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Sparinvest CIO lands in new context after serving several months

Swedish Thomas Gunnarsson has worked most of his career in Denmark. Just a few months after stepping into Sparinvest as CIO, Nykredit is going to acquire the asset management firm. To Thomas Gunnarsson, the consequence of this new context is a strong focus on management and stability in addition to business as usual.

Photo: PR/Sparinvest/Jeanne Kornum

Almost five months have passed since Thomas Gunnarsson moved into his office at Sparinvest, where one wall featuring a large map of Denmark.

This is used to quiz visitors, he explains, and asks the FinansWatch journalist to locate the most important Sparinvest customers in the country. Unlike practically all other Danish financial sector entities, these are not found in the cities.

With some assistance, FinansWatch passes the test, just as Thomas Gunnarsson admits that the map also serves the purpose of making him more familiar with the country. As revealed by his surname, Sparinvest's new head of investment is Swedish.

Gunnarsson currently lives in Trelleborg, Sweden, he has but nevertheless worked most of his career in Denmark. In November, he walked through the door for his first day at work with Sparinvest, and our interview with the new investment haed was scheduled so he would have time to settle in his position. But in only four months, the forward-looking picture radically changed, as Nykredit made an offer on March 1 to acquire a 75 percent stake in Sparinvest from the group of owners, which at the time included 49 financial institutions and seven Danish insurance and pension companies.

"It is a new situation. In a normal context, investment is mostly about daily operations and long-term methodical efforts to reach established visions and targets. But right now, management, new perspectives and stability are particularly high on the agenda," says Gunnarsson, referring to the fact that the acquisition is currently awaiting an ongoing due diligence process and approvals from authorities.

Nykredit is the new owner

As Chief Investment Officer, Gunnarsson is responsible of Sparinvest's investment department, employing 30 personnel constituting five investment teams and one investment strategist.

"The most important thing is to have a perspective for the future -- and logic -- and these will certainly be present when we combine Sparinvest and Nykredit. Our customers buy into our investment teams, and this is particularly relevant for institutional clients," says Gunnarsson, adding:

"They are mainly concerned with the stability of our teams, and a buyer such as Nykredit is well aware of this aspect."

Traditionally, Sparinvest is a company with a very low employee turnaround, which means several investment teams have worked together for many years. This is especially true for their Value Equity team, managed by Chief Portfolio Manager Jens Moestrup Rasmussen since the beginning, but the pattern is seen in other teams, too.

"Job satisfaction and taking pride in your work and company mean a lot. Creating a positive culture, making it a good place to work. Because all investment teams will go through hard times with financial markets dropping, and these are the times that stable teams are particularly important," he says.

Business as usual

It was never his ambition to change things so shortly after joining the company.

"When I first began to work at Sparinvest, I knew the teams and processes were in place and that people before me had done a good job. It wasn’t my job to come in and start a revolution," Gunnarsson tells.

He took over from Sparinvest CEO Jørgen Søgaard-Andersen, who was appointed in September following Per Noesgaard's resignation from a tenure of many years.

"I have worked with Jørgen in the past, so we share our view on how an investment department should work. I am thus not bringing anything groundbreaking to the organization -- my job is to keep up the good work," says Thomas Gunnarsson.

"There is no crisis, things work well, and the investment processes are in place. It is about working together to identify the low-hanging fruits in order to keep getting better. Investment is a process that needs constant refinement. You are never going to be done," he adds.

ATP provided entry job in Denmark

Søgaard-Andersen and Gunnarsson know each other from ATP Alpha, which was the ambitious bet launched by the Danish pension fund, with an objective to boost domestic pensions by creating a high risk-adjusted return on investments.

Gunnarsson began at ATP in 2004 serving as portfolio manager, and this was where his Danish career started.

With a degree in economics from Stockholm School of Economics, Gunnarsson went to London in 1994 and worked for three years at consultancy firm L.E.K. Back in Stockholm, and he began to analyze corporate enterprises for Swedish listed investment company Industrivärden, which, as an active investor, had begun to look towards publicly traded companies in Denmark and other markets for significant shares.

His years with Industrivärden not only familiarized Gunnarsson with Danish companies. This was also, in his own words, where he was trained from scratch to master his profession, both in terms of analysis, trade, derivatives and as a portfolio manager. When he left Industrivärden in 2003, he was a portfolio manager and head of trade.

At ATP, he was portfolio manager and trader in tactical assets allocations, which at the time was all about adjusting the general division between equities and bonds.

The dream of going solo

But already in 2005/2006, a new initiative saw the light of day as the fund director at the time, Bjarne Graven Larsen, split investments in alpha and beta, and Thomas Gunnarsson became part of ATP Alpha.

Shortly after in 2007, Søgaard-Andersen was brought in, and the two got to know each other and worked together until 2012. The ATP Alpha project was killed off, just before ATP CEO Lars Rohde, left and went to Denmark's central bank

"ATP Alpha was a success. But when it was decided by ATP to re-integrate Alpha and Beta, it was time to do something new," says Gunnarsson.

Prior to the closure of ATP Alpha, critical voices had been raised in the media regarding the department’s returns and costs, but this was rejected by ATP.

However, Gunnarsson had a hard time letting go of the ambitions to create something extraordinary, and, in a partnership with former colleagues from ATP Alpha, he went for his dream to build an independent asset management firm. They managed to get some investment undertakings, but not enough to get the business going.

"We did not get sufficient assets for us to manage. The entry barriers to set up a new asset management company for the institutional market are very high. But at least we tried," Gunnarsson concludes.

However, for a number of former ATP Alpha employees, the dream has re-emerged. Last week, former funds director at ATP, Graven Larsen, announced that he and eight others founded asset management company Qblue Capital. Several co-founders have a background in ATP Alpha, and just like the past project, Qblue Capital aims to achieve an absolute return, regardless of the highs and lows of the stock market.

A coffeehouse in Malmö

Back in 2015, Gunnarsson was the founder of an entirely different type of business, the Malmö-based coffeehouse "In the Pink" in collaboration with his wife and another family. But even before the big opening, another job offer came through. Once again, Gunnarsson had a job on Danish soil, this time as head of finance at Bankinvest.

However, this summer Bankinvest decided to make a number of organizational changes which resulted in an exit for Gunnarsson.

Just a few months later, Gunnarsson was sought out by their competitor Sparinvest, and he could take over as head of investment from Søgaard-Andersen, who was appointed new CEO of Sparinvest in August.

Although Gunnarsson decided against the Swedish coffee project right on the finish line, "In the Pink" became a reality and is now run by his wife. After three years of business, In the Pink, which in English describes a healthy-looking person, is looking to set up coffeehouses in Copenhagen and Stockholm, as well as an additional one in Malmö.

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