It’s not often you find people with Annamaria Koerling and Aisling McArdle’s background in the wealth management industry.
From being a tax adviser, a private banker, an entrepreneur and even a professional sportsperson, the pair boast a broader skillset than most. Adding to that their impressive language skills, with McArdle speaking seven and Koerling four, they are uniquely qualified to deal with even the most demanding wealthy family’s needs at Owl Private Office.
They are backed by their five colleagues, who bring the knowledge of a former barrister, fund manager and corporate financier into the mix.
Quite different roads took Koerling and McArdle to Owl, but this diversity of background and experience is designed to be at the very heart of the business.
The firm was set up in March 2017 by former Lord North Street co-founders Adam Wethered and William Drake, alongside Andrew Wimble, who had been running his own consultancy since leaving JM Finn, where he was a director, the previous May.
At its core, Owl is a consultancy service that provides family offices and endowments with independent advice. It looks to help them shape or assess their investment objectives, and the structures they have in place to achieve them, while working with external specialists, such as lawyers and tax experts, where needed.
‘Quite often we find that families’ assets grow over time, and they can be opportunistic rather than strategic, and they have wealth managers and advisers all round the world, and we need to bring it together,’ McArdle explains.
‘We do a diagnostic to define and map what they’re trying to achieve and assess what they have got. We then see if they can do it better and see if they can benefit from their purchasing power, but while maintaining their identities.
‘It’s not always that everything needs changing. It might be that the managers are fine, but they just have too much in US dollars, so some of the wealth managers need to do something different.’
Clients are typically very wealthy, international and often with complex individual needs, but it is a world that both Koerling and McArdle know well. The pair previously worked together briefly at private bank C Hoare & Co, where Koerling was head of wealth management.
When Schroders agreed a deal to acquire C Hoare’s wealth division in October 2016, it brought Koerling's career full circle. She had started out at the asset management giant in the early 1990s, where she specialised in advising its private bank’s wealthy international clients.
At the time, she was becoming increasingly convinced that there was a real gap in the market for an independent advisory service that could also implement and negotiate strategies for wealthy families.
‘When the [Hoare] family sold the wealth business to Schroders, it felt [like] the right time, and I came to the conclusion that I wanted to focus on the strategic wealth space. I worked with some wonderful families and learnt a lot, but it felt [like] the right time to gather all of that experience and team up with individuals who also felt that there was a real need for this advice,’ she says.
After conversations with both Wethered and Drake, Koerling realised they shared the same vision. She joined Owl in November 2017, becoming a non-executive director of Schroders when she left.
‘I could have sailed off into the sunset with a couple of non-executives, but we all really believe in the opportunity. Hopefully we’ll make a real difference here.’
McArdle followed her erstwhile colleague over last month, as the next stage in her varied career that took her to multiple countries in a number of roles.
Her CV makes for interesting reading and suggests an individual that is undaunted by a new challenge. She spent five years as a professional squash player, going on to captain the Irish national team. Four of those years were while still at university, before the poor funding in the sport took its toll after her first year full-time.
‘Unfortunately, I ran out of money,’ she recalls. ‘It’s not a well-paid sport, and even less so for a woman.’
McArdle, by now living in Belgium, then established a relocation business, MAP Relocations, which is still a major regional player today. Noticing the constant flow of new bureaucrats into Brussels, her firm sourced properties and schools for them, before expanding into helping them with immigration issues.
‘It started off in the bedroom of my mum’s friend’s house. We had to be careful, as the regulations are very different in the three Benelux,’ she says. ‘I sold it and went to work in tax.’
At KMPG in Dublin, McArdle’s understanding of the foibles of different tax jurisdictions remained at the forefront, as she specialised in resident non-domiciled clients. This set her in good stead for her next role at UBS, where that experience made her a rare and valued asset.
She went on to have a brief stint in corporate finance, before what turned out to be a similarly short spell at C Hoare, as she soon went on maternity leave. This prompted a move to New York, where McArdle became the CEO of a single family office, before joining another single family office in London.
Now back in the UK and ensconced in Owl, she says that the experience of having been within the trusted circle of a family office complements the broader team’s myriad skills and experiences.
Koerling agrees, noting: ‘Aisling brings that understanding of knowing how it works on the inside. They want advice on how they optimise things. We’ve seen it from the inside and the outside.
‘They are very concerned about knowing their advisers and knowing their integrity and confidentiality.'
Indeed, McArdle says there is no one single family office model out there, and her experiences ended up being different to what she expected.
‘I had preconceptions, but there was no one formula. We, as financial professionals, always have assumptions, but when you’re in there, they can have very different requirements,’ she says.
‘Some are very involved, others want family members in the business. Some are more interested in getting an investment return, others philanthropy and some just want a quiet life.
‘The relationship with the family in New York was very contingent on their charity, not so much performance. They just wanted to know it was supported.’
Indeed, the word ‘trust’ comes up repeatedly in the conversation, and Koerling says that building trust with professional advisers, such as lawyers, solicitors and accountants, is key to winning new business.
Some clients will be entrepreneurs having their first liquidity event as they start to divest from their business, others third generation wealth where the principals have died, but a number are wealthy individuals or families looking to change adviser.
‘Where clients come to us and their relationship has broken down with their last adviser, it is rarely due to investment performance – it’s more because the relationship has broken down,’ she says.
One strand of this can be when they work out what they are actually being charged, the pair say.
Owl charges a flat fee, with retainers and project work ranging anywhere between £10,000 and £300,000-plus, depending on the complexity of the work.
Since its inception, Owl has advised 12 family groups and a large charity whose financial affairs span 15 jurisdictions and whose assets exceed $3 billion (£2.3 billion).
If the company needs to bring in external expertise, this can be arranged either by Owl, which will not lump on any extra cost for this, or the client can go direct.
‘With investment reporting, we also do quite a lot in-house, but if they want an extra level of analysis, we’ll use a specialist provider. They can contact us or go direct to them – we don’t charge extra,’ McArdle says.
‘Transparency is really helpful. Your whole relationship is based on how much they trust your knowledge and experience, but also how much you charge them.
'You can see the disillusionment when they realise how much they are paying someone who they trust.’