The Sterling strategy for investor confidence
As Jamaica entered the 21st century reeling from the financial crisis of the 1990s, Charles Ross, Winston Hepburn, and Wallace Nelson identified a gap in the local market for sound long-term fixed-income investments.
The three friends, who shared an interest in investing, joined forces to create Sterling Asset Management Limited (Sterling) in September 2000 and began operating in March 2001 as a licensed securities dealer, aiming to provide a secure investment environment following the economic turmoil that led to the disappearance of 10 Jamaican financial institutions and significant losses for investors.
“The business started very small,” related Ross, who, in addition to being one of the founding directors, also serves as the company’s president and CEO. “Winston’s fiancé at the time, Mildred Moss, was working in the financial sector and she and I became the first full-time employees of Sterling. We set up office at 24 Trafalgar Road and at the end of our first year of operation we had four full-time employees and one person who worked for us part-time. At that time our assets under management totalled about $263 million.”
Ross co-founded Sterling in the mid-stage of his career at around 45 years old. He had spent nine years at Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica (PSOJ) and was working as a consultant. Motivated by the desire to invest his savings for his children’s education and future pension, Ross decided to start the company.
“Today, 21 years later, we have 23 employees and over $60 billion in assets under management,” the CEO disclosed. “We have a relatively small client base of less than 2000 persons, who are highly educated, very discerning, and who invest significant sums with us.”
Sterling promotes itself as a provider of “bespoke investment management”, meaning it offers highly personalised and customised services to each client. This involves tailoring investment strategies and selecting securities based on the individual client’s risk appetite and specific investment objectives. The aim is to create a unique and tailored investment portfolio that aligns with the client’s financial goals.
“We also have a very specific focus, which is on providing high-risk adjusted returns on medium to long-term fixed income investments,” Ross said. “These investments are usually denominated in US dollars and are found mostly in the international capital markets.”
Sterling’s investment instruments, products, and services revolve around global US-dollar bonds, mutual funds, and personalised investment planning. Ross puts a lot of emphasis on the personal aspect of the business, which distinguishes it in the market.
“We also differ from our competitors in the level of service that we provide and the quality of the advice that we give to them,” he insisted. “We are also accessible to our clients. Our phones are always answered by a person, and Elisa, who manages our office and mans the front desk, knows most of our clients by name. Our team is made up of highly educated professionals and clients have access to not only their account executives, or personal financial planners, but also to the traders or the CEO if that will help them with making their investment decisions.”
This tailored approach to investing coupled with products that provide a certain level of security is what has spurred Sterling’s growth over the years, according to Ross.
“Many of our clients are over 50 and are either in retirement or saving and investing towards retirement,” the CEO revealed. “Preservation of principal and secure steady income are priorities for them, and these are important facets of the products that we offer.”
“The other thing, too, is that there’s a strong correlation between people’s age and their wealth,” he pointed out. “So that you find that older people have more money to invest and to do other things. And so we really found a very, very fertile market among the client base that we developed.”
The company leverages technology to extensively research market information through its three Bloomberg terminals, which Ross describes as “a very important source of information on the current state of international markets and direction in which they may be moving”.
The terminals cover global stocks and bonds, offering details such as credit ratings, financial history, and economic statistics for many countries. The CEO explained that while the subscription is costly, the terminals enable real-time information access, research on securities, and analysis, allowing exploration of less-covered market areas that may offer value. Additionally, they serve as a communication tool with brokers for obtaining optimal pricing on securities for clients.
The strength of Sterling’s business strategy has resulted in a number of milestones and accomplishments over the years for which Ross has expressed satisfaction and pride.
Surviving and navigating through market upheavals, including the 2008-2009 financial crisis, the European market upheaval in 2012-2013, and the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, stand out as significant achievements.
“We’ve actually had our best years since the COVID-19 pandemic,” Ross disclosed. “So I guess one of the things that we really have to be thankful for is that we have come through and come out of a number of crises much stronger than we went in. And, in fact, done much better in terms of profitability and business generally coming out of those crises.”
The CEO also noted achievements, including the inception of Sterling’s mutual fund and introduction of US government agency range notes to the local market in 2003 as well as expanding the market for direct securities investment, challenging the dominance of repos, and offering clients more direct access to securities, a departure from industry norms.
And there was an additional accomplishment at a more personal level.
“Another big milestone really, in terms of the evolution of the company, was for me in 2009/2010 when I bought out the other shareholders,” Ross said. “Again, it was a very trying time, but I was confident that we could continue and do well. They were more passive investors and I was able to buy them out. They made a good return and the company has done extremely well since then and continues to do very well.”
Beyond the scope of its business, Sterling has engaged in corporate social responsibility activities focused mainly on education by providing financial support to schools and to young people directly.
“I’m a firm believer in the fact that education really is the key to social advancement,” Ross declared. “And I’m very disappointed that our education system hasn’t yet evolved to the point where any bright young person can go as far as their abilities allow them to. So education is something that’s near and dear to my heart. That’s something that really absorbs the majority of our corporate social responsibility activities, and most of it is really directed at individuals rather than having a big cheque-handing-over ceremony.”
“We have given university scholarships to several students from the Maxfield Park Children’s Home and helped several others with bursaries to cover books and tuition,” he informed. “I am an Old Boy of Calabar High School, and we have supported many activities at the school over the years. Marian [Ross’s daughter] is a past student of Immaculate and we have also supported activities at that school.”
Looking forward to the next five to seven years, the CEO is anticipating the company more than doubling its assets under management and getting a much larger share of its business from other markets in the Caribbean region.
“We intend to basically continue doing what we’ve been doing, hopefully doing it even better,” Ross said. “Maybe a slightly broader product offering, but still very much focused on investing for the medium to long term, with a good risk-adjusted return.”