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Allan Gray was an investment disruptor - and changed many young lives

Nov 12 2019 06:59
Lameez Omarjee
Allan Gray, the founder of the eponymous investmen

Allan Gray, the founder of the eponymous investment management company (Image: Allan Gray)

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How the late Allan Gray will be remembered depends on who you ask.

Former colleagues and professional investors lionised Gray as a disruptor, someone who upended the SA investment industry and forged a new way of growing money in the country. 

But for many young South Africans he remains foremost a philanthropist who changed their lives through scholarships and bursaries.

The 81-year old Gray died on Sunday in Bermuda, reportedly of a heart attack.

Born in East London, he worked for Deloitte in Cape Town and Johannesburg as a chartered accountant after attending university, before joining US asset manager Fidelity in Boston where he was a portfolio manager for almost a decade. He returned to South Africa to found his eponymous investment firm in 1973. 

Speaking to Fin24 on Monday, Sandy McGregor, a portfolio manager at Allan Gray and friend of its founder, said that Gray introduced value investing to South Africa. (Value investing focuses on finding underestimated shares that trade for less than the company is really worth.) McGregor became friends with Gray in 1983, and joined his investment management company in 1991.

McGregor said that Gray had a knack for spotting what was important in an investment. "He would choose the one thing that was important in making an investment… He would identify what was significant," he said. "We would have a discussion about a company and he would come and say, 'these are the things you should think about'. That was what he was good at - picking up on the important things."

"What he brought to South Africa, was a focus at looking at companies, rather than the environment that they worked in …His focus would be on the assets that he was buying."

Gray was one of the great disruptors in investment space. "He was always asking questions, questioning everything," McGregor recalled. 

When Gray started, value investing was in its infancy. Now many people are doing it, McGregor said. 

"Many people learnt from him. He had quite a big effect on the industry." Gray's influence was "tremendous," and long after he left South Africa his thinking was entrenched in the organisation.

One of the leaders in the industry who learnt from Gray was PSG Asset Management CEO Anet Ahern, who started her career at Allan Gray in the 1980s.

She told Fin24 that she learnt about punctuality and professionalism from Gray.

"If you were late for the morning meeting you didn't go in - even if your name was Allan," she said. "He also had a habit of quietly chuckling when he was 'right for the wrong reason' as is often the case in stock picking, and he was also honest and frank  about not always getting it right."

She also remembers Gray as a teacher. "He was generous with his learnings and produced taped recordings of lessons on value investing which the staff applied to their personal portfolios." 

Passionate about education

McGregor said that Gray had always intended to give away his money. 

"When I first met him, he had already been talking about giving all his money away and long before he earned it. It has always been an agenda of his to do this," McGregor said. In recent years, he transferred his holding in Allan Gray to the Allan & Gill Gray Foundation. The foundation was founded by Gray and his wife in 1979. 

Then in 2005, Gray gave more than R1bn to start the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation, which awards scholarships to some of SA's top schools - including Parktown Girls’ High School, Michaelhouse, Bishops Diocesan College and St Cyprian’s High School - as well as university bursaries. 

Gray himself was a beneficiary of a good education, which made it natural for him to focus on the education system by starting the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation, McGregor said. "He was a great believer of education." Gray had graduated from both Rhodes University and Harvard, with an MBA.

According to the Allan Gray Orbis website, there are 325 graduated fellows. Scholarships are awarded to pupils as early as grade 7. 

On Monday, many beneficiaries of Allan Gray's philanthropic ventures responded to the founder's death on Twitter, sharing how their lives were changed: 

allan gray  |  business  |  investment
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