`I learnt I could beat the boys'

Profile: Nicola Horlick; She wouldn't go quietly from MGAM but then, as Richard Halstead writes, she wears her ambition on her sleeve

The weighty and comprehensive History of the Deutsche Bank, published last year, does not mention the name of Nicola Horlick in its near-1,000 pages. She can take some comfort, however: Sir John Craven, the head of Morgan Grenfell from 1989 until its takeover in 1991 by Deutsche Bank, and subsequently a main board director of the parent company, gets only two mentions.

If the authors revise their work, however, it is likely that Horlick, until Thursday the head of the UK pension fund management business at Deutsche Morgan Grenfell Asset Management, will get at least a paragraph, perhaps a whole chapter.

As the story unfolded of her dramatic resignation on Thursday night, followed by a high-profile dash on Friday morning first to her old offices at Finsbury Circus in the City, then the UK headquarters of Deutsche Morgan Grenfell a short walk away in the Bishopsgate centre, and finally on to a plane to confront officials at Deutsche Bank in Frankfurt, it seemed that a whole Ealing Comedy could emerge from the affair.

"My husband tells me I'm the most boring person he knows, but I wouldn't have got where I am by being conventional," she told reporters on Friday.

Indeed, conventional is one epithet Horlick will never have applied to her again. Fund managers and headhunters throughout the City shook their heads in wonder as the latest episode in the Horlick roadshow flashed across their Reuters screens.

"I would be surprised if she landed a job at another fund manager very quickly the way she has carried on," said one headhunter. "It's not a question of her ability, but pension trustees are a conservative bunch. They don't appreciate a boat-rocker."

If the events of the past week prove more than just a hiccup in Horlick's hitherto rapidly ascending career, she at least has the financial security that a pounds 1m annual pay cheque can bring and a partner, Tim, who also earns a six-figure sum, to fall back on. But it will hardly be consolation to someone who has always worn her ambition and ability on her sleeve, and whose current notoriety contrasts sharply with the years spent building a highly successful career out of the media spotlight.

Horlick was born Nicola Gaylord in December 1960 to a well-off Cheshire family and spent her formative years in the Wirral. Her father Michael, a successful businessman, once stood as a Liberal Party candidate; her grand- mother was a Jewish refugee from Poland who fled the Nazis on a motorbike.

Her early schooling was at a traditional old prep school where she was one of just three girls among 300 boys. "I learnt there I could beat the boys at just about anything I set my mind to," she said in an interview in 1995. "I also learnt how silly they could be - they were always sending me drippy love letters."

From there she went to Birkenhead High, a direct-grant school, where her contemporaries included Jane Platt, now a senior manager at HSBC, and Penny Hughes, former head of Coca-Cola UK. Nicola did well enough to get into Oxford, where she studied law and met the cerebral and charming Tim Horlick.

Upon graduation (with a second in law), she went to work for her father's chemical firm as a salesman. But the City soon beckoned, and in 1984 she joined Mercury Asset Management, then a subsidiary of SG Warburg. She also married Tim and soon after gave birth to Georgina, the first of her five children.

At MAM she immediately impressed the legendary fund manager Leonard Licht, coming to his attention by unearthing a document he was seeking from the archives in record time.

Later, working directly for Carol Galley, another Licht protege, Horlick learned the power of being a straight-talking, intelligent woman in the fusty world of fund management - an area of the City (at least until recently) that was relatively free from politics and a place where good operators could advance on merit.

In 1991, one of her subordinates at MAM was poached by Morgan Grenfell, then in the throes of its merger with Deutsche Bank and keen to establish itself as a big player in UK fund management. The poached employee persuaded DMG to hire his boss as well, and Horlick embarked on what would become one of the highest-paying careers in fund management, arguably eclipsing that of her old mentor Galley.

Pulling down bonuses that started in the mid-six figures and recently rose to pounds 1m was a way of keeping score. "I do not work for the money but because I enjoy it. Having said that, I am a competitive person and would always expect to get the going rate," she said recently. She has also enjoyed the company of her burgeoning family, with regular - but often short - maternity leaves to have Alice, Serena, Rupert, and most recently Antonia, who she said was conceived partly to find a bone marrow donor for Georgina, who suffers from leukaemia.

The going rate has brought an unprecedented degree of security. The Horlick family has moved into ever more impressive and expensive residences, and has been able to call on the services of a full-time nanny for the past seven years, along with a posse of temporary help. The latest home, a five-storey residence off Kensington High Street, cost the Horlicks pounds 1.2m when they bought it last summer.

However, they are not staying long. They plan to move into an even larger and more expensive nine-bedroom house in Kensington in April, valued at around pounds 2m. They also have a cottage in the village of Bramdean, near Winchester, where they keep ponies for the children.

Other things have changed in the household. Two years ago, Horlick said: "It is very vulgar to talk about money. We don't flash money around - I drive a Rover, not a Porsche." On her tear around London last week, however, she was behind the wheel of a fire-engine red Alfa Romeo, and money - particularly the pounds 1m she claims she is owed by her former employers - can now be talked about freely.

While anyone with a grudge about Nicola has whispered knowingly in the right media ears in the latest fracas, there are some whose respect endures. One former colleague said: "In this game, only two things count: whether your funds perform well and whether pension fund clients like you. She did the job on both counts."

But the very nature of her high-profile position, and particularly the fact that she is a young and very visible woman in what remains an old and male-dominated world, has drawn at least as many brickbats as roses. One former (male) colleague said: "She needs to be in control and won't listen to anyone telling her she is driving the wrong way up a one-way street."

Now that control, at least in an office environment, is no longer available to Nicola Horlick, her true nature may come to the fore. "This is an individual facing a mighty bank, and I'm not going to let them beat me," she said on Friday.

But as more details emerge of the events leading up to her departure, Horlick may find the whirlwind she has unleashed returning. As one fund manager put it: "She has gone down a road from which she can't return. I wonder if she has thought through what she is doing."

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