Ainun Ayub, Product Head for Brown Brothers Harriman’s Alternative Fund Services in Europe and Asia talks to Lynn Strongin Dodds about alternatives, achievements and aspirations.
Breaking down barriers has been a theme of Ainun Ayub’s working and personal life. She has not only had to navigate through different cultural divides but also create holistic solutions that combine asset classes at different ends of the liquidity spectrum.
Ainun’s remit as Product Head for Brown Brother Harriman’s Alternative Fund Services in Europe and Asia, is for product strategy and management for services to alternative funds. This ranges from highly illiquid real assets, private equity and private debt investments to the more liquid syndicated loans, hedge fund and alternative funds, in open-ended, closed-ended or hybrid fund wrappers, or global portfolios of direct and indirect fund investments.
Alternatives have become much more popular in recent years as interest rates remain at stubbornly low or negative levels in many countries. In fact, figures from Russell Investments show that capital allocated to private markets has tripled since the global financial crisis from $2.5tn to $7.7tn today. In the post pandemic world, central banks are unlikely to change direction any time soon which means asset managers will need to look in every investment corner for yield.
“There has definitely been a change of mindset and there has been a real convergence between private and public markets,” says Ainun, who works closely with clients to optimise data and operating platforms for a combined portfolio as well as for the more illiquid asset classes. “In the past private markets were a small part of an investor’s portfolio but that is not the case and they can account for up to 20% today. Our clients are at varying stages of evolution with some much farther along than others.”
Ainun joined BBH in 2016 as Vice President, Alternative Fund Services which was a regional role that was broadened to a global position a year later. She was tasked with product strategy and solutions design for alternatives such as private debt, private equity, real estate and hedge funds, for various fund types and key fund domiciles including Luxembourg, Dublin, Cayman and Delaware.
One of Ainun’s first jobs, however, was to converge private and public asset classes under one roof and offering. Instead of going straight to the drawing board though, she went on a fact-finding mission to investigate “what alternatives were to BBH and what BBH was to the market,” she says. “I conducted research into what the firm did and although there was a great deal of understanding and knowledge, the private assets were in standalone silos and I realised that my frontline client-facing colleagues needed more education on these asset classes.”
She spread the word by employing the scaffolding technique, which is typically used in a classroom setting. In effect, the teacher systematically builds on students’ experiences and knowledge as they are learning new skills. Just like a scaffold the supports are temporary and adjustable, and they are gradually removed once a student masters the learning assignment. “It focuses on using what a person knows and builds from there,” she says, adding that this helped the sales force not only have a deeper understanding of what alternatives were but also insights and potential solutions their clients required.
Unsurprisingly, asset managers across the size spectrum are under cost pressure and face the same challenges accessing the data, which can be difficult to unearth in the private sphere. “In the traditional markets, there is a lot of standardisation, but the private markets are about 20 years behind,” says Ainun. “There is a great deal of unstructured communication so even the larger firms cannot easily lift the tools they would use from the public markets and drop them in. What firms want is to have greater oversight of both private and public assets as well as solutions across one ecosystem.”
Ainun credits her background in corporate finance for laying a strong foundation for her current role. “If you don’t understand how companies work, you will not understand how asset managers operate and therefore will not be able to create the right products and services to help them.”
Ainun started her career as an assistant manager, corporate banking at the Asian International Merchant Bankers in Malaysia where she worked in small teams raising direct and syndicated loans as well as private debt securities for project finance and working capital. She then went onto RHB Sakura Merchant Bankers Berhad and again was a part of small teams focusing on debt and equity raising exercises, mergers & acquisitions and debt restructurings for a range of mid-sized companies and conglomerates in manufacturing, construction and utilities. She also worked with these companies through the tail end of mid-90’s boom to the 1997-1999 Asian currency crisis.
After moving back to London in 2001, she worked for buyside firms such as Fortune Asset Management as well as several multi-national banks including State Street and JP Morgan where she serviced a range of multi-jurisdictional private equity, real estate, infrastructure, and mezzanine funds as well as investor portfolios in private investments and hedge fund platforms.
However, despite her 20 year plus career in financial services, the sector was not the intended career path. “I really had no clue what I wanted to do as a teenager,” says Ainun who was born in Clapham, in South West London, and then moved to Malaysia with her family. “I went to the London School of Economics as an undergraduate, where the motto is ‘To know the reasons and causes’ and being in the City of London sparked my interest in financial services. Now I’m really enjoying my role in global product strategy and design, which blends my creative side with my technical and business mind.”
The path was not always easy and there have been challenges. “I am half Malay and half Chinese, and I am a high achiever and although people have so many different ways to be mean I have learnt that it is up to me to create the right environment for myself and others that is fair and inclusive,” says Ainun.
She notes that BBH which has a “fairly flat organisational structure” proactively promotes diversity and inclusion through formal and informal training, events, conversations and networks. “There is already a move in the industry to promote more women, people of colour and the fact that we are seeing more diverse faces on Zoom has helped increase the momentum,” she says. “We are also seeing more networks across the banking sector – women, black, Asian and disabilities – which will also help considerably.”
However, as she adds, “There is always more to do in the industry, but I think we are on the right trajectory and that events in the US such as Black Lives Matter had a profound impact on organisations across the board. However, it is one thing to talk about diversity and inclusion and yet another to push against long held beliefs and create new models that outweigh the old ones.”
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