Westchester hires ex-BlackRock exec as portfolio manager

Skye Macpherson left the New York headquartered asset manager earlier this year and will focus on the Nuveen subsidiary’s proprietary research and analytics, developing new investment products and expanding its ESG investment process.

TIAA-affiliated agricultural investment manager Westchester Group has hired former BlackRock director Skye Macpherson to serve as its head of portfolio management.

The London- and Chicago-based role will see Macpherson reporting to Westchester president and chief executive Martin Davies.

Davies said in a statement that Macpherson’s extensive agribusiness experience and investment management background made her a “natural fit” for an expanded head of portfolio management role that will involve both new and existing assets.

“Macpherson will be responsible for developing proprietary research and analytics to inform Westchester’s decision-making process,” Westchester said in a statement. “She will work with Westchester leadership to develop new investment products and expand the firm’s environmental and social governance investment process.”

Westchester declined to make Macpherson available for an interview.

Macpherson spent three and a half years at BlackRock, where she served as portfolio manager for the Natural Resources Growth and Income Fund and the World Agriculture Fund (WAF). In its statement, Westchester described Macpherson’s role at BlackRock as focused on management of $2.9 billion in assets across eight strategies that included $900 million of direct agricultural exposure.

Before joining BlackRock, Macpherson spent 15 years as portfolio manager at Colonial First State Global Asset Management, including time in London and Australia.

The WAF managed by Macpherson until mid-January invested at least 70 percent of total assets in companies engaged in agriculture, agricultural chemicals, equipment and infrastructure, agricultural commodities, food, biofuels, crop sciences, farmland and forestry, according to a January prospectus. The vehicle was valued at $59.9 million as of Thursday and had achieved returns of 2.78 percent since its February 2010 launch as of February 28, according to the firm’s website.

Last month, BlackRock announced a series of changes to the vehicle that included a reduction of its management fees, an expansion of its investment policy and a re-branding of the vehicle as the “Nutrition Fund.”

“This expansion to the range of available investments is expected to lead to WAF having access to a greater range of investment opportunities and is expected to assist the Investment Advisor in managing WAF’s volatility, through the ability to make investments throughout the food and agriculture value chain,” BlackRock staff wrote.

Ivan Saval, managing director for food and agribusiness at National Securities Corporation, told Agri Investor that BlackRock’s move to expand the WAF’s focus is part of a dynamic also playing out in other parts of the agricultural investing market. The sustained down-cycle across upstream agriculture, he said, is causing many investors to broaden the scope of their initial exposure to the sector in an attempt to find additional return.

“They are following the consumer,” Saval said of BlackRock. “They are still going to be able to have their toes in agriculture because there are going to be more and more fully integrated models where consumer brands need to have more control over their supply of organic, and other sustainable inputs, and to do so they need to own their supply chains, all the way up the grower.”

For Westchester, Saval said, rather than reflecting any change in the unit’s strategy, Macpherson’s hire suggests a doubling down on its core focus of farmland investments.

“She is a hard asset, upstream agriculture individual, she’s not a consumer-packaged goods, consumer branded goods or nourishment investor,” Saval said of Macpherson. “If she is trading agribusiness stocks that are the merchants’, they have to understand where the value of farmland is and how that plays into a producer’s ability to be profitable and to provide the feedstock into the merchants to trade.”