Ex Libris: Brian Fenwick-Smith (Financier, Philanthropist, Bibliophile)
Upon retrieving a recent auction purchase in London that included one lot of approximately a dozen works of modern fiction and poetry, we were surprised to find that the majority included a mysterious looking bookplate from a fellow named Brian Fenwick-Smith. The books were all in excellent condition and many included inscriptions and signatures by the author.
Brian Fenwick-Smith (BFS) seemed like an interesting character…labeling his books in black and white with carefully hand-numbered cataloging...our research did not disappoint us.
A child of 1930s Britain, educated at the University of Cambridge, a millionaire many times over and recognized as one of the first Private Equity investors in Germany during the 1980s, BFS found time to collect an impressive array of literary works, some of which he would generously donate to his alma mater.
We begin with a quick look at how BFS turned his background in accounting and hands-on operating experience into a successful business career spanning continents, decades and industries.
This is followed by a look into the museum-worthy works that we were able to identify as coming from his collection. Lastly, we share photos from the remaining works that have not already sold and details on how you can share in the rich history of this noted bibliophile.
The Start of a Successful Career—Western Europe (1980s)
By 1982 BFS had taken his accounting degree and transformed it into a successful executive position as the CEO of the Thyssen-Bournemisza Group’s (TBG) European operations. TBG is best known today for the museum bearing its name in Madrid (Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bournemisza) which houses the impressive art collection that was started by the Thyssen family in Germany during the 19th century. By the time BFS was involved with TBG, it was led by Hans Heinrech Thyssen-Bouremisza, the great-grandson of the original patriarch, August Thyssen, who according to the The New York Times, ‘built a chicken-wire business into a steel and armaments empire.’[2,3]
The Thyssen name lives on today in the firm thyssenkrupp AG, an industrial firm that generates nearly $50 billion in annual revenue and trades on the Deutsche Boerse in Germany. We will note, purely as a historical fact, that part of the Thyssen-Bournemisza industrial empire was created through the manufacture and sale of armaments to Hitler throughout WWII. It is interesting to visit the public company’s official history (link in footnote) and see how this is handled…but back to BFS.
TBG operated as a Family Office, investing the private wealth of the Thyssen-Bournemisza family, that in turn provided the preservation and growth of wealth that funded Hans Heinrech’s expansion of the art collection — BFS should claim some small (or large) credit for this as well!
In 1984, TBG, was entertaining the acquisition of VEMAG, a company that produces manufacturing machines for…making sausages — BFS was TBG’s lead on the deal (their extruders are still on the market today, see current marketing). VEMAG was one of a number of businesses that Jan Philipp Reemtsma, another German heir, whose father passed on a tobacco empire and ownership of several unrelated companies decided to sell. Jan’s decision to sell off ownership control in not only this non-core business, but all of the family’s holdings and become a passive investor in a wider portfolio of industries helped kick off the PE/LBO trend in Germany. The concept of raising outside equity ran counter to many cultural norms at that time despite what was already occurring in the US (for reference, the movie Wall Street, which vilified the PE industry and LBO-style transaction, was released in 1987). The concept of non-family, transfer of ownership control through the use of debt/equity investing in Germany has a fascinating history that the Jowetts capture in their aforementioned book. Anyone interested in modern economic history should pick up a copy.
TBG decided to pass on the acquisition, but BFS decided to go ‘long sausage’ and ultimately left TBG to pursue the deal on his own. Reemstma’s American-trained advisors had turned up an esoteric tax credit that would allow the purchaser to only need a bridge loan to finance the acquisition and then collect on a tax payment due to VERMAG in coming months that would allow the new owner to immediately reduce leverage without constraining future cash flows. BFS received funding from a German bank and in only a half year’s time was able to pay it off with the tax credit, leaving him with a profitable, valuable asset to launch his own family office-Robannic (and start dreaming of collecting books I would imagine…). The deal for BFS must have been sweet as Reemstma’s own advisors ran the numbers, they made their own offer for the company, but given their conflict and their decision to remain longer-term advisors of Reemstma the deal did not pan out. In utilizing this asset step-up structure, many other firms would follow in BFS’ foot steps in acquiring German ‘Mittelstand’ companies in true PE/LBO style.
With his family office established, one personal deal under his belt and an early career learning the trade with TBG, BFS was ready to grow his own business empire and following in his former firm’s heritage, grow his own collection of beautiful pieces of art-in this case, rare books.
A Focus on Pharma and the Big Sale (2001)
Now that you have a taste of BFS’ deal-making chops, we will skip ahead to August 2001 with BFS’ sale of Romaco, a Monaco-based holding company with global operations, to Robbins & Myers, a US industrial enterprise. Romaco was in the business of manufacturing, processing and packaging equipment for the pharmaceutical industry-a growing field to this day. The purchase price, including earnout, was over $140 million US dollars. That will buy a book…or two!
Interestingly enough, Robbins & Myers ultimately sold Romaco back to a German Private Equity firm and the company’s management team in 2011. Robbins & Myers was ultimately acquired by National Oilwell Varco, a NYSE-listed company with several $3+ billion in revenue that produces equipment for oil and gas drilling.
There are sure to be many tall tales from these multiple deals, but we are here for the books, so let us turn to what BFS’ philanthropy shows he purchased with the profits from his successful career.
Full disclosure — this list is entirely sourced via web searches and online databases accessible through our public library (thanks NYPL Archives). If you are aware of other contributions that we can attribute to BFS, please let us know. It appears BFS’ alma mater, St. John’s College, part of the University of Cambridge, has been the primary recipient of the books he has donated.
- BFS’ most recent donation (2015) went to the The Bodleian Libraries. It consisted of a rare pamphlet containing a poem, thought to be lost, by Percy Shelley (press release) that was the 12 millionth printed book acquired by the library. Shelley wrote the poem in 1810/11 during his first year at Oxford University.
The 20-page pamphlet containing the ‘lost’ poem is the only known copy in existence, and was acquired by the Bodleian after recently resurfacing in a private collection.
Donations to St. John’s College, Cambridge:
- 2009: A volume from the library of the Earls of Macclesfield consisting of five printed works. One of which was a rare copy of John Dee’s ‘General and rare memorials pertayning to the perfect arte of navigation’ — published in 1577. Dee was an alumnus of St. John’s (the school is older than America…) and he served as an adviser to Queen Elizabeth, as well as many Elizabethan explorers.
- 2010: Three works of Greek history previously owned and annotated by John Cheke, a 16th century humanist scholar born in Cambridge, (press release including photographs that show Cheke’s annotations). Two of the three works were printed in Venice in 1502…let us not forget that Gutenberg only began experimenting with his printing press in the 1440s.
- In addition, he donated first editions of Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) and Epigrammata (1521). (Note a later printing of More’s Utopia from 1518 could be yours for only $22,500 over at Raptis Rare Books ).
- 2011/2012: Six works (listed below) including three 17th century works by John Milton (from the college library’s annual report available online).
Images and links to further details from items within the collection of Brian Fenwick-Smith
While our auction finds may pale in comparison to a first edition of Thomas More — they will undoubtedly be easier to read and you won’t need an insurance policy to own! Enjoy the profile, enjoy the history and most importantly enjoy the books!
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- The primary source material on BFS’ early business dealings are from Paul and Francoise Jowett’s well-written history of evolution of the PE/VC industry in Germany, published by Palgrave MacMillan.
- For more on the Thyssen-Bournemisza family history start with Hans Heinrich’s Wikipedia page (link)— an industrialist based in Monaco with family links to John Kerry…lots to digest.
- New York Times obituary for Hans Heinrech Thyssen-Bournemisza (April 4, 2002)
- thyssenkrupp AG history from the company’s website (link).