JF aims for the big league

WHEN Jardine Fleming emerges from its self-imposed exile on June 1, it will be backed by a six-month restructuring programme affecting almost every facet of its daily operation.

The unit-trust company will be out to make up for lost ground after a huge surge in business during January's bull market forced it to shut its doors to new investors, close down regular savings plans and dramatically boost minimum investment levels to block out existing clients.

The revamp carries the clear mark of new chief executive Tony Doggart. The 53-year-old former finance director at Save and Prosper, Jardine Fleming's sister unit-trust company in Britain, had just four days' notice before coming to Hong Kong.

However, according to Mr Doggart, the painful restructuring is only the beginning. In the short term, the overhaul will enable Jardine Fleming to handle with ease the more than 4,000 transactions a day that forced it to close in January. In the long term, it will elevate the company, which at the height of its popularity held a 65 per cent share of Hong Kong's mutual fund industry, into the global big league.

By June, Jardine Fleming will be able to process 5,000 transactions per day and by the end of next year, when all new administrative mechanisms have been introduced, this will rise to 10,000.

''Jardine Fleming won't just be a Hong Kong and a Far East player,'' said Mr Doggart. ''These volumes rival that of many of the large United States mutual funds.'' Jardine Fleming's controversial decision to shut out new retail clients at a time when investors were clamouring to get into the market drew plenty of criticism, along with a lot of speculation, but the company has maintained it was the only feasible course of action.

''This was not the mark of a greedy organisation,'' said Mr Doggart.

''We had to ensure that we could continue to service the needs of existing customers and did not want to accept new business that could not be processed.'' Mr Doggart's top priority is the re-instatement of regular savings plans, the funds most severely hit by the administrative breakdown.

''They [the savings plans] are the lifeblood of our savings industry and I would be disappointed if we were not able to do something about them by the end of the year,'' he said.

The savings plans, which enabled investors to make small monthly contributions, starting from US$1,000 (HK$7,720) per month, were one of Jardine's most popular products for small investors.

At the height of its administrative breakdown, Jardine Fleming temporarily raised the minimum investment for new Hong Kong clients to $100,000, while European customers faced a minimum entry point of $250,000.

Effectively, this closed down investments to all but institutions and had the desired effect of giving the company time to install new processing systems and clear up the backlog of transactions.

But when the company reopens to new investors on June 1, its minimum investment of US$10,000 for new investors and $5,000 for existing clients will be significantly greater than the $1,000 minimum for local investors of many of its rivals.

''We are very concerned that we are a long way behind our rivals but believe Jardine Fleming will be seen as a premium product and believe a significant number of retail investors will still invest with us,'' said Mr Doggart.

''In hindsight, our previous minimum was too low and in its place we need to have a sustainable limit that will keep volumes of business within reasonable bounds,'' he said.

''There's a real risk that this [the breakdown] could happen again.'' Mr Doggart claimed there would be minimum long-term damage to the group's investment reputation.

''According to provisional figures in February, we still have 49 per cent of Hong Kong's market share in unit trusts.'' ''We're more than pleased with this figure,'' he said, ''it shows that even with our door closed we can still retain about half of the market.'' THE JARDINE FLEMING SHAKE-UP Forty new staff added, some from JF's sister company in Britain, Save and Prosper.

New training programmes for existing staff. Computer systems upgraded.

Emergency back-up team to be trained in case transactions reach crisis levels again.

Blueprint drawn up for European Express Lane service to handle transactions generated by European clients, who currently make up between 15 and 20 per cent of JF's unit trust business.

Manual transactions to be completely mechanised by June. Before the shutdown, JF estimates about 60 per cent of administration services were spent on manual transactions generated by clients switching between funds.

Foreign exchange transactions, telegraphic transfer orders and other transactions streamlined and re-organised.

Specialist dealing teams with regional responsibilities set up.