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August 11, 2011updated 10 Jan 2016 3:29pm

The Only Way is London

By Spear's

Even a dapper globe-trotting museum-board-sitting financier has to find a place to settle, and Robert Tomei tells William Cash why he has chosen London
WHEN I MEET with Robert Tomei on the opening day of Masterpiece, London’s newest and most dynamic art and collecting fair, it’s obvious that from the moment he sits down on a cream, high-backed designer sofa, surrounded by contemporary art worth millions, that Tomei is very much at home. If Masterpiece were to put together a profile of their ideal high-net-worth international collector — a man who is as interested in a vintage Maserati as a Modigliani — then they could not have come up with a better example than the suave Tomei.

With brilliant white teeth, glinting Berluti shoes, slicked-back dark hair, slightly stubbled Clooney-esque beard, and a mauve polka-dot silk handkerchief protruding — just so — from his hand-stitched breast pocket, Tomei, 44, looks like the sort of sophisticated European guest that you’d expect at all the best fairs.

As Tomei walks in there is something of the Wall Street star performer about him. Robert is a talker, a contrarian investor, a man who takes big bets with very important people’s money. In May 2009, in the middle of the financial crisis, when most investors were almost too afraid to get out of bed and step into their New & Lingwood crested slippers to turn on the TV to see how the markets were doing, Tomei had no hesitation on going live on CNBC and pronouncing: ‘Regardless of how difficult the markets are today, the opportunities (for investment) are absolutely extraordinary, perhaps unprecedented.’

Today, not only does Tomei sit on top of over €1 billion AuM as the founder of one of Europe’s top fund of funds businesses but he also sits on, or has sat on, more international art museum boards than most collectors even know exist (ranging from the Peggy Guggenheim Foundation to MOMA).

Tomei is on a roll. Advanced Capital was recently ranked second globally out of 134 funds in Prequin’s private equity annual performance analysis. Earlier this year, Tomei relocated Advanced Capital to London from Milan — a city he describes without much nostalgia as ‘relatively provincial’ — and in February he announced a €50 million seed partnership with IMQubator, an award-winning hedge fund incubator investor fund, led by Mark Devonshire, former head of Merrill Lynch’s Hong Kong and London Principal Credit Group. This mCapital fund will be a special situations fund continuing to do what Tomei has always done best: seek out alpha returns by offering a niche investment strategy that looks at investment opportunities from distressed assets or debt.

‘I feel at home everywhere and nowhere,’ adds Tomei. ‘I normally give a dinner at the Venice Biennale or at Basel. This year at Venice, I had the pleasure and the privilege of having dinner at the Cipriani with Francois Pinault and his wife, and Steve Schwarzman and his wife, following the opening night party at his museum. Meeting Pinault it was very clear why he’s so successful, he’s very clear, very observant, asks a lot of questions rather than answering them. I think he’s inspiring as a leader, as a creator, thinking, “What makes this guy tick?” To have that kind of drive, that attention to detail, that constant unsatisfied curiosity. That is something I truly admire.’

Like many of the other alpha players of the financial world, however, London is the city where he needs to be to take Advanced Capital to the next level.
THE EVENING BEFORE I had seen Arki Busson walking around the Masterpiece stands with Uma Thurman. Busson, of course, became one of the early kings of the hedge fund industry, being smart enough to get into the ‘funds of funds’ side of the business at a time — during the Nineties — before the hedge fund industry became over-cooked with new start ups and when everybody was scrambling around looking for the best managers to invest with.

In a way, Robert Tomei followed a similar course, nearly a decade later. Instead of hedge funds, the great opportunity Tomei saw was in investing heavily — including money of some of Italy’s best known and most influential industrial and entrepreneurial families, from Silvio Berlusconi himself to the Benetton family — in the fund of funds side of the global private equity business. ‘I like to go to places where other managers aren’t going,’ says Tomei. He gives the example of how there remains a certain ‘reluctance’ from many investors to buy into US debt. ‘But I see real opportunities in distressed debt — real estate with AAA tenants — giving very solid returns.’

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Tomei was brought up in both Lugano, Switzerland, and in New York where his father ran a high end import-export business for luxury foods, champagne and wines. So an acute understanding of what the wealthy really want, and how to provide them with that quality of service, was always with Tomei. He was a strong maths student at St Bonaventure University — a Franciscan college — in the US before going on to do graduate work at both Yale and Columbia. But his taste for finance and his appetite for the markets outweighed his patience for a PhD.

As he was dragged around as a boy to hotels where his father provided the food and caviar for exclusive parties, Tomei said to himself: ‘One day I want to be giving the party.’ Although he did well at Columbia, he knew he was never going to get rich from becoming an academic studying maths and logic. ‘I wasn’t in love with the whole world of academia, so I decided to defect to Wall Street.’

His career break came when he worked in the wealth management side at Merrill Lynch and started to focus on alternative investments. This was in 1994-5. Although most ambitious financiers focused on investment banking, Tomei was smart enough to see that working with ultra high net worth families, and forging personal relationships with those families — especially Italian families with whom he had a unique rapport and understanding — was a more interesting career path.

Tomei set up his own investment fund having climbed the corporate ladder at Merrill Lynch as an adviser on alternative investments and private placements. By his own admission, he was not a corporate sort of guy. It was only a matter of when, not if, he would start his own shop. Today Advanced Capital has about 40 employees. Several come from McKinsey as one of Tomei’s founding shareholders was head of McKinsey in Italy. The business has evolved from ‘fund of funds’ of private equity and real estate into taking large stakes and buying up single managers.

‘There’s a diaspora of talent coming out of investment banks and setting up their own franchise in certain sectors that we are finding very interesting like the distressed debt sector, technology growth sectors, energy sectors and now we’re working on a media fund. To cut a long story short, our business model is evolving from multi-manager to single manager and that is another reason why we are now in London.’ If people like Tomei are moving to London, it can only mean good things for the capital.
Photograph by Joakim Blockström

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