In his early days, his teams were sometimes fraught with discontent at seeing less than 20 per cent of their group’s private client assets invested in proprietary funds. But he was able to convince them it is often easier to grow business with selective use of external products rather than those exclusively manufactured in-house.
This led to his formation of spin-off consultancy CFM which eventually became FundQuest, now one of the largest and best respected industry selectors of third-party products.
Staff who craved a typically French high finance figure, blending sophistication, flamboyance and joie de vivre, would have to look elsewhere, however. Mr Glicenstein did not resemble this popular stereotype, and perhaps that is one reason why the bright-eyed, sharp-suited, bottom-line obsessed Alain Papiasse, now transferred to BNP’s investment banking unit, was installed above him in 2005.
Mr Glicenstein was a deep thinker, but not a laboured one. Throwing a few alphas, betas, gammas and standard deviations into a sentence was not his style. Instead, he “wrestled actively” over the challenge of reconciling investors’ demand for risk monitoring and control with their appetite for performance, recalls James Bevan, CIO of CCLA and formerly Santander, a fellow intellectual among big name fund bosses.
His academic musings were perfectly natural. When younger staff spoke to Mr Glicenstein in the corridors of his Avenue Kleber HQ, in the shadow of the Arc de Triomphe, they did so casually but respectfully, without the apparent awe in which they held Mr Papiasse or employees at SocGen held his counterpart Philippe Collas. If there was any overt show of cap doffing, Mr Glicenstein would have been embarrassed.
Yet despite this college lecturer image, befitting of a visiting economics professor at several leading Parisian establishments, it would be a huge mistake to regard Mr Glicenstein as an avuncular academic, lost in theoretical research.
“Gilles may like you to think he is the kindly uncle, the benevolent professor to whom you can confess your problems, but the reality is that he is as tough as anyone in the business,” revealed a senior manager within the group.
After a stalled start on the acquisition trail during the late 1990s, Mr Glicenstein hit a rich vein of form through which his instincts and previous experience would serve him well. “Through these setbacks, he managed to develop his own vision about what we should buy and at what price,” recalls Etienne Barel, who is currently responsible for the integration of Belgian bank Fortis into the BNP Paribas group. “He became very useful indeed for the bank.”
In an industry where most groups have been keen to buy anything at any price, Mr Glicenstein was more careful and discriminating in what he did and didn’t buy. A long series of acquisitions included Fischer Francis Trees & Watts, Overlay Asset Management and Fauchier Partners. While they became key brands for the group in a ‘village of boutiques’ system, accommodating complex characters – including some difficult and mildly eccentric hedge fund staff – was no picnic. Yet it was part of the management challenge he relished.
Integrating these disparate units into a functioning, profitable structure was an area in which many rivals failed, but one Mr Glicenstein gradually came to grips with. Few could make this theoretical approach work in practice. Yet Mr Glicensetein could see the limitations of the model and understood how to adapt it.
The key challenge was how to marry the entrepreneurial spirit of individual boutiques with oversight from the parent group. It is still maybe too early to judge his success in this area, as this business model is still in its infancy, and the arm’s length approach of running hedge funds within a much bigger group with a totally foreign culture has been fraught with tension.
But he knew just letting the investment teams get on with it was never an option, as they would always put themselves before the greater good and line their own pockets. Putting the good of the many before the good of the one – in the style of science fiction creation Star Trek – was certainly a language the unselfish Mr Glicenstein understood best of all.