Danny Truell obituary

Friday, 1 November 2019

Chief investment officer at the Wellcome Trust who jousted with Boris at Oxford and raised £16 billion for biomedical research
Article from The Times
t the age of 16 Danny Truell was a communist. Whether he, the future managing director of Goldman Sachs, co-founder of a £42 billion insurance company and chief investment oEcer of the Wellcome Trust, was a Trotskyist or a Maoist, Truell could not decide,but a communist he most definitely was.
Most likely it was a rebellion against his circumstances: coming from an army family, studying at an expensive private school and clearly on his way to Oxford to do great things. Truell remained a contrarian; he loved nothing more than an argument and knew that this would cause one.
Yet, rebellion or not, the youthful idealism took root. He would make vast amounts of money as an investor, but always with an eye to putting that money to charitable use, either with Wellcome or his own foundations.
The son of George, an artillery oEcer, and Mary (née Fosbroke- Hobbes), a teacher, Daniel Fosbroke Truell was born in Malacca, Malaysia, in 1963. His father was fighting in Borneo against Indonesian insurgents at the time and a day or so after the birth George got leave to meet his son. He was shocked to see that the baby
had no identifying tag. “How do we know this is the right baby?” George asked. The laughing midwife told him that Daniel was the only white baby in the hospital.
His childhood was peripatetic, as were those of many military families. The family — elder brother Edmund and younger sister Sophie — moved later to Germany, then back to England. Danny and Edi would play board games, but improve them. The pair enjoyed an adapted Monopoly with international properties, trading in marks and francs as well as sterling.
He was educated at Lambrook School near Ascot and won a scholarship to Wellington College. He was games-mad, cricket andrugby, especially, but was a tiny boy, just 4ft 6in when he joined the school at 13. Soon he decided that being crushed to a fine powder beneath a tonne of opposition forward was not much fun, and he took up bridge and chess, at which he excelled. Danny and Edi won a Bucks-Berks-Oxon schools’ bridge tournament together. He also started a lifelong hobby of stamp collecting, showing particular interest in wartime Chinese stamps, issued by the various nationalist or communist-controlled provinces. Foreshadowing his later career, he was remarkably good at predicting which would be valuable.
From Wellington he went to Oxford, reading PPE at Balliol. He was a contemporary at the college of Boris Johnson and frequently faced him in debates, his combative leftism against Johnson’s old Tory/Social Democrat shapeshifting.
He left Oxford during the miners’ strike and, out of solidarity with the miners, he joined the Coal Board. It became obvious that he was of limited use down actual mines — the burly Yorkshire miners enjoyed taunting this small, Devon-bred, Oxford-educated southerner — and the board put him in charge of its internal transport. Within a few weeks he had organised the movement of coal lorries in a more logical way, which, perhaps ironically, for a communist, allowed the board to lay od 17 drivers.
From there he joined the Coal Board’s pension fund and carved a niche for himself on the Far East desk. He then moved to Hong Kong to become the chief Asia strategist for the investment bank SG Warburg. It was there he met Naomi (née Price), a book reviewer for the South China Morning Post; they married in 1995.
The next year, as Hong Kong prepared to be handed over to theChinese, the couple returned to the UK, and Truell rejoined the Coal Board pension fund for one day before it was sold to Goldman Sachs. He was absorbed into Goldman, and it was here that his contrarianism paid its first great dividends.
In the early 2000s the dotcom bubble burst. Businesses went bust, and investors ran scared from tech. Following Keynes’s dictum that in the stock market, “when you find anyone agreeing with you, change your mind”, Truell invested heavily in technology soon after the crash, when the stocks were cheap. He made huge sums. Not long after this he was jointly in charge of global asset allocation at Goldman.
In 2005 he left Goldman and joined the Wellcome Trust, the world’s largest biomedical charity, and founded (with his brother) the Pension Insurance Corporation. PIC is now a £42 billion insurance company, but it was at Wellcome where he made the biggest waves.
He said he knew nothing about science — he once claimed not to know what a molecule was — but that did not stop him from making good investments. He always said his job was to make two or three good decisions a year, the rest was “noise”, and, at Wellcome, three decisions were key.
First, he used Wellcome’s AAA credit rating to issue bonds, borrowing money at low interest rates, trusting himself to make enough money from the capital to pay that interest comfortably and still increase the value of the fund. He did, and opened up a new source of capital.
Second, he spotted the global financial crisis of 2007-08 before most people and divested. Third, when the market was running away fromequity, he bought it cheap — echoing his contrarian dotcom decision.
Truell was enormously successful. During his time at Wellcome, the value of the fund more than doubled from about £11 billion to about £27 billion. He also allowed it to double the amount it donated a year, to more than £1 billion.
Life took a savage turn in 2011. First he and Naomi divorced, then Truell was diagnosed with a chronic neurological condition that would eventually take his life. He was not saddened, but furious about the diagnosis. His brother, quoting Dylan Thomas, would describe him as “raging against the dying of the light”. Truell continued to work, but in 2017 stepped down from Wellcome, taking an emeritus position.
He liked nothing more than an intellectual argument; the family motto is: “Often wrong, never in doubt.” He also had a sparky sense of humour; once, in the pre-euro days, a colleague saw him reading a travel magazine about the Greek islands. “Thinking of going on holiday?” the friend asked. “No,” said Truell, “the drachma is weak. I’m thinking of buying an island.”
While he enjoyed making money, most of all he enjoyed putting it to good use, funding medical research. He did not die a communist, but he remained an idealist, and a rebel, to the end.
Danny Truell, investment manager, was born on November 5, 1963. He died of a neurological condition on September 29, 2019, aged 55