work,” Tilson replied.

“And don’t be afraid to stand up to the people in the UK who own you,” he laughed. “I think it’s very important we’re Irish and sometimes we know more about what’s happening in Dublin, than people over in other places.”

“I would totally agree with what Ray said there and I think Eddie is very conscious of that,” Minch said. “We have been working together since last November and then he became managing director.  I think he’s very conscious of what he has inherited and what he needs to do to nurture it and develop it.”

“Brewin Dolphin have been great partners,” Tilson added. “They have taken the business very seriously and really helped it grow and expand.”

No hidden agendas

Matt Minch at his Monkstown home. Photo: Bryan Meade

Matt Minch marked his stepping down as chief executive of Brewin Dolphin Ireland with a Skype party. A year before the Investec deal, he had told Brewin Dolphin he would like to step down at 64. He stayed another year to shepherd the Investec deal across the line. Minch had been chief executive since 2014 when Tilson stepped down from the role at 61. Eddie Clarke, former head of wealth and investment with Investec, took on the top job in Brewin Dolphin Ireland earlier this month.

Clarke is very experienced, and Minch said he was the right person for the position. His delayed departure did mean however Minch missed out on a party to mark his stepping down, because of Covid-19 restrictions.

“We had remote drinks instead and a couple of the staff organised a quiz where they lined Ray and myself up against each other and asked questions about the firm going back to 1995,” Minch said.

The questions varied from how many weddings did they attend of staff to what cars did they drive during different periods of the business. “It was a nice evening and some of the team stayed at it until midnight!  And no doubt we’ll have the more formal sign-off dinners and stuff whenever we’re allowed to get together again.”

Minch is not leaving Brewin Dolphin entirely. “I’m just going to work a 4-day week. I kept a client base when I was CEO and I’m going to continue to look after them for a period of time. I want to see how it goes. If I’m enjoying it I’ll keep going and if I’m not then I’ll fade away. This is only my first week back in the trenches with my investment manager colleagues so it is early days!”

Tilson too continues to work with Brewin Dolphin as a director and investment manager. His son Robert Tilson, 43, also works as an investment manager in the business, having joined it in 2004 from JM Finn, a London stockbroker. “He thinks the same way as I do about looking after money,” Tilson said.

After 25 years working together, Minch and Tilson will continue to do so, albeit less intensely.

It has not always been a smooth ride. Brewin Dolphin experienced an inspection by the Central Bank in 2015. It came out completely clean, but it was an arduous process. In 2012 it was involved in a legal row with Goodbody after its rival pulled the plug on an administrative services agreement that dated back years. This was done with just 30 days notice.

“No hidden agendas and absolute honesty and integrity. If we hadn’t had that we would not have gone anywhere.”

Matt Minch

Prior to acquiring Tilman, Brewin Dolphin had been holding talks with three Goodbody employees about setting up an office in Dublin.

These talks were put on hold, once it became clear Brewin Dolphin was going to buy Tilman. Now the deal was done, Brewin asked Tilman to hire the three Goodbody employees.

This caused a kerfuffle in Goodbody, and it responded by deciding to no longer support the back-end of what it then saw as a rival. In court, Goodbody claimed further that it suspected its former employees of taking information from it. This claim was later dropped, and the matter was settled, but it left a bad taste on all sides.

By 2015 Brewin Dolphin had migrated its business away from Goodbody onto its own platform. It is not something the two men want to dwell on.

“The court case was a setback for us,” Minch recalled. “But we bounced back from that and we learned from it. Persistence and resilience are important and we came through all these difficulties and came out stronger on the other side.”

How did the two men manage never to fall out over so many years? “We are so different, unbelievably different you know, unbelievably different,” Tilson said. “I think that’s a very big thing, we’re like chalk and cheese.  Matt has been an excellent guy to have worked with.”

“Some people thought we wouldn’t last more than 6 months together at the beginning!” Minch laughed. “Ray is a strong personality and I felt at the outset when I was joining him, I will have to stand up to him or he wouldn’t respect me.  And I did and I think that’s part of the reason we respected each other and we had very, very few fallouts.”

“I know this is a cliché but we were passionate about looking after our clients and the second thing was to make sure our staff were happy,” Tilson said.  “And we were not greedy, bonuses and things were spread very well, right through the organisation.”

“We shared a couple of things which were key,” Minch added. “I think we’re both absolutely straight down the middle, dead-honest guys.  I think that was key to it.  No hidden agendas and absolute honesty and integrity. If we hadn’t had that we would not have gone anywhere.”


Postscript: Last February Ray Tilson, Matt Minch, Philip Odlum and Tony Nicholson returned to go skiing in Austria’s Obertauern. It had been 25 years since their first trip, so they were no longer young. A lot had happened. But they had stayed friends, seen their families grow up, and built businesses. Within a few weeks Covid-19 would make such excursions impossible, but it was a moment to reflect on a most interesting journey. Like all of us, they hope to be able to go on holiday together again.