Epworth’s Harper: Investing is a ‘natural home’ for a vicar

Chief responsibility officer discusses his journey from being ordained to making firms like Shell and Anglo American feel ‘holy’ uncomfortable

A career in the church and a career in investment management might seem worlds apart, but for Rev Dr Andrew Harper, chief responsibility officer at Christian ethics-based investment manager Epworth Investment Management, they are a natural fit.

Prior to joining the firm in April 2021, Harper spent time managing overseas aid and education programmes in some of the world’s poorest communities. He was ordained in the Methodist Church of Nigeria in 2018.

Below, Harper discusses the experiences that led him from being ordained as a vicar and working in the world’s poorest communities to a career at a £920m investment manager.

“I come from a family of real estate investors and developers, so it’s very much in my blood,” he said. “I remember my grandfather would give me a chunk of money and take a chunk of money, and whoever made the most through stocks and shares got to keep both. Through that kind of teaching, that’s how I ended up paying for my university studies, so it was very much in my DNA to be entrepreneurial.

“The investment space was a natural home, really. In the investment space, we’re dealing with human issues. It would have been very easy to find myself alienated [following the career change], and sure, there was a bit of imposter syndrome in the beginning when terminology gets thrown around.

“But if you scratch the surface, even just a little bit, you uncover some serious human issues that my theological training and my experience can help address.”

After studying international trade and law in the US, Harper pondered his next step.

“I’m originally from Texas, and through either internal crises, or working for a slightly unsavoury lawyer, it made me think about what I wanted to do and what kind of meaning I wanted to apply to my life,” he said.

Following a discussion with his local vicar, he began on the path to being ordained himself and moved to the UK for four months to begin training.

“After that, work took me to Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. I did an audit for the Methodist Church here around their international education and ended up leading global learning and theological innovation for one of their major colleges.”

This work took Harper to 33 countries in the space of six years, focusing on improving education in some of the world’s poorest communities.

Social impact of unchecked industrial activity

While working to improve access to education in these areas, Harper experienced the detrimental social and environmental impact multinational firms can have on local communities, which would go on to shape his future role as chief responsibility officer at Epworth.

He recalls a fishing community on the shores of Lake Victoria, where women would buy fish from fishermen in order to sell them at a nearby market for a living.

He said: “The industrial activity in the area reduced the amount of fish, and therefore, everyone’s purchasing power also diminished. So, what little fish they did catch instead of selling it to women, they traded it for sex. And so, in that community, you had increased unplanned pregnancies and increased sexually transmitted diseases all as a result of unregulated and unchecked industrial activity.

“It was those kinds of consequences that I became deeply concerned about. I was working in India and in Kenya with people around tea plantations, where sewage is a terrible issue. The industrial scale of the tea plantations overwhelms the local sewage systems and it creates poor hygiene in the communities. I became more and more concerned with the people at the lowest end of the totem pole of this industrial cycle of consumption and production.”

During those six years, Harper said he became ill four times with what he described as “various tropical diseases”.

The final time, he was in South Africa during the Covid pandemic and had to travel back to the UK for treatment.

He said: “I had a thought that I can’t keep doing this, I have a young family and I need to look at something else. But I wasn’t going to abandon what was my parish at that point and the people that I was working with in Africa and Southeast Asia. I wanted to figure out how I could continue to try to affect change in a way that was more sustainable for me and possibly long term for them as well.

“Then, this position came up with Epworth and the Central Finance Board. It looked like a way I could translate my experiences, my educational background, [Harper has a doctorate in theological ethics]. So I can apply these principles into affecting company change and probably bring a perspective that they may not have been used to.”

Disinvesting from oil and gas

Founded in 1996, Epworth manages £920m on behalf of churches and charities. It is entirely owned by the Central Finance Board of the Methodist Church (CFB).

On his role at the firm, Harper said: “I’d say my role, when I meet with companies, is to make them wholly uncomfortable. That’s H-O-L-Y and W-H-O-L-L-Y – to make them uncomfortable and to make them consider things that really make them squirm in their chair a bit, and doing that by relating the human element.

“I sit in so many meetings where it’s just targets upon targets, ‘there’s this initiative you need to sign up to’ and so forth. And that’s, first of all, really boring. It’s hard to get excited about a bunch of initiatives and signatories, but also, the person on the shores of Lake Victoria does not give a damn what initiatives we’ve signed up to, they want to be able to feed their families and not be abused. We wanted to really get people to consider these type of issues. And we do that through a number of ways.”

As an ethics-based investor, stewardship is at the heart of the firm’s approach. In 2021, the firm divested from the oil and gas sector after it found that no companies in the sector were aligned with the climate change targets set out by the 2015 Paris Accord at the time.

Looking back on the decision to disinvest, Harper said: “Fundamentally, oil and gas companies have the technology, the capital, the distribution, and the expertise to transition us to a green economy.

“In fact, we probably think not only are they best poised, but it’s hard to imagine who else is poised to do such a thing with the kind of global networks they have around energy distribution.

“They are so important, alongside the mining companies, in a transition to a green economy. The problem is they’re not taking the situation seriously. They may pay lip service to it. They may appoint a new head of green strategy or they may build a wind farm. Okay, great. But you don’t have to dig very far to see where their capital expenditure really is, and it’s on oilfield production,” he added.

“We have seen a big shift from the likes of Shell, for example, who had this wonderfully fantastical green strategy. And then someone must have looked at the balance sheet and said, ‘My gosh, we’re making a lot of money off oil and gas. Why are we worried about this solar panels and hydrogen and stuff like that?’

“This is nothing new from the oil and gas majors. They literally have to put their money where their mouth is if they want to be part of a sustainable transition, they’ve got the leading role here. The position is easy for us, get aligned with Paris or you’re not for us.”

Acting for the CFB, Epworth is a co-lead for lobby group Climate Action 100+’s engagement with mining company Anglo American.

Efforts undertaken by the group has led Anglo American to set a goal to reduce net emissions to zero in the long-term, publish a detailed pathway of actions and improve governance and transparency on indirect lobbying.

The collaborative group is now focusing its attention on Anglo American’s methane emissions from the mining of coking coal. The mining of coking coal is a major source of methane emissions globally.

According to the IEA, more methane is released by coking coal mining than from the world’s gas pipelines and liquified natural gas facilities combined. Alongside Robeco, CFB/Epworth have asked Anglo to set methane-specific reduction targets.

This article first appeared on ESG Clarity’s sister title Portfolio Adviser.