Jeremy Coller

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CEO, Coller Capital

Jeremy Coller, CEO of Coller Capital, reckons "the secret of success is to do what you enjoy". When he left university he was adamant he didn't want to go into business, so it's strange that he now heads what he calls "a solution provider for illiquid assets".

He managed to delay that for quite some time though - until the age of 25 - having studied at three universities.

Coller took his first degree, in management sciences, at UMIST, part of the University of Manchester in the UK. His subject included accountancy, law, industrial sociology and marketing. What particularly appealed was organizational psychology and motivation - hence perhaps his mantra.

At UMIST he managed to find time to pursue informal business ventures, including selling cut-price jeans to fellow students after securing a wholesale contract with a big manufacturer.

Not all of his projects were so successful. He once proposed providing free hotel "do not disturb" signs with ads from car-hire firms such as Hertz and Avis. But he could not persuade anyone to buy the idea. That turned out to be good practice for the launch of his first fund.

After Manchester he did a masters degree in philosophy at the University of Sussex. Then he enrolled for a course in French civilization at the Sorbonne in Paris. He left a year later, having attended just three lectures.

Coller's first real job was with fund manager Target, which was sold to Morgan Grenfell five months after he joined. "I persuaded one of the fund managers to take me with him to Fidelity," says Coller. He became head of research, a post he says he felt ill qualified for and didn't much enjoy. So when the opportunity came along to join ICI as a pension fund manager, he leapt at it.

At ICI Coller pioneered the concept of secondary private equity, when most pension fund managers hadn't even considered investing in regular private-equity funds. Secondary transactions involve buying positions from limited partners in private-equity funds or assets from such funds. Coller did 10 deals, all in the US.

In 1990, when he set up his own fund, he initially planned to raise money for a private-equity fund of funds named Coller Isnard, with French investor Arnaud Isnard and with sponsorship from Baring Brothers. A year later - after the Gulf War kicked off - things were not going too well. "We had one chance to change the business plan so that's what we did," he says.

He decided to raise a fund to make secondary investments in private equity. Europe was even less interested than it had been in his fund of funds. "Lots of institutions said 'why would we want to buy other people's rubbish?'," he recalls. "We were viewed as a leech on a leech's back". The only option was to go to the US, where the big pension funds were more comfortable with the concept of secondary private equity.

As an unknown name it still took a year and a half to raise his first fund of $66 million.

Things got easier. In 1998 he raised $200 million as Coller Capital, after he and Isnard went different ways. Then in 2000 he closed the first-ever global fund of $501 million.

Today, though, there's still something of the student about Coller. He's refreshingly unpompous, grins a lot and looks far younger than 44. He also seems a bit chaotic, with phone numbers and messages scrawled on his hands.

Appearances can be deceptive. In October last year, Coller Capital closed a e2.5 billion global fund, the largest ever devoted to private-equity secondaries and the third he has raised independently. Several investors, including Baring Asset Management and the State of Michigan pension fund have taken part in all four funds.

This year looks set to be the busiest yet for Coller and his team of 20. In February, he struck a deal with BT to buy its technology incubator. He notes: "Most incubators have become incinerators". The same month his firm was one of 10 investors in a consortium that bought out DB Capital Partners, Deutsche Bank's private-equity business.

Coller still struggles with the concept of being the leech on a leech's back. "The question is: do we add value?" he ponders, then concludes: "We help to oil the wheels of liquidity." But it's difficult not to believe that he's doing it simply because he enjoys it.