Charles Firmin-Didot is not your usual number-crunching stock picker. For the London-based portfolio manager at AXA Investment Managers, who manages the whole range of AXA Talents funds, statistics are of secondary importance when buying into a company. What he really wants to know are the people behind the business, and the way they think. The funds managed by Firmin-Didot invest mainly in family-run companies. Some 1,500 such firms have been identified worldwide for inclusion in the portfolios, but only about 400 fare well in Firmin-Didot's unusual test. 'I look at the history and track record of the people behind a company. I often go and meet these people in person,' he said. He asks them questions about their childhood, their growing-up, and their views on life in general. 'What I am interested in is facts, not speeches,' he said. 'But sometimes drawing all that information out can be tricky.' But isn't judging companies by the people who run them rather than by means of traditional quantitative analysis fraught with the inherent risk of subjectivity? 'It's less subjective than most people think,' said Firmin-Didot. We all get it wrong - do people really know how many iPads will be sold and how much China's economy will grow? No one knows. I don't care about the business model. I just want to know who I can trust.' Firmin-Didot defines a good entrepreneur as someone who can demonstrate that he has the ability to transform small ideas into big businesses. 'Many people have good ideas but very few can spot and believe in them. This is a key quality for successful entrepreneurs. I believe the history of a person will tell me if he has what it takes to make it big.' Firmin-Didot recalled that one businessman who impressed him immensely was the controversial Kwok Ho, chairman of Chaoda Modern Agriculture, a Hong Kong-listed mainland vegetables producer. When Chaoda's former auditor PricewaterhouseCoopers refused to endorse its annual results in 2002, fears over the company's financial statements triggered a wave of panic selling, causing its shares to plummet. Chaoda was also pulled up by shareholders and analysts for misusing funds raised from selling convertible bonds in 2006 for operations that were allegedly not relevant to the company's core business. The company had then said it had a dispute with PricewaterhouseCoopers over fees and that it would avoid investing in areas unrelated to its core business. But even a past as rocky as that has not discouraged Firmin-Didot from adding Chaoda to his funds. The company is among the top six holdings of the AXA WF Talents Brick fund. As of April, the fund had US$126.3 million of assets under management. Chaoda constitutes 5 per cent of the holdings of the fund, available to Hong Kong investors. The fund has returned nearly 9 per cent so far this year. 'I like him [Kwok Ho] very much,' Firmin-Didot said. 'He has great vision and lots of energy. From a corporate social responsibility standpoint, he pays his farmers much more than the average. He's also well respected by the local governments.' The relationship got off to a bad start, though. When Firmin-Didot first wanted to meet him, Kwok declined despite repeated requests by the fund manager. Firmin-Didot eventually took a chance and visited one of Kwok's farms - four hours ride from Fuzhou - uninvited with an interpreter to talk to workers. The trip paid off. The same day he received a call from the company asking if he would like to meet the chairman. The meeting went so well that Kwok let Firmin-Didot take a picture of him with his dog. The photo now features in a funds brochure used for client presentations. 'I did come back from the meeting and checked a few things on the company,' he said. 'One of my ways of getting more information about an entrepreneur is to speak to other entrepreneurs.' Having managed the funds he started in 2000 before they were bought by AXA, Firmin-Didot has built an extensive network of entrepreneurs, many of whom he has come to know very well. But not all of the fund manager's encounters with entrepreneurs have been pleasant. He wouldn't name names but said that he had learnt through experience that the nicest people were often the most dangerous ones in this line of work. 'In some countries such as Japan, if you are too flashy, you could end up in jail. The system there doesn't like individuals like that. So it makes sense to keep a low profile.' Among Firmin-Didot's top picks, with 4 per cent holdings, is Softbank, Japan's largest software and systems hardware distributor firm run by Korean-Japanese businessman and keen golfer Masayoshi Son, who once told the fund manager that the biggest challenge in his life was to 'improve his handicap'. Firmin-Didot said his portfolio loaded up on Son's firm because Son demonstrated he was more interested in building a good company rather than making more profit. A good part of AXA fund holdings are in companies run by controversial individuals. He sees value in Russian aluminium producer Rusal though the Securities and Futures Commission barred retail investors from buying Rusal stocks when they listed in Hong Kong. The stock has already been added to the global version of the Talent Funds. The colourful Oleg Deripaska, the billionaire chief executive of Rusal, however, was not a decisive factor in buying this stock, said the fund manager. As long as another controversial Russian oligarch, Mikhail Prokhorov, who sold his company to Deripaska and is now a large Rusal shareholder, remains on board, the stock will stay in the portfolio, he said. Prokhorov's strong track record is the source of his confidence in Rusal, he added. However, Firmin-Didot admits that there are downsides to investing in family-run businesses since funds focused on such companies end up with more small- to mid-caps and illiquid stocks. But these, he believes, will generate better returns when compared with larger caps over the longer term. He cited research by consulting firm McKinsey that showed while family businesses were less successful during booms, the chances of these companies staying above water during periods of economic crises and of achieving healthy returns over time were higher than non-family-owned businesses.