Jonathan Lander & Volvere

Disclaimer: We are invested in Volvere. While this post isn’t really related to the business, assume I am biased when talking about it and form your own judgements.

Volvere today announced the death of their CEO, Jonathan Lander:

The announcement hit me hard. I do not want to pretend that I knew him better than I do. I probably met Jonathan 10 times over the last five years, but he left an impression on me. We are invested in Volvere – indeed, we are one of the biggest investors in Volvere – in large part thanks to my opinion of Jonathan. He was a rare combination of a very good investor and a thoroughly decent human being.

I first met Jonathan at a Mello event in 2018, where he was on the panel. It was evident that he was an unusually thoughtful man. I’m not entirely sure whether he was doing it to be contrarian (he struck me as having that streak in him), but he ended up disagreeing with his fellow panelists on nearly all of what was said – respectfully, I note – and made the event much more lively as a result. I grabbed his details after, investigated Volvere stock, and we met again a few months later.

Unlike many CEOs I meet, Jonathan presenting Volvere was not a dog and pony show. He acted like an owner because he was an owner, and he was rightly proud of a track record of buying and selling businesses which boasted no losses and IRRs most people could only dream of. From a tiny base, they had built Volvere up, returning much of the generated capital on the way.

I have never met a manager who has felt more genuinely interested in my business and my motivations than Jonathan. Our meeting felt as much an interrogation of me as of him. He spent just as much time trying to dissuade me from investing as anything else. It was illiquid. They were patient. There was no consistent deal-flow. They liked flying under the radar and didn’t feel any need to be promotional. There was a deep seated confidence in what they were trying to do, and an acknowledgement that if it did not suit you, he did not need or want to persuade you otherwise.

Jonathan exuded empathy and understanding. I suspect this drove the investment strategy of the group; distressed investing with an uncharacteristically human angle. He told me he liked to buy businesses without any assets – where the assets were people – because that is what he thought Volvere could fix. Companies where morale was poor, staff were demotivated, structures were inappropriate and people were not pulling in the same direction. In short: companies lacking leadership and empathy, and where they could provide it. That is, I think, reflective of him as a person.

A short while after we invested in Volvere, I organised a lunch with Jonathan and a very successful private equity investor I know well. They operate in similar fields, though on a different scale. It was great fun – Jonathan’s charm made him excellent company – and when we caught up after, I found him introspective. There was not a hint of envy and no chip on the shoulder. This is a rare thing in a financial industry filled with egos and bravado. Instead, he seemed invigorated  – it had caused him to reflect on his business and consider things he could perhaps do differently. My acquaintance’s counsel was, loosely, that if the track record was so good – why stay so small?

I don’t know if that fledgling thought blossomed and had any part in Volvere’s fundraise in 2020. But it does seem that the group wanted to go bigger; to deploy more money; to do another great deal, but on a larger scale. I think he realised that their horizons could be more expansive.

The fact that they did not end up spending that cash, in the subsequent years, speaks to his conservatism. He cited the huge uncertainty of energy costs, furlough changes, and highly unreliable demand patterns. He hated closing down Indulgence Patisserie, their only ‘misstep’ – if we can call it that – having bought a foodservice business just before COVID. Given the track record, it was evident he was always waiting for the fat pitch: Buffett would be proud.

The world needs more people like Jonathan. AIM gets terrible press for being a bad index, but it is a bad index because it is largely stuffed with bad actors: people intent on spinning a story, driving a narrative and running off with the riches. Volvere is an example of what is great about AIM. It is a small, entrepreneurial company, which saves failing businesses from ruin and nurses them back to health.

Our economy would be more dynamic with more businesses like Volvere, and our country would be more entertaining and thought-provoking with more people like Jonathan. We are richer for having had him.

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