Opinion: CEO's courage is a lesson to us all

Shares in Aberdeen Asset Management rose sharply last week, consolidating its position as one of the strongest and most respected of the independent fund managers.

By coincidence, the surge coincided with the biennial conference that the fund manager hosts for the non-executive directors of those investment trusts where Aberdeen has the management contract - a conference capped by a day's hospitality at the Braemar Gathering, which is the last and probably best known of the season's Highland Games.

The share surge sealed a remarkable turnaround in the group's fortunes since it was brought low three years ago by Aberdeen's involvement in split-capital trusts. There was a time when Aberdeen's future as a fund manager was in doubt. That it is still here and in rude health is a tribute to the determination and courage of its chief executive, Martin Gilbert. But it is also a tribute to his great PR skills.

When the split-capital crisis broke, Gilbert recalls that his reaction was to try to keep out of sight and wait for the storm to pass. Unfortunately, it did not pass. It settled firmly overhead and got worse, most notably when a Treasury Select Committee invited him to appear before it for a ritual skewering. Each twist of its knife made for another damaging headline.

When a firm's reputation is tarnished, clients are expected to head for the exit. The fact that most stayed loyal was because Gilbert reversed policy and began to engage. There was no more hiding away. He made himself available to talk to the media - despite legal advice to the contrary - and answered clients' questions. Most of all, he was prepared to take public responsibility for what had gone wrong and not try to shirk it.

Two things happened. First, Gilbert gained huge respect from his clients, which meant they gave him breathing space. Second, the media came to regard him as one of the good guys for at least appearing to be trying to sort the mess out, and their positive coverage reassured Aberdeen's clients. The PR did not solve Gilbert's problems nor make them look any less severe, but it earned him the time he needed to turn things around.

Anthony Hilton is City commentator on London's Evening Standard

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