Through the glass ceiling: Is Nicola's new job an asset to management?

More businesswomen are getting to the top. Peter Koenig profiles media star Nicola Horlick

SPEAKING with a tantalising blend of aggression and candour, movements slow and deliberate, gaze challenging, the full package adding up to genuine charisma, Nicola Horlick was back in action on Thursday - running a presentation at the University Arms Hotel in Cambridge for a dozen local stockbrokers and accountants with clients whose money she wants to manage.

The return to fund management of the City's most famous woman, and one of its few nationally known figures, came last week with the launch of her new venture, Societe Generale Asset Management (SGAM) UK.

Propelled by a marketing and media blitz, it was hard to miss. There was the unveiling of the "slogo" - "the shape of things to come" - and the introduction of her "team": co-managing director John Richards, stockpicker Peter Seabrook, sales whiz Rufus Wagner, and a cast of lesser professionals. "I don't know why all the attention is focused on me," she said after a press conference at London's Dorchester on Monday (tone: a mix of irritation and cagey disingenuousness).

There was the declaration of support from Societe Generale. Together, the French bank (16th largest in the world), Horlick, and her partners have formed a fund management company which aims over five years to get pounds 5bn of pension and PEP funds under management.

Power in this part of the City is highly concentrated. A third of the total pounds 650bn of UK pension funds is controlled by five firms: Mercury, PDFM, Schroders, Deutsche Morgan Grenfell and Gartmore.

Ultimately, however, the success or failure of the venture will hinge on 36-year-old Horlick. And her effectiveness will hinge on a question that would make most other City fund managers (who spend their lives trying to blend in with the pinstriped scenery) go pale: will her past and her personality help or hurt her?

A year ago, because she refused to blend in, Horlick made national headlines when she took on her then employer. First, DMG dismissed fund manager Peter Young after it came out that he had been hiding bad investments in a Luxembourg holding company. Then parent Deutsche Bank pushed out the DMG chief executive, to whom Horlick was intensely loyal.

Then things got murky. DMG maintained Horlick was planning to jump ship with a number of colleagues in violation of her contract and suspended her. Horlick maintained she was being constructively dismissed. In the process, with one of her five children ill in hospital, she flew to Frankfurt and almost literally banged on the door of the Teutonic German bank executives inside. The Germans did not let her in. Horlick did not return to her job and spent two months at home, taking a skiing trip to Austria to decompress with her husband, an executive in London at the US investment bank Salomon Brothers.

Out of this news - and the media stereotyping and spinning by PR firms hired by DMG and Horlick herself - two images emerged. The first was Nicola, outraged supermum, taking on the cold, emotionally repressed, secretly incompetent men running Europe's financial capitals. The other was Nicola, narcissistic careerist, abusing City traditions and feminist politics to advance a personal agenda.

These two images were never reconciled. Last week, Horlick used the consequent curiosity about her to play a tricky commercial game. She used her public standing to help launch SGAM UK. But she tried to do so in such a way as not to reignite questions about her credibility highlighted by her enemies during the DMG affair.

By and large, she appears to have succeeded. The majority of stockbrokers and accountants gathered at the University Arms gave her the thumbs up. One, Tim Richardson of Trafalgar Securities, a private fund manager with a number of foreign clients, did suggest that Horlick might have a credibility problem. "I don't know if I would emphasise her - and the news that she was making pounds 1m a year when she left DMG - to clients," he said.

But Paul Snow, the chief of Greig Middleton's Cambridge office, gave a more common view. "Nicola Horlick is the Lester Piggott of the fund management world," he said. "Even punters who don't punt have heard of her. And that's got to help move product."

If SGAM UK gets off to a fast start because of the Horlick name recognition factor, however, it can only establish itself as a credible fund manager if the negative stereotype of her circulated a year ago proves unfounded.

Here Horlick reveals two other qualities - her self-confidence and her professionalism. She trained at Mercury Asset Management, the biggest UK fund manager. Her skill is to create a climate in which individual fund managers pick good stocks.

While she worked for Deutsche Bank its London fund management operation quadrupled funds under management. Profits rose from pounds 12m to pounds 120m. She appears certain she can repeat for her new French parent the success she helped to achieve for her old German parent.

SGAM UK will sell itself to pension funds and unit trust distributors by shooting for returns 3 to 5 per cent above the FT-SE All Share index. It does not yet have funds under management, so there is no track record. But its hypothetical portfolio currently is overweight on Shell, BP, Legal & General, Glaxo, Zeneca, Abbey National, Barclays and Railtrack.

As for her capacities as a boss trying to run a business that must avoid surprising its clients if it is to prosper, that remains to be seen. In her first week back in business Horlick had clearly been primed to stay on-message. Yet she kept going off-message. When asked how she and co- managing director John Richards had linked up with Societe Generale fund management chief Patrick Pagni, Richards said: "I already knew Patrick." "Rugby in Paris," Horlick chimed in - wiggling her eyebrows.

All Horlick does is act and speak in public the way catty, intrigue- loving, semi-paranoid fund managers typically act and speak in private. Potential clients of SGAM UK must decide if this is a benefit or liability in the management of their money. The public can simply wait. Over the next several years Nicola Horlick will reveal exactly who she is.

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