The Player: Rebecca Thomas, Chief Executive of Johnson Fry; Reformer demystifying fund management

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The Independent Online
PERSONAL DETAILS: Age 36. Lives in Docklands, east London. Drives a Porsche Carrera. Salary pounds 225,000. An ardent Francophile, she spends weekends in her house in the south of France. Enjoys good food and wine. To mitigate the effects of the latter she works out four times a week. She also enjoys horse racing and collecting Art Deco furniture.

CHALLENGE: For Johnson Fry, the challenge is to grow the fund management business profitably. A challenge for the industry is to demystify financial services, says Ms Thomas. "I am quite messianic about getting women to take responsibility for their own finances," she says. She also believes that people should begin their financial planning at a young age.

CORPORATE BACKGROUND: Ms Thomas trained as a barrister. In 1987 she switched to fund management, joining Framlington as a small companies analyst. After 10 years with the company, Ms Thomas had become a director.

She was headhunted by Johnson Fry in 1996, became head of asset management and was appointed chief executive in 1997. "I wanted to run my own show. I have always been ambitious," says Ms Thomas. Since taking over as chief executive she has introduced sweeping changes to both the corporate culture and business activities.

STRATEGY: The focus is firmly on fund management, solely for retail investors. To that end, Johnson Fry has disposed of two businesses, non- core functions have been outsourced and staff numbers have more than halved to 80. Senior management has been changed and a new sales approach has been adopted. Product brochures aim to be as user-friendly as possible and use similar language to that used elsewhere in the retail industry. The core business has been radically restructured in the past 12 months. "It's been incredibly enjoyable but hugely challenging," says Ms Thomas.

Historically, Johnson Fry was known for its telephone-based sales of tax-driven products such as business expansion schemes. Now its products, which include unit trusts and individual savings accounts (ISAs), are marketed through a regional sales force to independent financial advisers (IFAs). "Every product we offer is designed to meet the needs of the retail investor," says Ms Thomas. As such, the fund managers adopt a risk-averse approach.

Companies are thoroughly researched before they are acquired for the funds and the shares tend to be held on average for three years. The focus is on liquidity and so in the UK the funds are primarily focused on companies with a market capitalisation in excess of pounds 500m.

Johnson Fry has eight unit trusts, which Ms Thomas describes as "an interesting fund range", both general and specialist. It includes a telecoms fund that invests primarily in the shares of multinational telecom and telecom- related companies quoted on liquid and well-regulated stockmarkets. The aim is to provide investors with capital growth in the medium to long term. There is an in-house team of 12 investment professionals and three external investment advisors.

This combination of in-house and third-party managers has enabled Johnson Fry to offer a broad range of funds fairly rapidly. Funds under management ended last year up 25 per cent at pounds 1.18bn.

The funds' performances have benefited from being overweight in companies such as Vodafone, Lloyds TSB and Telecom Italia. Stocks chosen tend to have strong cash generation, operate in growth markets, have a leading position within their market and have management with demonstrable track records.

A Johnson Fry interactive web-site has recently been established for both IFAs and direct investors. It contains information and runs a fantasy fund manager competition.

"The aim is to make it entertaining and user friendly," says Ms Thomas. It remains to be seen whether the Internet will become an important distribution channel in its own right for financial products in the UK. In the US, more than 30 per cent of retail financial business is done on-line. "As a small, forward-looking company we must be there at the earliest opportunity," says Ms Thomas.

She says that if the Internet becomes widely used by the industry, it could be "massively deflationary", because of the associated reduction in paperwork and marketing.

MANAGEMENT STYLE: "Lively and open," says Ms Thomas. The culture is open and democratic with a youthful main board, and with women equally represented.

MOST ADMIRES IN BUSINESS: "People who have done turnarounds." Ms Thomas mentions Archie Norman, chairman of Asda, and Jim Leng, chief executive of Laporte. "Managing a turnaround is quite a different skill to taking on a successful company. You need a lot of energy and drive and have got to be a pretty strong character to carry people with you," she says.

CITY VERDICT: Johnson Fry has won a number of Micropal awards for the performance of its unit trusts and investment trusts.