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In the pantheon of investors

As the man largely responsible for creating Pantheon International, Shropshire’s new High Sheriff is internationally recognised as a heavyweight in the world of private equity. Rhoddy Swire gives HENRY CARPENTER an insight into his long and successful career

Ask those in the know which county figures have enjoyed considerable success in the world of high finance, and it’s more than likely that several will mention Rhoddy Swire.

Well - as the founder of Pantheon, a major global player in the private equity world which manages billions of pounds of assets – of course they would.

Rhoddy, who is 66 and lives in Ludlow, was sworn in as the county’s High Sheriff at the end of March and it is largely because of this that he has stepped back from the bulk of his business interests. As we discover from the fascinating and complex journey his career path has taken him, Rhoddy is not a man to do things by halves and is clearly relishing what the next 12 months might hold for him.

You wouldn’t necessarily have heard of Pantheon, or indeed Rhoddy individually as a businessman, because they operated from headquarters in London and offices in several continents. You might just have heard of John Swire & Sons though, the huge conglomerate which owns and operates businesses from a variety of sectors all over the world, particularly in the Far East, perhaps the most well known of which is the airline Cathay Pacific.

Rhoddy is part of this dynasty, even if in a small way, and as such you might say he had a head start. While it is partly true, as Rhoddy did indeed spend time in Hong and Australia working for the family business, in many ways his connections made him all the more determined to forge his own professional path.

Rhoddy is a true man of Shropshire. His great-grandparents lived at Longden, near Shrewsbury, and a year after he was born in 1951 his parents moved back to Shropshire from their home in London.

“The family business was facing challenges in China at the time, largely because of the rise of communism, so they bought secure assets, one of which was the Badger estate near Bridgnorth,” he explains. “My father, who was a land agent for Savills, was asked to manage it.

“We were actually living near Ford and I was sent to pre-prep school called Stepping Stones in Shrewsbury, which is now the girls’ high school, before going to Abberley prep school and then Eton.

“I went to Birmingham University to read mechanical engineering, economics and French. The one thing I learned was how to pass exams – engineers believed in setting exams.”

Just in case you were wondering whether Rhoddy harboured any ambitions while he was at university, he admits to having a dream of “creating a holding company with 10 subsidiaries each turning over £10 million and making one million in profit”.

It quickly became apparent that he was going to need more than an engineering degree to meet these lofty targets. So, on the advice of a family friend Michael Stoddart – the merchant banker and investor who has since become a good friend in his own right – he became an accountant.

“I joined Peat Marwick Mitchell rather late in their recruitment cycle where my toils at Birmingham University worked their magic – I was able to pass the endless series of accountancy exams. I had always wanted to work in Hong Kong, and I headed out there with Peat Marwick after qualifying.

“There was though a slight technical hitch. In the January of 1976 I was giving a young lady called Georgina Thompson a lift to a ball in Shropshire. By June in the following year we were married.

“We lived in Hong Kong and after nine months with Peat Marwick I was asked to join the family firm as group accountant for the private side in Hong Kong.”

Before long Rhoddy was invited to become the aide to the group’s chairman in Australia, which he accepted, and found himself looking after the company’s refrigerated storage and transport fleet, the largest in the country.

There was a niggling feeling though that he was still an employee of his family and that, combined with his own family’s desire to be back in England, led them to return after five years away.

He joined the “highly entrepreneurial” fund managers, GT Management. He was put in charge of unquoted investments “which comprised 74 different investments ranging from timeshare, oil and gas, a travel business, all sorts of things”, according to Rhoddy. 

“All this was happening in the early 80s, a boom time in early-stage technology investments, particularly in Silicon Valley.

“The team, which I was responsible for building up, secured our first outside client in 1983 which was the IBM pension fund – and that gave us a pot of money to invest from scratch.

“It was my task was to put a structure and strategy around it, as well as making the investments. We developed a strategy not to invest in underlying companies but in private equity funds, specifically a fund-of-funds.”

In 1987, by which time Rhoddy was on the main board, GT’s success attracted the attention of a third party.

Two investment trusts, which were managed by GT, owned a chunk of the business which the raider considered undervalued. In the ensuing attack GT decided to unitise the trust.

Rhoddy explains: “We came up with the idea of creating a separate investment trust which could acquire the unquoted assets owned by the two trusts.

“We raised £12 million which was enough to buy these investments and this became, ultimately, Pantheon International, which has grown to £1.3 billion net assets - a compound growth rate of 11% for 30 years by investing purely in private equity funds globally.

“The management team was able to buy this business in 1988 from GT and changed our name to Pantheon with £200 million under management.

“Pantheon now invests in various types of illiquid assets and the group has currently got some US$36 billion under management, and as such is one of the pre-eminent private equity fund-of-funds in the world. It now has offices in London, Hong Kong, New York, San Francisco, Seoul and Bogota.

“I’ve stepped back from Pantheon but I’m still involved with various businesses.”

Several in fact. Today Rhoddy is chairman of a company which makes multi-channel headphones, he has various interests including a maggot farm in south Africa and sits on the board of Lewmar which makes equipment for boats. He advises a wealth manager on private equity and is also chair of Hereford Cathedral’s Perpetual Trust.

The gap left by his day-to-day involvement with Pantheon will largely be filled with his duties as High Sheriff, and he seems intent on tackling the post with the same energy and vigour as he has the last 50 years of a varied and highly successful career.

It could be quite a year.

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