Nkareng Mpobane. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA
Nkareng Mpobane. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA

At its annual results, FirstRand admitted that its asset management business, Ashburton Investments, will take years to become profitable. It will be up to the new chief investment officer for listed assets, Nkareng Mpobane, to build a competitive investment offering. She takes over from longstanding CIO Paolo Senatore.

Mpobane, a youthful 38, joined the FirstRand group as a relationship manager at RMB Private Bank in 2003, moving to the investment team two years later. Apart from a short stint at the now defunct BoE Stockbrokers, she has been at the group ever since.

She experienced at first hand a bull market, followed by the severe correction of the global financial crisis — unlike many of her younger colleagues, who have only ever experienced rising prices. As a senior financial services analyst, she saw her share of collapsed international businesses in 2008.

FirstRand has not helped Ashburton’s financial position by moving its lucrative private client business back into the bank as the core of the rebranded FNB Wealth & Investment business. Ashburton still advises on the unit trust range for FNB.

But many of Ashburton’s businesses remain subscale. It has just R6bn in segregated balanced funds, while its larger competitors manage well over R100bn. It manages unit trusts of just under R3bn. Even the original Ashburton Jersey manager, which has been around for 30 years, manages less than R14bn — not much given the expense of running a business in the Channel Islands. To augment its in-house skills, it recently signed a deal with US giant Fidelity to advise it on its global multi-asset funds.

Mpobane admits that Ashburton has been most effective in alternative areas such as credit funds, and in helping pension funds meet their obligations through liability-driven investments. For the listed assets unit, it is a long-term game.

"Our philosophy is top down and we believe that shares perform differently at each point in the cycle," she says.

Ashburton hasn’t been afraid to buy in skills. Three years ago it acquired Atlantic Asset Management, bringing star fixed-income manager Arno Lawrenz into the team. He runs the Stable Income Fund, with several billion under management.

In equities the house has recruited Wayne McCurrie, who worked for FirstRand’s previous investment business, RMB Asset Management.

There is a team of eight portfolio managers in the equity and balanced teams, but Mpobane is considered the custodian of the house view. As an "officer" it is her responsibility to prove that the Ashburton philosophy and approach work.

Mpobane is from the Eastern Cape and holds a BCom from Wits. She was an avid cyclist until she had an accident. She now focuses more on travel.