Laura Foll interview: a top pharma stock, and a dose of Adam Kay

The fund manager names her best investment, her biggest money weakness, and recalls a junior doctor turned wedding singer.

Laura Foll is a fund manager at Janus Henderson. After a degree at the London School of Economics, she joined Henderson in 2009 as part of the graduate scheme and now co-manages Janus Henderson UK Equity Income & Growth, Lowland Investment Company, and Henderson Opportunities Trust. Laura is a regular guest on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme and BBC News.

Growing up, what did you learn about money?

My Dad was very good with spreadsheets, particularly a budget spreadsheet. Every single item was budgeted for and the biggest lesson I learned was to live within your means. I haven’t inherited his skill for budgeting for every single thing but it has taught me the importance of having a budget so that you can save, and have a buffer in case you run into difficulty.

There was no formal financial education at the school I attended in Reading, although we were taught how to sign a cheque. The lack of financial education in schools is a bit of a bugbear of mine. Janus Henderson works with a charity called RedSTART and school pupils come into our office and, depending on their age, we teach them about credit card debt, for example. We’re trying to help fill the gap left by a lack of financial education.

Who takes care of the money in your house?

It’s a 50:50 split between my husband and me. It’s divided along the lines of what we care about. For example, he negotiates with Sky about getting Sky Sports, although somehow I’ve ended up looking after the car insurance.

What was your first investment?

As a fund manager at Janus Henderson, the first thing that went into Lowland Investment Company on my recommendation in 2012 was pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca. It was in the doldrums and everyone thought that the company hadn’t spent enough on research and development and was focusing too much on returning cash to shareholders. Then, a new management team came in and really focused on R&D. We’ve held AstraZeneca ever since, although we’ve taken profit along the way.

What was your best investment? 

A relatively recent one for Henderson Opportunities Trust called Keystone Law. It’s quite a small company whose software system allows lawyers to work anywhere they want, including from home. Keystone take 25% of what the lawyers bill, while the lawyers take 75%. My husband was a lawyer and I got the sense that a lot of lawyers didn’t particularly like their jobs. The working culture was hard and there was a desire among a subset of lawyers to have more freedom and the transparency to know that they would receive the sum that they had billed for. Keystone floated in 2017 for about £1.60, and it’s now about £5. It’s been a good investment in a relatively short period of time.

And your worst investment?

An example from the Janus Henderson UK Equity Income & Growth fund is Cupid, a company which no longer exists. They ran dating websites, including uniformdating.com, but the business model was based on people paying to join. When Tinder and others arrived, the model was redundant.

What’s the best thing about your job?

Meeting the management of so many different companies; it’s such a privilege. Pharmaceuticals and drug development are fascinating, for example. The first company that I covered was a salmon farming firm, and I remember learning lots of related facts about fish, which confused my friends who thought I’d gone to work in finance.

And the worst?

When things go wrong. It’s quite rare in other jobs, after you have put in a lot of effort and hard work, to be hit by something that you couldn’t have seen coming. It can be both frustrating and disheartening. 

If you could change only one thing about the industry you work in, what would it be?

How inaccessible we make ourselves as an industry. We are shooting ourselves in the foot and distancing ourselves from the public by using too many acronyms. When I first began working in the industry, I kept a little book of acronyms with definitions. For an ordinary, time-pressed person trying to work out which fund to buy, I expect all the jargon puts them off.

If you had to save money, what could you do without?

Buying nice clothes for my two-year-old daughter. I think that buying things for your children is a weakness that many parents can relate to.

What financial advice would you give your younger self?

Because I was taught to be very cautious while I was growing up, I didn’t start investing in equities for myself until my mid-twenties. Before that I had everything in cash.

What do you do for fun?

I relax by walking my Labradoodle, and I have two sisters who also live in London who I get to see often. I’m lucky in that a lot of school friends have moved to London over the years, and I enjoy socialising with them.

In another life I would be a…

Doctor. I studied science A-levels and economics, so I could have gone down this route. However, I have a friend who is still doing her training, and while medicine is an incredibly worthwhile career, you get moved all around the country, so have very little stability in terms of where you are living, plus there’s all those night shifts. This is all covered in the book by former NHS doctor and comedian Adam Kay, This Is Going to Hurt. Before he wrote his book, Adam, who is a family friend, sang at my wedding. His amusing but cheeky songs raised some eyebrows among a few guests.

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