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Sean O’Driscoll (Universal-Investment): Adding flexibility through technology

A year ago, Universal-Investment set its target to achieve €500bn in assets under administration by 2023, but this ambitious milestone was achieved much earlier in July of this year. Luxembourg Country Head Sean O'Driscoll says expansion plans were successfully executed last year and are now particularly focuses on the UK, Nordics and Asia.


How has Universal evolved over the past 12 months?


It has been an interesting year to say the least. Between September 2019 and January 2020 we enjoyed healthy expansion and a strong business pipeline – in Luxembourg we finished 2019 with a 35% growth in assets. Since February 2020, the environment has become much more challenging, but despite the pandemic we have demonstrated that our business model is robust, fully supported by our skilled resources and tools. Since March, we have onboarded more than €11bn in assets, boosting the total by a further 17%. The firm was agile and proved its ability to adapt to such events quickly and in my view this is largely due to our skilled resources and the ongoing efforts of constantly testing our business continuity plans (BCP). Those BCP drills and offsite testing has heightened the importance and proven to work very well. Our robust technology infrastructure allowed us to mobilise quickly in order to safeguard our people and to continue servicing our clients’ business with no interruption. We experienced a significant increase in interaction with regulators and our clients who wanted to better understand the impact of the crisis on the business.  Clients depended on Universal-Investment’s experience and expertise to support and guide them through these challenging events. Despite the pandemic situation, the product pipeline remained strong and we continued to support our clients manage the launch of new products in both the alternative and UCITS space. I expect this growth trend to continue and even increase once the pandemic is under control.

“Since March we have onboarded more than €11bn in additional assets.”

How important is technology in your growth strategy?


Technology is a major cornerstone of our strategy. We are pursuing various initiatives to continue reinforcing our operating model and to support our growth ambitions in the international market, across all asset classes. Technology is paramount in how we manage our business and how we remain in front of innovation to continue meeting our clients’ needs. Technology brings scale while mitigating risk and allows us to continue to provide our clients with new innovative services. At Universal-Investment we are fully committed and invested in innovation, with UI Labs and our internal innovation team headed by Daniel Andemeskel, we continue to make significant progress in this space, it is part of our DNA. To share two examples, we are currently rolling out our exception-based workflow management tool that will allow our teams the ability to focus on the value add rather than pure administrative work. Another exciting initiative we are working on is an AI-based solution to provide value to our clients through real time ESG sentiment data. Mid-term, our aim is to pursue all the main digital opportunities: tokenisation of assets through blockchain, big data, AI and machine learning. Not only does technology support how we manage our business, develop innovative solutions and services for our clients, it also offers more flexibility to our employees.  In the current environment up to 90% or more of our employees are working from home and operate in a business as usual environment. What we are experiencing now is shaping the work environment of the future. With mobile working and the flexibility it provides, my challenge is to find the right balance – in the end we can only succeed as a team, sharing the same culture and being able to collaborate in a positive working environment no matter where our employees are located. One recent experiment was holding  virtual team-building event. Nothing beats all being together in one room, but I hope my colleagues would agree, the virtual – online video event was an enjoyable substitute!


What goals are you working to achieve?


Last year one of our main targets was to hit the milestone of €500bn in assets by 2023, something we achieved well in advance, three years ahead of schedule in July 2020.  Another goal we set as a firm was for 25% of our assets under administration to come from our international business. In this strategy, Luxembourg plays a major role due to its cross-border capabilities, strong brand, and its experienced and multicultural workforce. Right now, our focus is on the UK, the Nordic countries and Asia. We continue to recruit top talent to support our growth ambitions, along with best in class service and operating model.  Although we are focused to continue with organic growth in our core business from both existing and new customers across core segments in existing markets, we are exploring possible acquisitions that will support our product offering and geographical expansion.  A recent example is the acquisition of CAPinside, a one stop shop digital marketing platform that introduces asset managers with investors to support fund raising. This one-of-a-kind acquisition for a large third-party administration platform is a strategic decision designed to bolster our service offering for our existing clients and international asset managers.

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