MAGAZINE: Meet Tristan’s executive duo

Ric Lewis and Ian Laming, co-CEOs of Tristan Capital Partners, discuss 10 years in business together as friends and colleagues at the helm of the firm.

Co-CEOs Ric Lewis and Ian Laming take their place side by side in a room at Tristan Capital’s HQ in London. As they field journalist-type questions concerning the firm, there is plenty of jocularity between them. Perhaps this can only really come from knowing someone for as long as 19 years.

Amid the playful jokes, there is also sincerity as the conversation flits between talking about their friendship and Tristan celebrating its 10-year anniversary in June this year.
They are at pains to point out over 45 minutes that they do not want to project the wrong image – that the celebration, the firm, any success, isn’t all about them. Great emphasis is placed upon the company’s values and culture – teamwork.

For some time now, Lewis has not wished to be the only public face of a company that was established in 2009 as an independent firm that followed on from Curzon Global Partners which he established in 1999.

This interview is an example of that. There are plenty of others pushed forward or encouraged to take on press interviews, conference appearances, investor events and what have you. Furthermore, behind the curtain there have been recent personnel changes as other team members take on more responsibility and sometimes the limelight.

There are now nine senior partners at this firm, including Lewis and Laming. The others are Cameron Spry (head of investments); Simon Martin (head of research & strategy); Rui Tereso (head of portfolio and asset management); Jean-Philippe Blangy (head of asset management); Ali Otmar (deputy head of investments); Mark Terry (Funds CFO), and; Yves Barthels (Funds COO).

Lewis also mentions, for example, how a new role was created in 2017 for Ben Newman (portfolio manager for its new CCP 5 semi-open-ended core-plus fund) which allowed Blangy (referred to as JP) to become head of AM. Otmar was elevated to deputy head of investments. ‘None of them have been battlefield promotions,’ says Lewis in typical colourful imagery. ‘It has been the natural order of things.’  

The biggest ‘elevation’ has been that of co-head Laming in 2018. His official move to co-CEO was anything but the culmination of West Wing-style shenanigans sometimes found in financial organisations. The unassuming former co-head of Morgan Stanley’s European equity and fixed income research division has been with the company almost since inception and as COO has hardly ever been in the spotlight. But internally he has been regarded as managing day-to-day operations for years, while Lewis continues to act as executive chairman, CIO and chair of the investment committee and works hand-in-hand with the client relations team. 

Nevertheless, when the moment came to name him officially the firm had to be careful. Explains Lewis: ‘Because of the inevitable question, “So, when are you leaving, Ric?” Well, I am not leaving,’ says Lewis, ‘but if we were not planning succession I wouldn’t be doing my job as company head, and clients would be right to beat us up about it.’

The 10-year journey
Lewis speaks about how the company has always been about forward planning – from new products, ideas and infrastructures right down to things such as media events and parties. Indeed, there was one of those – a talk and soiree a few weeks ago for the press at a London restaurant called Sexy Fish to mark 10 years of Tristan. Sitting on a bar stool, Lewis was asked about the company and its journey alongside two other people. It was an inclusive event. At one point, Lewis asked every other Tristan person in the room to take turns in standing up at their respective dinner tables to introduce themselves.

Continues Lewis: ‘We have foreshadowed what we were doing behind the scenes for a long time. We know where the leadership of this firm is, and where it is going. We do not always convey all of that, but you are seeing some of it emerge. Maybe we do not always make a big song and dance about everything we are doing, but we are very careful to make sure people in the firm understand what’s going on.’

This is the first time Lewis has been joined by Laming for a media interview. To the outsider, the working relationship they have is intriguing not least because of their different personalities. On the surface at least, Lewis seems like the boss man and one who can turn on a show when necessary or pleasing. Laming on the other hand appears less gregarious, but is equally assured, likeable, unfussy and easily approachable.

Friends and colleagues
Things about their working relationship become clearer as they explain how they were actually friends before colleagues. This came out when they were asked about the press release in October 2009 about Laming being hired as COO, which included his photo. 

‘You looked like Jake there!’ says Lewis. Jake is Ian’s son. Lewis explains: ‘He is the same age as my daughter. That’s how we knew each other originally – our kids were in reception together. We’ve known each other for 19 years. And when I looked at that photo of Ian, I thought, that is Jake!’

It turns out the two men got closer and closer over a series of play dates between their children. Laming at the time was co-running Morgan Stanley’s pan-Europe research division with 265 staff covering over 1,000 securities across 30 sectors and servicing hundreds of institutional clients across the world. Lewis was running Curzon Global Partners, the forerunner to Tristan. Perhaps neither expected to ever end up working together, but fate conspired it so.

In 2007, both men were in career-changing situations. Morgan Stanley was getting into serious financial trouble and Curzon’s relationship with AEW Europe – run by people in Paris - was frayed. 

Laming tried to quit the bank in 2007, but it was not until 2008 that he did so after being persuaded to stay on. All over Morgan Stanley, there was fear, chaos, some attempts at whistle-blowing, anger, and attempted cover-ups as the bank realised how much trouble it was in. It has all been detailed in books such as Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Too Big to Fail, and Laming lived through it in real time, painfully. He said there were many good people at Morgan Stanley and various people like himself could see things were wrong that ultimately would nearly bring the whole bank crashing down, but those at the very top would not act until they had to.
Lewis was not having a much better time with AEW Europe. 

Running Curzon Global Partners in London as a boutique fund manager to Paris-based AEW Europe was not working out. The two firms were not seeing eye to eye on a range of issues such as the economics and rewards of fund management. The relationship was headed towards fracture. None of this is actually mentioned by Lewis or Laming, but others have described the tension at the time.

‘So, I am round Ric’s house and he is thinking about leaving AEW,’ says Laming, ‘and I was thinking: that’s an interesting call!’

GFC aftermath
The environment for real estate fund management after 2008 was dire. For many it was reminiscent of a war zone. But a few had avoided serious injury and felt they could seize the day. Curzon, with plans to relaunch as Tristan, was one of them.

Laming says: ‘I remember before we got started on a business plan., I said, okay let me go away and do my homework. I distinctly remember saying to Ric, “So, as I understand it, the five biggest players have just been obliterated. It is difficult to raise capital and it is increasingly complicated on the regulatory and operational front. If we can get those two things right, aggregating capital and putting a business plan together, we can have a clear run at this for the next 10 years.”
The way Lewis conveys it, the pair sat at the kitchen table together and wrote the initial framework for the business plan for the new company, that he, Ian and others developed thereafter.

Lewis recalls: ‘Ian is smart. He came back and said we should do this. I actually joked we might have to give him a lobotomy because real estate is a lot simpler. I told him you are way smarter than this industry. But we thought we could create a great business. The entry barrier is a lot lower than for equities or fixed income or being an investment bank. It is still semi-regulated, privately negotiated deals and an asset-accumulation strategy.’
‘Private real estate is way less efficient than other asset classes I have ever come across,’ Laming acknowledges. ‘Therefore, if you get the right team in place, the right collaboration, the right culture, and operational backbone then you stand a very, very good chance of succeeding.’

Fortunately, investors in two funds that Curzon co-managed with AEW agreed that after the split Tristan could remain as advisor. That was useful because at least fee income was assured from the start as a kind of consulting practice.

At first, it was just Lewis, his assistant Claire Heath, and an analyst. Soon it would also be Laming and Cameron Spry. In the early days, it was uncomfortable physically as Curzon continued to share offices with AEW in London, and Tristan was blocked from hiring from AEW for a year. Around 110 former Curzon employees worked for AEW but eventually Tristan would be able to migrate some over. 

But things were looking positive. Tristan had found a backer in the shape of German insurer Gothaer Group, it had an existing client base that liked and trusted the company, and in the midst of this there was financial chaos all around. The motors revved up, Tristan had started operating as an independent company, and it found that opportunistic-like returns could be conceived from lower risk, core-plus type situations.

Fast forward to 2019 and many milestones have been accomplished at Tristan, including the final close in Q1 this year of  EPISO 5, its opportunistic fund series, on €1.7 bn. (It had enough demand to raise double that.) Last year, New York Life acquired a 40% stake in the business, giving the firm long-term stability and access to new relationships. In 2017, it converted its core-plus strategy and launched a semi-open-ended product which caught much attention.

The co-CEOS
Lewis and Laming spend the next 10 minutes kind of alternating about the culture of the company, talking about things like having a rule never to employ a*******s, having fun, retaining values, forward planning, sometimes surprising people, staying humble, fundraising, egos, what constitutes good behaviour, what the definition of success is, what team is required to achieve success, what is the scale of opportunity, managing expectation of performing miracles all the time, how to deepen the client base, thinking things through.
‘I think as a company we are quite restless,’ says Laming. ‘We want to think about how we can do more for clients, while making sure we don’t overreach.’

There might be some PR spin in some of the words both men utter, but they are meant sincerely. The company, they say, will keep on rolling. That’s the message.
Tristan, they say, is about the whole firm pulling together. ‘We are not two people, and then everybody else,’ says Lewis. ‘We are at the top of this along with the rest of the senior team and there are key people in on every conversation.’

Yet there is undeniably an interesting dynamic between the two at the top of this organisation, and it seems to work. First there is the camaraderie and friendship, and then there is the professional respect. On the former, it turns out that they have a kind of ‘ridiculous game’ of trying to out-do each other in giving. When Lewis was harping on about a certain spin bike that he used in the US, Laming looked it up. On this internet-connected bike machine you can participate in one of 90 live exercise classes with a trainer on it or in one of thousands of pre-recorded on-demand sessions from the comfort of your own home. Lewis says you can take a virtual ride around San Francisco for example and go as fast or as slow as you like.

Laming knew someone who knew someone and wangled one of these Peloton bikes in the first shipment ever to the UK. Says Lewis, ‘I come home and there is this Peloton bike!’
‘I get cases of wine all the time,’ smiles Laming, half shrugging. ‘I got you that suit!’ remembers Lewis. ‘You did, yes. I needed some guidance!’
On the professional front, there is mutual admiration, but they are two different people in important ways.
Lewis says of Laming: ‘He has an incredible, deep analytical framework for all the things he does, but he doesn’t act like a nerd. I think I have that framework, but I have this sense of feeling about an opportunity and how we need to tilt.’

Laming interjects: ‘That’s the essential difference. We have very similar priorities, values and where we want the business to go. But I think what Ric is brilliant at is just slowing it down and looking at the big picture. I can jump into the detail too quickly. And I think that is where it works so well. Ric will have this vision, if you will. CCP 5 is a good example. When is the right time to open a product or take things perpetual. Once we have agreed on something, I, and the rest of the senior team, will then figure out how we get it done.’

Lewis says: ‘We have got a whole generation of people that feel like they are deeply part of the process in key roles. He has been great at “ground up”, whether it is a new office or product. I have learned a lot from that. I thought I was pretty good at bringing people together. I think I still am. But I think he is a different level in terms of how inclusive he is so that people feel empowered but without giving away the farm.’   

Concludes Laming: ‘Tristan is on a journey still. It is our 10-year anniversary. It is remarkable that you can build an organisation and after 10 years it still feels like it has legs.
‘This has been a very deliberate, purposeful, curated growth. And we don’t want to lose sight of that. We have to be very deliberate and purposeful about where we take it next. We have to be very well prepared for the next 10 years. We have changed enormously in the last three or four years as the growth has accelerated. I think we are ready to keep growing.’ 

A 10-year journey
Ric Lewis sets up Curzon Global Partners as AEW’s European platform in 1999. It grows to manage €7.5 bn as the boutique fund manager to AEW, which is owned by two French banks.
In 2009, Tristan Capital Partners launches with an initial mandate to continue co-managing two funds: a fully invested core-plus vehicle, European Property Investors and a higher-returning European Property Investors Special Opportunities (EPISO).
Between 2009 and 2019, Tristan raises a series of core plus and opportunity funds, the most recent of which to close was EPISO 5 on €1.7 bn in Q1 2019.
In February 2018, New York Life acquires a 40% stake. Its European multi-specialist asset manager, Candriam Investors Group, will use Tristan as a way to enter European real estate. Tristan has €11 bn of AUM. In June 2019, Tristan celebrated 10 years in business.

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