Witan’s Bell to Chair New US Activist Trust


27 January 2015 | By Gavin Lumsden

Gamco Investors, the New York-based activist fund manager, has hired Witan (WTAN +
) chief executive Andrew Bell to chair its first investment trust in the UK.

The firm is looking to raise up £250 million for the Gabelli Value Plus Trust and hopes the presence of experienced investment trust board and an innovative approach to the US will appeal to UK investors.

Founded in 1977 by Mario Gabelli, a former pupil of pioneering value investor Benjamin Graham, Gamco uses a proprietary method to identify undervalued companies that could either become bid targets or be restructured to release shareholder value.

It claims the technique has generated an annualised return of 15.9%, which it says is around 4% higher than either the S&P 500 or the US smaller company index, Russell 2000.

Bell, who recently stepped down as chairman of the Association of Investment Companies (AIC), will be backed by Richard Fitzalan Howard, executive chairman of FF&P Asset Management, the Fleming family investment firm, who also sits on the board of JPMorgan Smaller Companies (JMI +) investment trust.

The other directors on the board of the new trust are Charles Irby, former chairman of Aberdeen Asset Management who is also a director of Chris Mill’s North Atlantic Smaller Companies (NAS +
) investment trust, and Rudolf Bohli, who heads up RBR Capital Advisors in Zurich.

Marc Gabelli: sees ‘fifth wave’ of M&A in the US

Marc Gabelli, son of founder Mario and a senior portfolio manager at the group, said the launch would look to capture a ‘fifth wave’ of merger and acquisitions as cash-rich US companies looked to buy growth as revenue increases slowed down and profit margins peaked.

Last year M&A deals in the US soared to $3.5 trillion (£2.3 trillion) from $2.4 billion in 2013. Gabelli said previous takeover booms occurred in the 1960s – when conglomerates flourished – and in the 1980s when junk bond bidders unpicked many of the disparate groups created in the Sixties – followed by the consolidation and private equity booms of the ‘90s and pre-crisis ‘Noughties’.

Gabelli said the firm’s private market value technique identified companies whose shares traded below the level a strategic buyer would pay. Not only did the discount offer a ‘margin of safety’, it also provided the opportunity to seek a catalyst that would unlock value.

Sometimes that catalyst would be investor pressure to restructure, as in the case of Fortune Brands which in 2010/11 sold its golf division and spun off its home & security and Jim Beam spirits businesses, which, following a bid for the latter last year, more than doubled shareholders’ investment.

At other times, the death of a family owner could provide an opportunity. Gabelli highlighted the recent spike in the shares of US candy maker Tootsie Roll, which the group holds, after the death of its founding chief executive revived long-standing takeover speculation.

Gabelli said Gamco was the biggest filer of 13D forms which US investors sign if they wish to register as active shareholders who can engage with company boards. Although he said Gamco did not have dialogue with all the firms for which it had 13D registrations and preferred behind-the-scenes talks when it did engage , it was prepared to stand up and fight for shareholder rights, for example, launching legal challenges if it believed companies had accepted takeover bids below their true value.

Although a new name to many investors Gabelli has had a base in London for 15 years and has run a fund for Swiss fund manager GAM.

Investec Bank is running the share placing and offer for subscription which is expected to close in the middle of February. Gabelli said the trust would aim to invest shareholders’ money within 45 days. He envisaged the portfolio would hold around 100 stocks and have a mid cap bias with the holding having an average market value of $28 billion (£18.5 billion), compared to the S&P 500’s $132 billion (£87 billion).

Launch expenses will be capped at 1% so the trust starts trading with 99p of net asset value per share. Gamco will charge an annual management fee of 1% of market value with no performance fee although it anticipates annual total expenses of 1.23%. It will pay two dividends a year and seek to prevent the shares falling to a steep discount below NAV through tender offers and buy-backs.