Centaur Fund Services is celebrating its tenth anniversary with record assets under administration of circa $35bn, including circa $6bn on the depositary side – a figure which has tripled in three years – and 85 clients. Fund administration and the associated technology sector has seen relentless consolidation over the past decade but Centaur has ploughed its own furrow.
Centaur is majority owned by its management, and three of the founders – Eric Bertrand, Karen Malone and Ronan Daly – have worked together since 1997 with Gavan McGuire, Head of Business Development, joining the team at Centaur’s inception. Antonio Frias originally joined as Head of Operations at Centaur headquarters in Ireland in 2012 and relocated in 2019 to Luxembourg to become CEO of Centaur Luxembourg and Des Johnson, CEO of Centaur USA joined in 2017. Here they reflect on the success of the past decade while looking towards the next one.
We are a professional services firm, like an accountancy or law firm, whereas some peers are more like transaction processing firms.
Ronan Daly, Co-Founder, Centaur
Virtually all of Centaur’s growth has been organic. The four offices it opened in 2018 have taken the total to nine. Centaur has garnered a clutch of new manager launches, and half of its clients have been won from other service providers, and there has been a 100% client retention rate.
“Of course,” McGuire continues, “clients have retired – usually when they became too rich or too poor – but we have not lost any that continued in business.”
Staff turnover alike has been low. The founders of the firm remain in situ and moves in the rank and file have been only around 10% a year, versus churn as high as 30% in the peripatetic and transient job-hopping culture of fund administration. Centaur is adding talent from other firms, as staff numbers have surged by 40% to 140 over the past year.
Centaur’s business model has been distinguished by its ethos. Ronan Daly, Centaur co-founder and an English lawyer of Irish extraction explains, “We are a professional services firm, like an accountancy or law firm, whereas some peers are more like transaction processing firms.” Indeed, on the accounting side a majority of staff have some form of accountancy qualification, while on the corporate services side staff, most are chartered corporate secretaries or have a legal background. Centaur is a CPA and ACCA approved firm and has been recognised as a Gold Level Approved Employer by ACCA. Daly continues, “Centaur places real value on employee training to ensure each member of the Centaur team reaches their full potential.”
In the US office, staff often have MBAs or other finance or business qualifications. Yet staff have not only studied finance and business. “At Centaur, we hire people with open minds and diverse experience rather than just financial backgrounds. It’s all about nurturing good talent and potential. I like to think that we champion cross disciplinary approaches and logical thinking from our team,” says Daly.
The business model is attractive to ambitious finance professionals. “We have a culture of empowering people so that they can learn from front to back within our functionalised models,” says Daly. “We have a different work culture and way of servicing clients compared with most other administrators. We are an extension of the client. We give exceptional service in all locations to help our clients become successful.”
Centaur co-founder Karen Malone, an Irish accountant, is distinguished by being a female entrepreneur in what is still a male-dominated industry. Law and accountancy firms are leading the way in promoting women into the most senior positions, but this is not yet reflected in fund administration to the same extent. Malone has received industry recognition, including The Hedge Fund Journal’s 2019 award for “Outstanding Contribution to Fund Administration”. “I’m a strong advocate of entrepreneurship, especially in supporting women in business,” she says. “I’m passionate about female entrepreneurship, women in leadership positions and what steps corporates can take to improve the gender balance in their organisations. This is an important subject for Centaur, as we strongly encourage women and men to succeed equally across the firm.”
Accountability is demonstrated in detailed, legally binding administration agreements and service level agreements including contractual terms that hold Centaur responsible for the valuation – and liable for any mis-valuation – of “level 1” and ”level 2” assets. The firm is additionally responsible for the process around “level 3” assets (broadly, marked to model), where different asset managers might use different methodologies and arrive at different valuations. At firm leadership level, Malone is an expert on valuation who has been involved in the IOSCO report on Principles for the Valuation of Hedge Fund Portfolios and the AIMA Guides on Sound Practices for Hedge Fund Valuations. She comments, “Governance is in focus and everyone responsible – the AIFM, board and administrator – should ensure there are good valuation policies, and that they are being consistently applied.”
Des Johnson, CEO of Centaur US, has brought his expertise working at large firms to Centaur. “A global approach ensures the same controls, procedures and service levels across all locations. Our knowledge, expertise and technology apply worldwide.” McGuire concurs, saying, “The same process, technology and workflows apply across all offices.” The Irish head office in Dublin supports centralised legal, risk, cybersecurity, and continuity of business work while Centaur’s locations in North America and Europe ensure that clients are serviced in their own time zone. The firm decided that outsourcing to lower cost centres would not be worthwhile for its particular business model.
“Our model is to make sure we understand what the client does, customise it, and service them,” says co-founder, Eric Bertrand, a French-Canadian accountant. “The initial investment is a bit higher but a more automated approach reduces mistakes, saves management time, and saves money long term.” Even so, not everything can be run by computers. “You can automate, but call centres cannot replace talking to clients,” he stresses. “We acquired some US clients back in 2016 and found it more difficult to service them from other time zones, so a US office was always part of the plan. We are very old school in picking up the phone to clarify issues rather than sending emails.” Operational due diligence is another area where Centaur can add value, helping to answer allocators’ questions, and leveraging its technology to furnish the necessary information.
The US New Jersey office is the fastest growing. Johnson elaborates, “We opened in 2018 with space for 50 people and already have 20 staff and 20 clients.” Most of the clients are on the East Coast of the US. But, explains Johnson, there are also several relationships with global managers marketing in the US. “For example, a German manager with multiple venture capital funds,” he elaborates, “a South Korean manager running hedge funds and venture capital funds, and an Australian manager with multi-billion infrastructure funds.”
He continues, “An onshore US presence complements our Bermuda office along with support from Centaur’s Canada office,” he adds. The founders have all had stints in Bermuda over their careers. Globally, clients are satisfied, with 93% rating the firm as “excellent” in the latest client survey.
It is heartening to see a plucky boutique holding its own against the behemoths.
The client base runs the gamut of alternatives, from private equity, private debt and real estate to liquid hedge fund strategies such as global macro, long/short equity and commodities, and a strong presence in insurance-linked securities (ILS) revolving around the Bermuda office. “Barriers to entry are higher in ILS, which is a more complex market where we need people such as accountants who have worked in actuarial firms. This is high touch, long-term business,” says Bertrand. Other more esoteric strategies include aircraft leasing and shipping, but Centaur has thus far declined to act for cryptocurrency funds, due to concerns about valuation and custody. He continues, “When and if the cryptocurrency world becomes more formalised, we may get involved.” Centaur also caters for some allocators via Centaur Family Office Services.
Since 2016, Centaur has been working with private equity and real estate funds. “The Luxembourg office was opened mainly to develop our private equity offering, as Luxembourg is a domicile of choice for many private equity vehicles seeking a legal framework in Europe,” says Bertrand. The firm acquired a small administrator and Antonio Frias, a Spanish accountant, moved over from the Irish office, where he had been Global Head of Operations. Centaur’s Luxembourg office has office space for a dozen people. Bertrand continues, “We will grow in a measured way without sacrificing client service. Our main focus is UK managers, but there are also some from Switzerland and France, and a number of US managers also want to set up Luxembourg vehicles.”
“ESG is another growth area. We are having discussions with managers who might launch structures such as an ELTIF (European Long-Term Investment Fund),” says Bertrand.
In the US, adoption of ESG has been slower but is starting to pick up. Johnson discussed the growing number of US managers launching ESG strategies, when he participated in a panel discussion at the West Coast Operational Leaders’ Summit in San Francisco in November 2019.
Both closed-end and open-ended funds are serviced. Centaur also works with some hybrid structures, where a hedge fund strategy may be run in a private equity style vehicle. “Hybrid structures are becoming more popular and could include a closed end fund that is used for liquid loans,” says Frias. The US office services mainly Bermuda, Cayman and Delaware vehicles. A typical structure would be a master/feeder with Cayman and Delaware vehicles. The Luxembourg office also services some Cayman vehicles, which might feed into Luxembourg SPVs or other structures. “We work with the full range of Luxembourg structures,” says McGuire.
Centaur offers a broad range of services to complement the core administration, fund accounting and investor services, and are happy to provide depo-lite, corporate services and regulatory services as a standalone service.
The exact configuration of services does vary by office. “We partner with other providers for AIFM services and depositary services in Luxembourg. For instance, we work with various ManCos (management companies) and depositaries,” says McGuire. “We have not noticed much impact from the new BEPS rules, but of course firms want to demonstrate substance on the ground in Luxembourg,” he adds.
“New Jersey is a full-service office including investor services, fund accounting and AML,” says US CEO Johnson. “The only US-centric offering we have is US tax partnership representation, whereby we provide a named individual to liaise with the US IRS on behalf of a client, handling audit and follow up questions. The US IRS is not prepared to deal with a PO Box number.”
Centaur’s expanding suite of services is designed to keep pace with new regulations. Centaur is regulated by the Central Bank of Ireland, the Bermuda Monetary Authority and the Luxembourg CSSF. Its clients are also regulated, at the manager and/or fund level. Malone explains, “Regulations place different demands on different industries and a successful administrator must have the flexibility and specialist knowledge to deal with every client. Experience is essential: Centaur’s dedicated teams remain fully informed of the technical and ever-changing nature of the market across all of our jurisdictions. We share this information with our clients, guide them through the regulatory minefield that exists, ensure compliance monitoring programs are in place and that all their regulatory requirements are achieved.”
Johnson adds a US perspective, “Administrators do not need to be regulated in the US, but our investors want to work with a regulated entity. Therefore, we use our Irish, Bermuda or Luxembourg regulations to demonstrate equivalence with other rules, such as Cayman rules.”
Industry associations can provide oversight and set standards, complementing regulators. “We have also joined the North American Fund Administrators’ Association (NAFAA), which sets standards for best practices on valuation, cybersecurity, business continuity, controls around cash and pricing portfolios, and so on,” Johnson continues.
“Technology is key to client service,” says Malone. “To survive in this industry, administrators must continuously adapt to new technologies. As clients’ needs evolve, so too do the services delivered by fund administrators. Technology is critical to both data security and data accuracy. Centaur imposes the highest standards in terms of the technology used to service our clients’ needs. We have invested heavily in a technology platform which delivers open, transparent, customisable reporting to fund stakeholders. This platform is constantly reviewed and improved to ensure our systems maintain the highest level of security.”
Centaur sits firmly on the buy side of the “buy or build” debate, not wanting to reinvent the wheel when good solutions can be found. An open architecture approach allows Centaur to select what it judges to be “best of breed” systems for each function in the context of its distinctive business model. For instance, FIS Investone is used as the core GL; HWM-Mantra for investor reporting; Blueprint OneWorld for corporate services; and FIS InvestOne for fund administration. As new service lines are added, dedicated solutions are sought. “We have chosen Investran for private equity,” says Bertrand.
Recently Centaur has made great strides amongst European start-ups, winning seven mandates over the past year. “We do not want to let fees get in the way of a good fit. In pitching against the giants, we will sometimes win and sometimes lose,” says McGuire.
It is heartening to see a plucky boutique holding its own against the behemoths. Just as the alternative fund industry can accommodate multi-billion size managers and much smaller players – including in some of the niche strategies that Centaur services – there is room for service provider firms with a distinctive business model.