Gordon Singer — Elliott’s quiet man making noise in Europe
When US hedge fund Elliott Management opened an office in London in the mid-1990s, it was seen as a pioneer of aggressive activism in a Europe unused to such tactics.
A German court ruling this week coupled with a high-profile activist campaign in France is a reminder of how far the fund has come in building its presence across the continent — from stakes in AC Milan and Pernod Ricard to involvement in the highly politicised Melrose GKN takeover in Britain.
But while Elliott globally is still controlled by billionaire Paul Singer, his son Gordon has driven the expansion in Europe over the past decade, with a range of complex, long-running and often acrimonious investments that the firm runs simultaneously.
Even in an industry known for its secrecy, 45-year-old Gordon is one of its more media-shy operators and is not well known to many of his peers.
He grew up in New Jersey and studied at Williams College in Massachusetts, developing a taste for the UK with a year-long stint at Exeter College, Oxford. After a couple of years as a trainee analyst at Lehman Brothers in New York, he joined his father’s firm in 1998, before becoming head of the London office in 2009.
According to people in the industry, he is cerebral, analytical and with a much quieter personality than his father. He is known for saying little in business meetings. “He’s a very reserved character. He doesn’t say much,” said one manager who knows him, adding he was “very smart”.
However, he clearly also has a competitive, risk-taking side. That is seen both in the trades he makes from the firm’s offices just off Oxford Street and also in his regular Saturday games of football, where he plays right-back and has a reputation for uncompromising tackles.
His interest in football and his support for Arsenal Football Club helped him get to know former Arsenal chief executive Ivan Gazidis, whom he has played football with. Mr Singer was involved in the decision to hire him as CEO of AC Milan, one of Elliott’s most high-profile investments — Elliott took control last year and Mr Singer has been closely involved, on occasions attending its matches.
Those who know the firm say a major success for Gordon has been replicating Elliott’s investing style in Europe, while allowing for the continent’s regulatory and cultural differences. Schooled by his father, he is a fan of deep fundamental research and is willing to be involved in hostile situations, even when it can generate negative publicity.
Mr Singer’s role is to oversee the firm’s trades in Europe, rather than lead any of its high-profile activism.
In recent years, this has included attempts to force miner BHP Billiton to sell its oil business and abandon its dual listing structure, backing Melrose Industries’ successful but controversial bid for British engineer GKN, taking a €1bn stake in French drinks firm Pernod Ricard last year with the goal of improving margins and corporate governance, and defeating French media group Vivendi in a battle for control of the board of Telecom Italia.
Success in a number of these situations has allowed Elliott to achieve an enviable record in the hedge fund industry — since 1977, it has lost money in only two calendar years.
The firm is also very picky about the investors it takes on, one industry veteran said. It spends time getting to know them to make sure they understand Elliott’s approach and will stay for the longer term.
This is not say it has been without setbacks.
Its legal challenge against Vodafone’s €10.7bn takeover of Germany’s largest cable operator Kabel Deutschland in 2013 was defeated this week. A Munich court ruled that Vodafone had not underpaid and that the price was “adequate”.
And there was embarrassment for Gordon himself during Elliott’s ultimately unsuccessful attempts to push Akzo Nobel, Europe’s biggest paintmaker, to engage in takeover talks with US firm PPG Industries.
In April 2017, Mr Singer accidentally copied Akzo’s director of investor relations into an email discussing Elliott’s tactics, which Akzo’s advisers claimed showed Elliott was planning on improperly forewarning PPG of its request for a shareholder meeting to remove Akzo’s chairman.
Gordon Singer and Elliott declined to comment for this article.
A music aficionado and keen guitarist and drummer, Mr Singer has set up a UK charity that offers schools in poor areas grants to buy musical instruments.
While Elliott signalled Jonathan Pollock would be successor to Paul Singer in 2015, Mr Singer Sr remains the driving force behind the firm. Whether his son can attain an equal reputation in the investing world remains to be seen.
One hedge fund investor commented: “Gordon Singer is a bright lad, but Paul Singer is the man.”