Twenty years ago, former WSU finance professor Rick Sias launched the Cougar Investment Fund, a hands-on investment program some Carson College of Business finance graduates say benefited their career opportunities above anything else.
Sias based the idea of the Cougar Investment Fund (CIF) on similar programs at other universities, such as Cornell, where MBA students often managed funds. However, his vision was to afford WSU undergraduates a chance to develop decision-making, financial advising, and investment skills in a real setting, which would make them more competitive when interviewing for jobs.
He established a yearlong class that is still thriving under the direction of Professor Mario Reyes.
Many aspects of the original CIF class structure remain: two students act as portfolio managers, organizing sector and stock reports and tracking the fund’s investments. The other students become sector analysts. The students make investment recommendations for the University’s $4.6 million CIF with the objective of outperforming the Standard & Poors (S&P 500) while maintaining comparable risk.
Over time, Carson student investors have regularly outperformed the S&P 500, and in 2017, they beat it by a significant margin of 1.4%—exceeding $3 million.
“The Cougar Investment Fund has been, and continues to be, a centerpiece of our finance program,” said David Whidbee, chair of the college’s Department of Finance and Management Science. “We are fortunate the university has collaborated with us on this opportunity, and we are especially grateful to Karen Kellerman, WSU treasury’s senior investment manager. Without the time and energy she devotes to us, the CIF would not be possible.”
“With the establishment of the Tom and Linda Nihoul Bloomberg Financial Laboratory in 2020, the CIF class, Carson finance majors and faculty have direct access to real-time news, financial and economic data, and other gold standard tools within the industry,” said Reyes. “WSU is in a cadre of institutions worldwide that provides Bloomberg technology to better prepare finance students for global careers.”
Classroom experience leads to long-lasting friendships
Alumna Stacee Kratovil (’11) served as a CIF portfolio manager during her senior year in the Carson finance program. She landed her first job three weeks before graduation as an associate portfolio manager at BMO Harris Bank, a wealth management firm.
“The Cougar Investment Fund laid the foundation for my understanding of capital markets,” said Kratovil, who is now a private wealth advisor and vice president with U.S. Bank Private Wealth Management. “I provided my student reports to all my potential employers. When I was hired, my manager said my writing skills and work examples set me apart. If not for those industry-specific projects, I don’t know if I would have had a relevant example of my talent to share.”
Kratovil said the course was by far the best academic experience she had at WSU, one in which she made long-lasting relationships with her peers, which was a huge benefit when entering the workforce.
Classmates Hayden Wieck and Kennan Adams, both 2014 graduates, were portfolio managers during their CIF experience and became close friends in the process. “Today, Kennan is an expert in alternative assets, and I’m fortunate to have him just a phone call away whenever I need his insights,” said Wieck.
Wieck, who works as a portfolio manager for Fulcrum Capital, felt a spark to pursue a career in portfolio management during the CIF class. This interest led to an internship with the foreign currency team at Russell Investments after graduation. He later earned the Chartered Financial Analyst designation before joining Fulcrum.
CIF class kick starts students’ transition from academia to financial world
The most valuable skill Wieck mastered in the CIF class was articulating an investment recommendation, he said. “I will never forget when I stumbled with expressing my conviction for a recommended buy. I spent too much time focusing on the nitty-gritty details and was unable to articulate the core of my investment thesis to the group.”
Learning to convey the intricate details of a recommendation as well as the bigger picture stuck with him throughout his career.
“This framework prepared me to communicate investment recommendations to my colleagues,” he said. “The class boosted my skills so I was able to bring high value to my team when I started at Russell.”
Adams, a senior investment analyst and product specialist at Silver Creek Capital Management, said the CIF was the most applicable curriculum to his profession.
“An added benefit of being a portfolio manager was frequently presenting market updates to my peers, which forced me to get comfortable with industry vernacular,” he said. “This was a vital skill when joining a team of seasoned professionals.”
Adams joined Silver Creek as a junior analyst right after graduation and spent two years underwriting hedge funds and private credit strategies before focusing entirely on the firm’s hedge fund portfolio and earning his Chartered Alternative Investment Analyst designation.
“Having discretion over real dollars is a great way to apply classroom learning. The CIF is a highly productive use of students’ time and affords them the opportunity to kick start their transition from academia to the world of finance,” he said.