When some “orthopedic problems” made it difficult to get into the office, Guy Thomas left his position as a lecturer at a U.K. university to become a full-time investor in 1999. What helped make the transition possible was the capital he accumulated in stocks during the 1990s.
In recent years, half of his portfolio has been managed by external advisers “smarter and more dedicated” than himself. This has freed up time for Mr. Thomas to return to academia as an honorary (unpaid) lecturer at the University of Kent in the U.K., where writes books and journal articles in actuarial science.
The Globe and Mail recently spoke to Mr. Thomas about his investing.
What is your investing approach?
I am a bottom-up stock picker, focused on evaluating small-cap companies. What interests me about small caps is the opportunity of having better information or insight than the person on the other end of the trade. Few institutional investors are present at this level because of the small stock floats.
What did you do to hone your investment acumen?
In the 1990s, I wrote off to Omaha for Buffett’s shareholder letters, read a lot of academic literature in the university library and learned a lot from reading financial journalists. In the 2000s, I interviewed many highly successfully private investors. In 2011, a dozen of the interviews were spun off into a book, Free Capital: How 12 private investors made millions in the stock market [royalties donated to charity].
How did you make enough money in stocks during the 1990s to be able to leave your job?
I had big windfalls in technology stocks. Because of the advent of the Internet, share prices of the dot-coms and other tech companies shot up more than five or six times in the late 1990s.
That sounds like you got a bit lucky?
Yes, luck was involved. But it is not the lottery kind that is random and effortless. It is more like what the microbiologist Louis Pasteur spoke about when he said: ‘In the fields of observation, chance favours the prepared mind.’ In other words, it’s possible to make good money in stocks with an entrepreneurial approach but some luck is needed. And the luck tends to happen more with the level of one’s diligence.
What has been your best move?
The smartest thing I’ve done is to recognize lucky successes for what they are, and not fall in love with winners or expect to repeat them. I had good results with tech stocks in the 1990s but realized I’d been lucky, so didn’t try to go on making money in the same way.
What has been your worst move?
I’ve had some big losers because of fraud. This taught me to avoid companies that have managers with questionable track records at previous companies.
What were some of the lessons learned from the investors interviewed for your book?
Nearly all were focused on small-cap stocks. Like me, they liked not having to compete with professional and institutional investors. They also were aware that small caps have the highest average returns of other asset classes in the stock market.
Nearly all had concentrated portfolios of just a few stocks, as well. If you want a high return, a focused portfolio seems to be the only strategy.
Another thing was the variety of investment approaches and backgrounds. What was often important instead was having Pasteur luck. In a sense, the book is about lucky persons. For example, one of the investors dodged a meltdown in the gold market only because he earlier decided to unload a large part of his gold holdings to buy some apartments.
How do you manage your portfolio now?
I once had a concentrated portfolio. But I saw other investors with concentrated portfolios get wiped out. Pasteur luck cuts both ways. So, now I have a diversified portfolio of several dozen stocks, with half of my capital entrusted to external managers.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Special to The Globe and Mail