Morgan prepares offensive to hold on to clients

Morgan Grenfell Asset Management's top fund managers are set to go into battle this week to prevent their business falling apart after clients' concerns about the stability of the operation were reawakened by the controversial departure of Nicola Horlick.

They will also seek to quash rumours that senior management at the bank's head office in Frankfurt, where the parent company Deutsche Bank is based, are furious about the way the London management of MGAM handled her resignation.

Deutsche Morgan Grenfell, the investment banking arm of Deutsche which runs MGAM, yesterday denied a rift between Frankfurt and London. "There is not one millimetre of difference between Deutsche Bank and MGAM," a spokesman said.

The high-profile departure, which involved a mad-dash trip by Mrs Horlick to Frankfurt on Friday to ask for her pounds 1m-a-year job back accompanied by a press pack, is a setback for the fund management group's attempts to repair the damage caused by the Peter Young scandal in September.

She was one of the key fund managers selected to mend client relationships and rebuild staff morale after MGAM discovered that Mr Young, once a star fund manager, had set up a complex web of Luxembourg holding companies to hide the extent of his investments in unlisted companies.

But her efforts late last year to reassure clients may have gone to waste. Pension fund trustees are by nature cautious and crave stability, so the events of last week will have done little to reinforce confidence in MGAM's management structure.

"This is entirely the opposite of what Morgan Grenfell should have been doing," said one pensions fund adviser. "It can't be anything but upsetting for Morgan Grenfell clients," said another pensions expert.

The Peter Young scandal is at the root of last week's events, because it forced the resignations last year of a number of key MGAM executives, including Keith Percy, chief executive, who hired Mrs Horlick.

A management buyout of the business after the Peter Young scandal is rumoured to have been discussed, although sources believe it would have failed.

Her departure, so close to Mr Percy's, is adding to clients' worries. "There's been a loss of two important people from the organisation who have contributed positive returns," said one top pensions consultant.

John Conroy, head of European asset investments at Towers Perrin, said: "The real problem is that it's going to be perceived as mismanagement by Morgan Grenfell in quite a serious way. We've told clients that it needs very careful consideration and advised our clients that this is quite serious and worthy of investigation."

But because it is costly to change managers, few advisers predict a sudden loss of business. "I don't get any sense of an immediate exodus at all, and we won't get a sense of that until the trustees meet later in the year," said a pensions consultant.

Mr Smith acknowledged over the weekend that the firm may lose some business as a result of the affair but played down its long-term impact.

One client, Alan Bennet, pensions director at Whitbread, said he would wait for further developments before making any decision about pulling a mandate from the firm. "Morgan Grenfell have done a good job for us," he said.

Last week MGAM wrote to its pension fund clients to assure them the remaining fund managers would stay with the firm.

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