‘In this game it is dead easy to get it wrong’
While he may proclaim that he has no talent outside of fund management, Brian O’Neill, manager of the £136m Henderson Global investment trust, certainly knows a thing or two about wine.
“When I came down here [to London] in 1970 the market was booming. We were only young lads at the time, we didn’t know anything, and people used to send out these free invitations that said, ‘We’re having a buffet – come and taste some wine,’ which sounded like a good idea to us.”
He recalls a particular tasting at The Savoy, entry to which cost £1, for a London wine merchant trying to sell their stocks of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti – now one of the most expensive wines in the world.
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“For £1, which was a lot of money back then, you got a catalogue and you got to taste all of these wines at lunchtime. We weren’t in exactly the most sober frame of mind [by the end]. It was unbelievable. The minimum price at the moment for one of those bottles is £500, but you had all of this stuff for £1 and a lot of them were free, so you got to drink all the best clarets and Burgundies,” Mr O’Neill says.
“I’ve only ever had two bottles of Romanée-Conti since 1975 and both were complete bargains. I found an old catalogue that listed a case for £17.50 for 12 bottles.”
A little more than 10 years later, Mr O’Neill would apply this nose for buying and selling to a rather different challenge. In 1983, he started running what is now the Henderson Global investment trust, a listed stockmarket portfolio that was launched in 1929, just before the Wall Street Crash. The year before, the global stockmarket had presented the trust with what is now regarded as one of the great all-time buying opportunities in global equities, the start of a long bull run – with a few bearish dips along the way – that peaked with the dotcom boom in 2000.
In spite of all this, Mr O’Neill, who hails from just outside Glasgow, admits he never intended to be a fund manager.
“I have no background in the City and I had no idea what the City was about, even though I went to university and got an economics degree. I had no idea and nor did anyone else, unless you worked in the City or you had family that worked in the City.”
Instead, Mr O’Neill, who is also a qualified teacher and once interviewed as a graduate trainee at John Lewis, ended up in finance because of an attractive-sounding newspaper advert.
“When I left university, back in the good old days, only roughly 10 per cent went to university and only 5 per cent came out with a decent degree. When asked what you wanted to be, the answer was, ‘I don’t know.’ Some became a vet, optician, chartered surveyor. They were all things you thought about doing.”