Rising to the challenge

What's it like to oversee operations for one of the country's most successful independent asset managers?

Rising to the challenge

When searching for a successor to outgoing president and chief operating officer Sylvain Roy earlier this year, Fiera Capital did not have to look far. Sometimes the answer to a difficult question can be right under your nose, and so it proved as the firm announced Jean-Philippe Lemay would assume the post.

The L'Université Laval graduate had already distinguished himself as chief investment officer, having first joined Fiera following its acquisition of Natcan Investment Management in 2012.

“My background is as a portfolio manager, so I was close to the clientele,” he says. “Over the past seven years, I think the clients have become much more demanding in terms of firms listening to their actual investment needs and being able to build solutions that are targeted at specific investment outcomes.”
In that respect, Lemay believes his firm are among the best in the industry. Fiera offers a variety of different investment products, ranging from traditional equity mutual funds, to more specialized alternatives covering hedge funds, real estate or infrastructure. 

“Whether it’s an institutional client or an investment fund, our ability to construct a specific solution for a particular objective is really something that has trended in the past few years, and will become even more present in terms of the value we bring to the table,” explains Lemay.

Now overseeing the Canadian operations for one of the country’s most successful independent asset managers, it has been a steady ascent for Lemay in the investment space. A student of actuarial science, he brought that expertise to major institutions like Aon, Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec and Standard Life Investments. It was during his time with Standard Life that he learned some important lessons regarding portfolio construction and always keeping a close eye on the downside.

“With Standard Life I was working mainly in fixed income securities. The financial crisis really highlighted the need to maintain a certain level of liquidity, and to have different solutions in the portfolios,” he says. “The more liquidity that you build in a portfolio is key in being able to sustain one of these storms.”
Having a variety of different strategies for its clients is a point of pride for Fiera Capital. Lemay identifies examples in both traditional and alternative funds that have provided impressive returns in recent years.

“Our global equity strategy that has been named as one of the best performing managers in the world, and our US equity strategy has also delivered strong returns,” he says. “On the alternative side, our market neutral and long-short funds have also delivered very strong performance with a real focus on the resource sector in Canada.”

It is in the alternative space that Fiera has really set its sights on driving business in the years ahead. In its most recent earnings, company chairman and CEO Jean-Guy Desjardins announced: strong revenue growth, driven primarily from our US division as well as from our newly established private alternative investments division."

It is now Lemay’s responsibility to ensure that Canadian business can keep the pace, and alternative strategies will be key to achieving that goal.

“The way we are looking to grow in the future is really focusing on alternatives,” he explains. “We are present in the hedge fund space, and even more present in private alternatives – real estate, infrastructure, and agriculture. In the private debt space we are also building capabilities as well.”
Fiera are also developing more niche products that target specific sectors. This past June, it launched its agriculture solution through subsidiary Fiera Comox. The company describes the strategy as offering investors access to high-quality agriculture and private land equity with attractive investment features, particularly low correlation to other asset classes and effective inflation hedge. It’s an exciting next step for the firm, as Lemay outlines.

“We are partnering with different operators across the world, but mainly in New Zealand and Australia, as well as North and South America,” he says. “We partner on agriculture projects and land operations, whether it is crops, cattle or other traditional farming operations.”

The firm, founded in 2002, has clearly outgrown its Quebec roots and today is a true international operation. To be a leading asset manager in today’s investment space, a global presence is necessary. Fiera has offices in major financial centres like Toronto, New York, Frankfurt and London, and Lemay credits the firm’s expansion to vision in the board room.

 “I would like to raise my hat to Jean-Guy Desjardins, our chairman – to be a strong player in the industry you need to have a footprint across the globe,” he says. “Right now we are really focused on developing our capabilities in the US, as well as Canada. We also have an operation on the emerging markets side based in London and we are looking to expand in that segment and geography as well.”

While the firm has lofty ambitions for the international market, Canada is its home base and remain a major part of its business. In that respect, Lemay will play a pivotal role in the overall success of Fiera Capital heading forward.

“If I look at our Canadian business, we will continue to expand on our wealth presence, that’s on the distribution side,” she says. “From a manufacturing side we want to give more access to the best alternatives strategies we have to offer. Those two will be key for us in the years ahead.”

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