Mild-mannered Prudential chief hides steel behind charm

Copyright: David Lawson 1996

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World champion motor racer Damon Hill has a surprising soulmate behind the wheel of  Britain's biggest property investor. Martin Moore, new managing director of Prudential Portfolio Managers Property, has the same easy-going, mild-mannered persona. 'He's a real sweetie,' says one associate.  He even has similar passions. Only the pressures of a young family and  managing a £5bn portfolio have recently  kept him away from racing a souped-up VW Golf.

 Like Hill, however, there is steel behind the charm. 'Don't get him annoyed,' warns a rival fund manager, helpfully offering ways to light the blue touchpaper.  Mention lack of flair or serious talent  and both begin a slow burn.  The eyes flash and facts about performance  emerge in a  hardening voice. The merest hint that the Pru is the sleeping giant of British property sets off Moore.

  The problem is that a decade ago you could not pick up a paper without news of  some giant  development or  comment about  the state of the industry. The Pru  still has a powerful voice in Lorraine Baldry, Moore's predecessor and now chief operating officer of the umbrella PPM. But  that tends to be linked to her role as BPF President.  Other  headlines are grabbed by rival fund managers like Hermes' Alistair Ross Goobey or AMP's John Whalley.

  The great battleship has cruised along in the background, however. Moore tetchily points out that the Pru sold out of direct development at the height of the boom (making huge profits). 'But we were  the first to reaffirm confidence in the sector. We have been net investors to the tune of £750m since 1993,'  And the ship's guns have started to boom again. A £250m shopping centre is reaching fruition at Cribb's  Causeway, Bristol; a partner will sign soon to develop more than 204,000sq m (2.2m sq ft) on Reading Business Park; plans have been revived for the £500m redevelopment of Knightsbridge Green in London. 

  All are massive developments which required years of nursing and appraisal.  'We are not a developer which is here today and gone tomorrow. We are long-term investors. Our great strength is to think strategically,' says Moore.  Knightsbridge Green, for instance, is a site accumulated slowly through the Eighties on the basis that it would be a 'fantastic opportunity' one day. That is turning out to be different than expected - and an example of how this behemoth can change course into new waters. New plans envisage a large residential element, a move that would have shocked the old Pru managers.

  But the group has changed enormously since then, says Moore. New people have moved in - or up and it is far less introspective and autocratic under a new generation of managers.  Ten  years ago comment would have come from the wood-panelled offices at Holborn Bars rather than via an informal chat over tea and biscuits at PPMP's more mundane headquarters a short walk away.

  Moore has been around long enough to have seen it all happen. He is a Pru 'lifer', joining the groups straight from school rather than ladder-climbing through a series of surveying firms - another reason why emotions run so deep beneath the calm surface.

 Everything might have been different if he had enjoyed the advice of a careers master, however. 'I liked geography and thought surveying seemed vaguely relevant. I found a dog-eared leaflet about the Pru, rang up and joined as a trainee. If the accountancy pages had not been ripped out, who knows what might have happened.'

   Day-release courses and lots of on-the-job practice followed. He found a niche in  the emerging field of fund management in the early Eighties and steadily climbed the ladder to reach his current role at the relatively young age of 40 earlier this year. The Pru faced a dilemma about filling Baldry's post, however. Moore and colleague Nick Thompson were contenders and one was bound to  feel put out. This was solved by making Thompson head of his own strategic planning team instead.

  It is not a background he would wish on others, however. 'Everyone was a generalist in those times,' he says. But the world has changed, and  specialised skilled are required to handle today's complex world of finance.

 'Clients demand greater support and analysis. We must be able to talk the same language used in other asset areas,' he says. 'We need to be able to handle tools like portfolio management theory and still communicate the special nature of property.'

 It is an argument Moore knows well.   PPMP was set up as an independent manager for the Prudential, and has all the responsibilities of an outside adviser. Moore insists that has been achieved with a 10-year record that has outpaced the IPD life fund benchmark by 1.5% a year.

  But this has to be put in perspective. PPMP may outrank even land Securities with its huge investment portfolio spread over more than 1,000 properties. But this is only a small part of the £85bn invested by Prudential Portfolio Managers. He has to not only show performance but argue his case against other investments.

 Educating surveyors into a new role has become another passion, with time  serving on RICS and Investment property Forum committees pushing racing into the background. He wants to see  a system where investment surveyors get a lot  more than a few lectures tacked onto degrees or a couple of hours a month in  continuing professional development.

   'I don't know how it will end up. It might mean a separate qualification like the Investment Management Certificate, although universities like Aberdeen and the City of London are rising to the challenge with integrated courses.'

 If this does not happen, surveyors will gradually lose their hold on the sector, says Moore. He well remembers how one chief surveyor at the Pru refused to allow involvement by other professions. 'That cannot happen today. We must get away from the myth that property is separate and sacrosanct.'

  That in itself is an indicator of how much the Pru  has changed in the last decade. And if the country's biggest property investor can manage the transition, perhaps the signs are good that a conservative and inward-looking  profession as a whole can do the same.