Story By: Donna Ewen
Financier Martin Gilbert co-founded Aberdeen Asset Management 36 years ago and had built the company into a FTSE 100 business with nearly 3,000 staff before its merger in 2017 with Standard Life, becoming Standard Life Aberdeen. Martin is stepping down from the Board at the Annual General Meeting in May 2020 and will retire from the business at the end of September. Between now and then, he will continue to focus on strengthening relationships with clients and winning new business. He remains on the board of mining giant Glencore and has just been appointed as the Non-Executive Chairman of Revolut, the online bank, a role he will commence at the start of next year. Even away from work, Martin continues to notch up successes…
ABN: Martin, it’s well known that your favourite hobbies are golf, skiing and fishing. But if you could choose only one, which would it be?
Martin: Either golf or skiing. The good thing is one is a summer sport and one is a winter sport. It’s very difficult to choose between the two — but I would choose those over fishing.
ABN: Have you encountered any particular successes or mishaps while pursuing any of your hobbies?
This July I had my first hole-in-one at golf. I started playing when I was four and have spent 40 years getting my handicap from 5 to 15… I was playing with my great friend Francis Clark at Royal Aberdeen. I wasn’t sure where the ball had gone at first. Francis said he thought it might be in the bunker at the front but it wasn’t there, so I looked at the back on the green. Then I looked in the hole and there it was — which was great. The finest moment of my golfing career was playing in the 2001 Dunhill Championship with Paul Lawrie at St Andrews. We’ve always been a great supporter of his. He’s amazing. This summer I played with Rory McIroy, who’s another great guy to play with and one of the nicest you can meet.
ABN: What is your earliest memory?
Standing with my father in a rubber tree estate in Malaysia when I was about 3. I remember that very vividly — the tropical heat — very different to Aberdeen, where my dad was from. I returned to Aberdeen at age 10 and went to Robert Gordon’s College.
ABN: Did you save up your pocket money or just blow it, tell us what on?
Saved it. Take care of the pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves.
ABN: What is the best advice you were ever given?
It’s better to try and fail than to have never tried at all.
ABN: Can you remember how much your first wage packet contained and where did you get your break?
My first permanent job was training as a chartered accountant with Deloitte for £2,100 a year. However, I was fortunate enough to get a summer job when I was a student at Aberdeen University. I was a wrapper on the gas pipelines and was paid about £200 a week way back in the late 1970s, which was a fortune back then. I got my first big break from Ronnie Scott Brown and George Robb, who took me on as an assistant and we then formed Aberdeen Asset Management. The other big break was being born and brought up in Asia. That gave me a love of Asia and sight of its potential.
ABN: Who do you admire most and why?
In the world of asset management, the key guy would be the late Sir John Templeton — the original value investor. He looked around the world and took a long-term view, investing in emerging markets.
ABN: What is the main difference between ‘at home’ Martin and ‘boardroom’ Martin?
I’m not sure there is a huge difference between what I’m like at home and what I’m like at work. I would say that I’m a mixture of laidback and when I need to be but I can go into the detail. I’m a very hands-on CEO but don’t believe in micro-managing. I really work all the time, roughly around 12 hours a day, five days a week. Even when playing golf, I’m thinking about and dealing with work. It’s pretty full-on.
ABN: What would surprise people to discover about you?
Probably that academically I was very average, although I was good at maths at school. I’m more of a people person and place importance on emotional intelligence. I’m probably more sensitive than people think. In the role of CEO you sometimes have to cover that sensitivity.
ABN: What is the one question you wished you had been asked but no one dared to ask?
People are not fearful of asking me difficult questions. CEOs are very well paid but it can be tough. Not everyone likes being in the goldfish bowl a CEO of a quoted company lives in. The Press can be favourable but they can also be pretty vicious. If you make a mistake, you are severely punished for it. But you have to take the good with the bad. You have to be robust and have a pretty thick skin.
ABN: What’s your guilty pleasure?
A vanilla cone with a Flake, but hold the sprinkles!
ABN: Do you enjoy cooking and if so, do you have a signature dish/or alternatively what is your all-time favourite dish?
I can cook if necessary. I like making curry. The secret is in taking your time, preparing it the day before. A good curry always tastes better the next day.
ABN: Which three famous people, dead or alive, would be welcomed around your dinner table, and why?
Sir Alex Ferguson, Mary Queen of Scots and Billy Connolly. It would be a great evening with lots of good chat. And I’d serve curry of course!
ABN: Are you a handyman to have around the house?
No. I could change a plug if I had to but not much beyond that.
ABN: Do your children readily accept advice from you?
Not really. They will ask my advice on finance. I believe in letting people make their own mistakes. My advice would be to take a chance in life, especially if you’re young. People think that failing will stay with them forever but you’ve got to take a risk. It’s always worth it. You don’t want to look back on life and think I should have done that. Try and give it a go. I think we’re too negative in Scotland. We need to try a bit harder but also accept that you’re going to fail part of that time. The secret is not to punish yourself too harshly if you fail. That is life. Everything is an experience, good and bad.
ABN: Describe your perfect day…
Apart from working… getting up and skiing all day in winter or playing a round of golf in summer.
ABN: If you were marooned on a desert island what would be the three most important items you would bring and why?
My iPhone — assuming I could get a signal. A sand wedge (to practice my bunker play) and a table cloth (which would be a good sail if I ever managed to build a boat).
ABN: Are there any unfulfilled dreams you plan to pursue in retirement?
Yes, if I ever do get around to actually retiring one day. I would love to win the Dunhill Championship.