Asia Pacific  

Interview: Robert Horrocks on Mandarin to Matthews Asia

Interview: Robert Horrocks on Mandarin to Matthews Asia
 “It’s always difficult in the UK when you are the new kid on the block as you have to get people to know you”

There are many reasons for working in fund management, but Robert Horrocks, chief investment officer (CIO) at Matthews Asia, says it was the intellectual appeal that drew him in. He explains: “My mother was a teacher, my father was a mathematician, my older brother is a lecturer, my younger brother also works in finance but is a bit of a maths whizz, so it’s probably in my DNA. I like the abstract and I like dealing with ideas.” 

Mr Horrocks took something of an abstract route into the industry by studying Mandarin at university. “At school I always liked languages, and I was better at French. But if you did French at university you’d end up studying 17th century romantic French poetry or something, which is just not my thing.” 

Instead, he chose the Chinese language, although he initially failed to gain a foothold as his course ended around the same time as Tiananmen Square and China closing itself off. Mr Horrocks opted for postgraduate study and then became a stockbroker in Hong Kong analysing Chinese B-shares. 

He recalls: “I learned after a while that the salesmen called me Dr Doom or something similar. The reason was that I was analysing 25 companies and I had one buy and 24 sells. You could tell with a lot of these firms that they weren’t cut out to succeed. Competition was too fierce, or the quality of management wasn’t there, or they were state-owned businesses.

“I was taught that the first question to ask is ‘how’s business?’ I had one company where I sat down with the chief executive and he shook his head and said, ‘if it keeps going like this we’ll be bankrupt by June’. So that was another one for the sell list.” 

Mr Horrocks then moved back to the UK to join Schroders, and spent some time as a UK analyst before being transferred to the Far East desk. He later spent time in Taiwan, South Korea, Shanghai and Hong Kong before being approached in 2008 for a job at Matthews Asia. 

“I got a call from a recruiter who said there’s a company in San Francisco looking for someone like you. Having spent 10-12 years in Asia, I immediately [thought] why San Francisco? Why would I bother with San Francisco?” 

But Mr Horrocks was attracted by what he describes as a measured and thoughtful culture. “Later I learned it’s being in San Francisco which allows that culture to flourish. It’s not that you can’t do it in Asia, but when you specialise in Asian markets – and they can be volatile, plus the fact you have to take a long-term strategic approach – it’s often easier to do with a little bit of distance,” he says.

Originally joining Matthews Asia as head of research, a decision by the acting CIO at the time to step back led to Mr Horrocks taking on the role. “I couldn’t at that time, and still cannot, conceive of a better job to be in,” he adds. 

The company has recently looked at expanding by building on its foothold in the US and trying to diversify the client base in Latin America, Asia and Europe.