Doing Things Differently: Omar Jackson, Partner, Berkeley Assets
"We're not looking to follow a set mould. We are looking to innovate at every opportunity we can."
For someone who is today a Partner at private equity (PE) firm Berkeley Assets, Omar Jackson’s first foray into the world of business may come as a bit of a surprise- here’s someone who found his entrepreneurial chops as a pre-teen selling cakes at his school, with the profits then used to fund his outings with friends. At the time, his mother was raising him and his brother by herself at Slough in the United Kingdom, working a number of jobs, and as such, Jackson didn’t want to ask his mother for money to participate in frivolities that more privileged kids his age were accustomed to, think things like going out on a school trip, or heading to the local Pizza Hut for a meal together. But Jackson did want to be a part of these kinds of activities, and that’s how he decided to make the money he needed he used his culinary skills to bake cakes that he would then sell at his school for a profit. “At the best times, I was making around GBP50 a week,” Jackson remembers, a proud smile still lighting up his face as he recalls the experience. His career in the cake business was short-lived though- his school was quick to shut Jackson’s side hustle down when they heard of it. But this episode, which essentially kicked off Jackson’s career in business, is a good exhibit of his particular prowess at identifying potential opportunities early on, and then successfully capitalizing on it, a talent that has seen him venture into everything from e-commerce, to cryptocurrency, to private wealth management, and today, sees him in his current role at Berkeley Assets, where he’s using his brand of innovative acumen to shake things up on the private equity landscape. “We’re not looking to follow a set mould,” Jackson says. “We are looking to innovate at every opportunity we can.”
With a diversified portfolio of investments across sectors like real estate, hospitality, logistics, and technology, Berkeley Assets currently operates over 150 businesses across multiple industries, with its offices spread across Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East. “We like to see ourselves as a low-risk PE firm,” Jackson says. “One of our unique points is that everything is tangible so, what we work with are asset-backed businesses, tangible assets. We are looking at real estate as 80-85% of our portfolio, all in the UK and the US because those are notoriously two of the most stable and historically strong real estate markets in the world.”
This kind of reasoning governs Berkeley Asset’s forays into other sectors as well, wherein the company takes charge of all the assets under its purview, thereby ensuring its clientele’s peace of mind. “We, as a company, have a lot of security in terms of our charge over the assets,” he explains. “So, we are able to protect our clients' money at all costs, at all times. And it's great for the clients just to know that. Because if you're doing everything through a fund, something you can't physically see or touch, it becomes a lot more difficult. So that's our framework, to offer clientele, retail or institutional, something physical, something tangible.” According to Jackson, this is the differentiating factor that makes Berkeley Assets stand out as a firm. “PE is very simple,” he says. “You raise money on one side, and you invest it on the other side’.
Now, some PE firms go down the fund route; others go down direct placement. We're direct placement, so a client knows his money comes in the door from one end, and it goes into projects on the other end. There are no fees; it's a simple arrangement, they can come in for two years, five years, or 10 years, we give them a fixed rate of interest on their loan to us. So that could be 4%, 6%, or 8% per annum. They can get paid that interest bi-annually, and we do that in order so that clients can physically see the rewards of their investment, not just see it on paper. It's physical, it's real. That's the whole concept of Berkeley Assets; it's tangible.” In terms of raising capital, Jackson reveals that Berkeley Assets has a global outlook in that respect, while also noting that it is one of the few PE firms in the world to have a focus on the retail sector. “80% of our capital is raised through institutions; 20% from the retail arm,” Jackson says.
“A lot of our capital is raised in Asia as a continent. The Middle East is a great jurisdiction for us. We've also expanded to Hong Kong and Singapore over the last couple of years. So, that's seen us achieve some good figures in terms of raising capital, from institutions especially. And the retail arm is really growing. We had to spend a lot of time educating the marketplace in terms of private equity for the retail market because it's all a bit of a mystery to most people. It's only ever been available to ultra high net worth [individuals] and institutions. So, it's great to be part of doing something different, part of educating the society in a wider marketplace of an alternative that they're not otherwise used to, to innovate a little bit.”
This spirit of tapping into new opportunities can be seen in Berkeley Asset’s investigation into locations (other than the UK and US) that they could be investing into, with the Middle East figuring prominently in these conversations at the company. “Investment wise, we’ve always been into British real estate, US real estate, but in the last 12 to 18 months, we've started looking at other opportunities in other fields and other landscapes,” Jackson says. “So, we are now looking in the Middle East actively; my investment committee is searching for and discussing various opportunities that can take place in the Middle East. It may not be real estate, but it will still be asset-backed, tangible assets that we can invest in, which will be profitable for businesses in this jurisdiction.” But it’s not just in the investments space that Berkeley Assets is trying to innovate in, there’s also work being done in reimagining how the company is perceived by those around it.
It seems pretty apparent that Jackson is leading the charge in this department, with Berkeley Assets making its presence felt through everything from billboards along Dubai’s Sheikh Zayed Road, to partnerships with celebrity brand ambassadors in the sporting arena, like British boxer Amir Khan. When I point out that it was a surprise for me to see the former unified light-welterweight world champion promoting Berkeley Assets, and that it did make me curious about the PE firm and what it does, Jackson gleefully declares that this is exactly the kind of reaction he is hoping to elicit from these kinds of initiatives.
“It is that curiosity, that stunt factor,” he says. “And then, when people look into it more deeply, they realize there actually can be a lot of correlations... If you look at boxing, and you think about the amount of diligence it takes, the mental strength it takes, the careful planning it takes, the dedication it takes, there's a lot of similarities in terms of the qualities of that individual, and to those of our firm. So, that's what's exciting. And it's also popularizing what we do, it's showcasing, in a positive manner, with a very well-known face, who has himself, like life and investments, had some volatility in his career, but has matured, and he has ultimately come through and is a double world champion. So, I think it's a nice element to us. PE firms don't do that traditionally- we like to do things differently.” At this point, I ask him if he’s faced any blowback on doing these things at Berkeley Assets that PE firms aren’t typically known for doing, and he replies, “I’m very much the force of innovation within the company, and I’m glad the other partners don’t hold me back in that sentiment."
"They actually appreciate it, because they're seeing the rewards on the back of that.” Jackson points out that historically, most PE firms have preferred to stay in the background they were never keen on being known or becoming household names. But given the landscape Berkeley Assets operates in today, Jackson believes that there is a need for the enterprise to be seen as an accessible brand, and as such, it needs to be present, work with the public, and put itself out there as a force to be reckoned with. “I think you need to be proud of what you do,” he adds.
“You need to popularize what you do, and you need to make the idea of doing something with your money a fun, enjoyable experience, not a stressful experience. So, if we were just working in an institutional framework like traditional PE firms do, maybe we would stay a little bit more, well, not in the background, but reserved. But because we work in the retail sector as well, we need to present ourselves in the right way. We need to be able to provide transparency to people. I think that the transparency aspect of it gives confidence anyway, even to institutions. Just because we are very transparent as a company, in terms of what we invest in as a firm, or what we do in terms of PR, we still don't talk about who our clients are. So, we're still private in that sense. Institutions know that, and they like the fact that we can be very transparent, very open, very popular, but at the same time, where discretion is needed, we are discreet, and we protect their interests at all costs.” As I chat with Jackson, it seems to me that the reason why the seemingly disparate aspects of Berkeley Assets still work together as a cohesive whole is because of the ingrained culture within the company, and that forward-thinking approach is what drives everyone within it.
As Jackson put it, “Everyone is reading from the same hymn sheet. And as long as everyone within the walls of the firm understands the future where we're heading, it makes presenting being consistent to the outside world to be very simple.” Now, company culture is a topic that Jackson is quite passionate talking about, and he readily admits that it’s something he’s been a champion of at Berkeley Assets. “PE firms, in general, don't have huge teams. But the way I see it is that every position that you need filled needs to be worthwhile, and it needs to have a specialist in that position. Whether that be an office manager, or whether that be someone in your investment committee, they need to be a specialist at what they do. It's all about efficiency you don't want to have unnecessary overhead; you don't want to have unnecessary people in your workforce that don't really serve an ultimate purpose. Everyone that's there [at Berkeley Assets] is highly valued for what they do, and they have very specific job roles. And I think that's very crucial. I think all businesses should adopt that kind of mindset to the staff they're hiring. This process starts from the hiring stage- that's how you get the right people with the right mindset.”
These words shouldn’t come as a surprise to those of you who regularly read Entrepreneur Middle East, as the importance of hiring the right people is something that has been reiterated on the pages of this magazine many a time, and Jackson is emphatic about replugging this particular notion as well. When it comes to advice for entrepreneurs, Jackson reiterates that building a good company culture at the outset is absolutely critical if they wish to see their businesses grow and thrive. But this starts with the people at the helm of such enterprises taking a good hard look at themselves, says Jackson. “I think the biggest part of it is learning what kind of entrepreneur you are,” he explains. “Because only once you understand your strengths and weaknesses do you know how to, well, set up a team around you, and that is crucial.
I love racing, I love cars, I've raced for a lot of my life. And it's the same thing like taking a car round a track in testing. You only know how fast you can go if you go off the track then you know the limit. As a racing driver, you're told by your team to push, and push, and push at every corner when you're testing, so that you can see how far you can take it. That's the only way you really know how much you've got- how much ability, how much willpower, how much strength you've got. So, I think that's the first thing, it is establishing who you are as an entrepreneur, getting your right mindset in place, and then, it's putting a process in place for your business that you're focusing on.
I think if you are comfortable in your own skin with what you're doing, and you've got the right mindset in place, you can then instill that into others, if you can find the right individuals... I think that's the fundamental sort of entrepreneur understanding himself, getting his right mindset in place, knowing his weaknesses, and getting the right people who are passionate to form his guard, if you like, step by step, and then, you can take it forward to year one, year two, year three. I think that's kind of my advice to entrepreneurs. I'm very much about positioning your mindset in the right place.” That, in essence, seems to be the mantra that Jackson personally lives by, with him noting that he’s not driven to do all that he does by the prospect of, say, money, or power, but instead, by the intoxicating nature of success. “I'm always addicted to the feeling of success,” Jackson says.
“I’m addicted to the feeling of winning. And I'll do what it takes, I'll put my heart and soul, my sweat and blood into any projects I'm working in, or any team that I am working together with, to make sure we do the best we can possibly do.” It should be clear here that Jackson has come a long way from his entrepreneurial beginnings as a kid trying to earn some extra money today, he’s more keen on building his own profile up to a position of influence, through which he can have a positive impact on the world at large. He’s already got himself on this path, be it with him spearheading charity projects around the globe, or by setting aside time for inspirational interactions with children and youth but this is only just the beginning. “I think, once upon a time, I was motivated by money, when I was a kid,” Jackson says. “But if you're just motivated by money, you actually don't get anywhere. If you just focus on money, once you do earn that money, it is not as impressive as you might think it is. That's not the bit that gives you the kick.
You know the bit that gives you the enjoyment, that has to be something else. It has to be a passion underlying there somewhere, because otherwise, once you get the money, then what? Then your motivation ends. See Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet it's obviously not money that motivates them to be as hungry and passionate as they continue to be today. I think real entrepreneurs, and the real entrepreneurial spirit, aren't motivated by money. For me, it's a desire to be a leader. And I want to establish myself as a leader, and make as much of a difference as I can. I can't change everything, of course, but I can make life better, and I can make a difference to communities and people. So, I will do that.” It’s clear Jackson’s brand is on the ascent- and the rest of us need to just stay tuned.
Aby Sam Thomas is the Editor in Chief of Entrepreneur Middle East. In this role, Aby is responsible for leading the publication on its editorial front, while also working to build the brand and grow its presence across the MENA region through the development and execution of events and other programming, as well as through representation in conferences, media, etc.
Aby has been working in journalism since 2011, prior to which he was an analyst programmer with Accenture, where he worked with J. P. Morgan Chase's investment banking arm at offices in Mumbai, London, and New York. He holds a Master's Degree in Journalism from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York.