Playing the Right Notes

Renee Arnold left the symphony for a job in investments, and she found her way to the top of the Canadian arm of Aberdeen Asset Management, a fast-growing financial manager

“Success is about the journey as much as the destination, but the biggest thing when it comes to building your team is to realize that it’s key to surround yourself with great people.” Renee Arnold, Head of Business Development Canada
Photos by Samantha Simmons

You might not guess, stepping into her office, that Renee Arnold once shared the stage with Pavarotti as an accomplished flautist. It’s this very background, though, begun at Julliard’s School of Music, that might have actually sparked her talent for investments. After all, researchers have argued that musicians seem to connect the harmony of music to the symmetry of mathematics, and Mozart, some say, even scribbled equations while composing and used Fibonacci sequences in some sonatas.

Arnold is now the head of business development in Canada for Aberdeen Asset Management PLC, charged with growing the investment manager’s operations from British Columbia to Nova Scotia. And regardless of what led her there, she has proven herself a talented financial leader. Under her guidance, the company’s Canadian office has become one of the nation’s fastest-growing investment groups, managing more than C$13.6 billion for its clients. (Aberdeen manages C$340.7 billion for clients worldwide.) Here, in her own words, Arnold explains how she did it.

“I have a unique background for this work, to be sure. I travelled the world playing in different orchestras, which was a labour of love. Compensation was usually meager, so I took a job with an investment firm prior to performing in Italy. When I came back, they offered me a secretarial position. That was 30 years ago. Being a musician, I liked numbers and was comfortable performing in front of audiences, which easily translates to speaking in front of executives and board members. So I eventually grew into other roles.

I’ve grown over three decades in the industry, but it’s felt like a natural process. I started with Kemper, which became Kemper-Murray Johnstone (MJI), which Aberdeen bought 14 years ago, and I stayed through the transitions. Our Canadian assets topped $1 billion in 2008. The next year, we had 44 accounts and $4 billion in assets, so it was time to open a Toronto office, which we did. Since 2009, we’ve grown to have more than 100 accounts and $13.6 billion in assets.


“I’m actually not as active as a musician as I would like to be, but I may move back onto the stage some day. Right now, I’m involved with several charitable organizations that are important to me. One, NewDay, is based in Cape Town and provides assistance to organizations that address injustice across Africa. I’m also on the board of Another Chance Outreach Center, which provides options, resources, and solutions to women in distressed situations.”

Growth is always triggered by various components. The company has to have a history of integrity and offer products that are attractive to the market at the right time. It also needs a proven history with consistency of process as well as good performance and quality client service. Aberdeen was already known through the exposure we had with MJI, and that gave us entry into the Canadian market. When Aberdeen purchased the company in 2000, I came along with the deal, so we were lucky to have had existing relationships.

Since both were Scottish companies, the transition wasn’t difficult from a cultural perspective. However, MJI was a top-down organization while Aberdeen is bottom-up, so they had different investment styles. After the mechanics of the acquisition were complete, we adopted the equity process that was set in place in Asia by our managing director, Hugh Young, in the late 1980s. It’s basically fundamental stock selection, conducting our own rigorous internal research and making sure the companies pass our dual hurdles of quality and price. We’ll look at macro views, but our focus is really on the actual quality of companies. We rolled out that strategy across the firm in 2003, so we now have over an 11-year record.

We gained small amounts of assets initially, but we knew it was an introductory period. I spent a tremendous amount of time in the major cities meeting with the pension and consultant communities, developing initial relationships to determine our target market. It takes time and lots of patience. After our products passed the three- and four-year marks, our visibility heightened in databases, more clients considered us, and we began winning mandates at a very high ratio.

Today, we are the subadvisor to some of the largest Canadian financial institutions, and we also have a broad mix of universities, foundations, unions, and pensions.

It’s been quite the adventure. Success is about the journey as much as the destination, but the biggest thing when it comes to building your team is to realize that it’s key to surround yourself with great people, especially if they are more talented than you. I’m conscious to take every opportunity to engage the staff at all different levels and rarely make independent calls without consensus. You need the right people, and a good combination of skills brings an energetic spirit to the office. Everyone here has different functions, but each position is equally important.

“Success is about the journey as much as the destination, but the biggest thing when it comes to building your team is to realize that it’s key to surround yourself with great people.” —Renee Arnold, Head of Business Development Canada

“Success is about the journey as much as the destination, but the biggest thing when it comes to building your team is to realize that it’s key to surround yourself with great people.” —Renee Arnold, Head of Business Development Canada

Globally, Aberdeen employs over 2,000 people in 33 offices worldwide; our Toronto office, which has seven people, is predominantly client service, although we do have a Canadian bond portfolio manager based here. Our office is small, but we utilize our Philadelphia-based client-servicing, data, legal, and compliance teams. That frees me and my colleagues up to travel and dedicate ourselves to client servicing.

That’s important because it gives us the chance to continue building deep relationships with our clients. I don’t have to get bogged down in reports and custodial issues. I can get right on the ground and spend time with clients and consultants. Now we’re offering various bond products and alternative investments, including indirect property funds created specifically for Canadian investors who want a global exposure or for plans who are looking to diversify their existing Canadian property exposure.

As we look to continue our growth in the coming years, allegiance to our existing client base is key, and we have very long-standing relationships, many with multiple mandates. Client retention has always been more important than gaining new clients. We know our reputation will lead us into new relationships; we aim to provide consistent quality of service and will continue to be sensitive to market needs.”



Job title
Head of business development Canada

Asset management

Years in the business

Where did you start your career?
I started with Kemper Financial Services, which became Kemper-Murray Johnstone International in the late 1980s.

Describe yourself in three words
Passionate, strategist, driven. I love entering into difficult situations and formulating resolutions.

Advice to those just starting in finance
I started out as a lone ranger in some ways and found over time that relationships are paramount. This is not a mechanical industry; there are many fine managers in the market today, and you have to remember that people have a choice.