Japan is the focal point for the world’s top sporting performers this month at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. 10,305 top class athletes attempting to sprint, backstroke and fence their way onto the podium. It’s a festival of fine margins with every team, every individual looking to find an edge over their competitors in a bid to bring home Olympic glory. As investors, we too are always looking to find an edge to ensure we finish on our very own financial podium. Below, we’ll look at the epic turnaround of British Cycling, how they did it and importantly, what we learn from them as investors.

An underdog understates things

It was a rough patch. Well, more than a rough patch. No British cyclist had ever won the Tour de France, the world’s most famous cycling event, since the event started in 1903. In fact, one of the top bike manufacturers in Europe refused to sell bikes to the British Cycling team in case it hurt sales. Guilty by association was the manufacturers' biggest fear. It was to this stark backdrop that we witnessed the entry of David Brailsford to British Cycling and his philosophy of "the aggregation of marginal gains". Hired as the new performance director, he was tasked with turning around the fortunes British Cycling. Brailsford's approach is best explained in his own words: “The whole principle (of the aggregation of marginal gains) came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improve it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together."

The aggregation of marginal gains

In practice, what did the "aggregation of marginal gains" look like for British Cycling and Team Sky? Well, here's a sample of the marginal wins they employed:

  • Redesigning bicycle seats to make them more comfortable
  • Riders wearing temperature controlled shorts to better regulate temperature
  • Switching outdoor riders to lighter, more aerodynamic indoor racing suits
  • Hiring surgeons to train cyclists on proper hand washing, helping reduce illnesses during competition (very 2020)
  • No handshakes for the team during the Olympics for the same reason (even more 2020!)
  • Painting the floor of equipment trailer white so the team could spot dust and remove it
  • Shipping mattresses and pillows to each stopover point so cyclists could sleep in the same bed every night

Marginal improvements, all small as individual changes. But compounded up, these started to make a tangible difference over the medium term. Only five years after Brailsford became performance director, results began to blossom. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the British Cycling team won 60% of the gold medals on offer. Then at the 2012 London Olympics the domination really started, as they broke seven World records and nine Olympic records. The same year at the Tour de France, results also started to flourish as Bradley Wiggins became the first British cyclist to win the event. Building on the success, the mantle was passed to his teammate Chris Froome who took victory in 2013, 2015, 2016, and 2017, making British Cycling and Team Sky one of the most successful teams in history.


Small improvements but compounded up, they become much more powerful…

What can we learn as investors?

While cycling has a somewhat a questionable history in relation how far some cyclists will go to find their marginal gains (even crossing the lines of legality), the idea itself is powerful. In fact, the concept of making small changes that can lead to remarkable results was a core theme in James Clear’s recent bestseller, Atomic Habits. Building on this, how do we apply the lesson of the "aggregation of marginal gains" to investing? Enhancing the governance around your investments is one of the easiest ways to aggregate the marginal gains and improve your financial journey. At Mercer, we have dedicated teams of professionals specialised in their area of expertise and are ready to deploy their skills to help you to finish on the financial podium. Here's an example of quick wins that Mercer can help you seize through enhanced governance:


  • Smart portfolio construction helping deliver a smoother journey (SAA)
  • Responsive Dynamic Asset Allocation (DAA) to take advantage of market opportunities
  • Dedicated portfolio management teams to make investment decisions on your behalf
  • Dynamic De-risking Solutions (DDS) to seize on market moves, helping you closer to your destination
  • Responsible Investment & Sustainability built in
  • Clear risk management and investment oversight
  • Well-resourced operations teams paired with strong technological infrastructure
  • Periodically negotiating for lower fees on your behalf
  • And more…

While investors are typically constrained in relation to the level of resources they can deploy to obtain these benefits, working with Mercer creates an easy way to enhance your governance, compound up your marginal gains and make real, tangible improvements to your investment journey.


For more insights, please visit Investment Solutions or contact Damien Davis.

Damien Davis
Damien Davis
Principal and Senior Investment Specialist, Mercer

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