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Real-time investments, real-time success

Finance students get invaluable stock market experience
February 9, 2017
By Wayne Larsen

“Playing the stock market” may be the phrase used by investors, yet entering the highly competitive, high-stakes world of financial markets is certainly no game. For those entering that world, learning to manage actual funds in the market can prove invaluable. 

Providing that type of hands-on educational experience is the concept behind Concordia’s Kenneth Woods Portfolio Management Program. 

Established in 2000 through a $1-million donation by Kenneth Woods, MBA 75, the program allows a select group of undergraduate students in the John Molson School of Business (JMSB) to apply various investment strategies to manage and grow an actual stock portfolio through dayto- day market fluctuations. So far the initiative has more than doubled its initial investment in 16 years, and is now worth approximately $2.3 million. 

Through 2015, the fund managed by students outperformed its target nine out of 15 years, with an average annual return of 5.84 per cent, versus 5.51 per cent for the portfolio benchmark. 

Reena Atanasiadis Reena Atanasiadis has been director of the Kenneth Woods Portfolio Management Program since June 2012

The two-year program annually welcomes eight Department of Finance students. They spend their first year as research associates, then become fund managers in the second year. Throughout the process they are monitored and advised by a client committee, which is comprised of a dedicated team of investment professionals and the academic director, who ensure the student fund managers invest professionally and prudently. 

“Our students manage a balanced portfolio,” program director Reena Atanasiadis, BComm 87, MBA 95, says of the diverse assortment of Canadian, American and international stocks and bonds. “They’re handling real stocks, but since this is an educational program, they’re allowed to make mistakes,” Atanasiadis says. She adds that faculty and advisors are there to ensure there is no existential threat to the program.

Atanasiadis has more than 20 years of wealth management experience and has handled hundreds of millions of dollars in her career, notably as a founding partner of a high-net-worth wealth management firm. She has taught finance at JMSB since 2004 and has helmed the program for nearly five years.

As the program’s second director, Atanasiadis is quick to credit her predecessor, Abraham Brodt, professor and now chair of the Department of Finance, for building it into the success it is today. “I inherited a program that was functioning very well,” she says. “I couldn’t do what I’m doing today if I hadn’t received such a great, well-functioning institutional program — and that’s thanks to Abraham Brodt. He was here for a long time, and as an academic, he really established a strong academic foundation for this program, which helped with its being accepted by the school.” 

Honouring a legendary professor

The program was the brainchild of Woods, a Vancouver native who spent 20 years in Montreal as a student and later an investor. He’d seen how difficult it was for graduates to break into the finance industry, so he started the program after seeing a similar initiative at the University of British Columbia in the 1990s.

“There were very few areas for people to learn and to get jobs, so I created a program that would be fully integrated with the investment community in Montreal,” Woods recalls.

Woods also saw it as an ideal way of giving back to his alma mater while honouring the memory of the late Calvin C. Potter — a respected professor in Concordia’s Department of Finance in the 1960s and 1970s who inspired not only Woods but an entire generation of students. Potter is widely regarded as a pioneer in the field. His groundbreaking 1966 book Finance and Business Administration in Canada was among the first to examine that subject in detail.

“Calvin Potter was my mentor,” says Woods. “He introduced me to finance and was very good to me. I wanted to give back to Concordia because my experience with Calvin Potter was career changing for me — so this way I could give back to the university and fulfill a demand for entry-level investment personnel.”

As a result, program graduates are known as Calvin C. Potter Fellows as a tribute to the man who initially inspired Woods.

Strong alumni network

Philippe Hynes Kenneth Woods Portfolio Management Program graduate Philippe Hynes is president of Tonus Capital Inc. in Montreal.

Many Calvin C. Potter Fellows have gone on to distinguish themselves in the finance industry. Several have returned to give back to the Concordia community. One is Philippe Hynes, BComm 02, president of Tonus Capital Inc. in Montreal. Among other accolades, Hynes was named 2015 Financial Personality of the Year under age 40 by the Quebec-based trade publication Finance et investissement.

He attributes much of his success to the Kenneth Woods program, through which he gained first-hand experience as a member of the inaugural cohort in 2000. “I knew I liked investments, I knew I liked the market, but I had no experience and no family in the business, no contacts,” he says. “I didn’t know how to get into the industry. The Ken Woods Program gave me an opportunity to get my foot in the door through internships and mentors. These were invaluable contacts, and I got them from the program.”

Hynes says the program taught him a lot more than how to invest in the stock market. “We learned how to work within a group toward a common goal,” he says, adding that getting over nervousness and developing skills in how to present ideas were a huge help. “Preparing material for client committees, synthesizing our thoughts and explaining to a group what we’d done was also a big part of it.”

“The program not only gave me a huge learning experience and ability to refine my skills and talents, but also opened the door to my now 15-year career in the business,” says Michael Gentile, BComm 03, vice-president and senior portfolio manager at the Montreal investment firm Formula Growth Ltd. and a classmate of Hynes back in 2000.

“I was really fortunate because even as a teenager in high school I always knew I wanted to be in investment management and invest money in the stock market — that was my dream,” says Gentile. “I got really lucky because during my first semester at Concordia they launched the Ken Woods Program. I was very excited when I saw the poster on Abraham Brodt’s door, so I applied right away and was very fortunate to be a part of it.”

Gentile’s passion for investing didn’t go unnoticed. “At one of the client committee meetings, where students present their ideas to the board of directors, Randy Kelly [BComm 78], my current boss at Formula Growth, was invited as a guest observer,” he says. “He saw me pitching small and midsized American companies, which is really my passion, and that’s exactly what Formula Growth did — so he invited me for a cup of coffee after seeing how passionate I was about the business and what his company did. He invited me to do a Co-op work term at Formula Growth while in the Ken Woods Program. And as soon as I graduated, I joined full time at Formula Growth and I’ve been there close to 15 years now.”

Gentile’s experience is typical of many Calvin C. Potter Fellows. Atanasiadis points out that a large part of the program’s success rests on the strong foundation of networking possibilities for students — which often lead to job offers with major firms.

“The notion that we have this great program really rests on a deep-rooted principle within the program,” she says. “I could pick up my phone any day and speak to a hundred alumni across Canada and the U.S. and tell them I need help in getting a student an internship at such-and-such a place — who do they know? Inevitably, I get back a flood of emails asking, ‘How can I help?’”

Graduates, too, play a key role. “Alumni are a very material part of the program’s success,” Atanasiadis says. “Their careers and professional lives have benefited, and by paying it forward they’re always giving back to the program. The strength of that fraternity is unbelievable.”

Encouraging gender diversity

Elissa Colucci Elissa Colucci was part of the Kenneth Woods Portfolio Management Program’s 2015 cohort. In that year, the student-managed funds saw a return of 9.97 per cent, while the Canadian equity markets lost 8.3 per cent.

While Atanasiadis uses terms like “fraternity” when referring to the closely knit network of program alumni, she strongly encourages applications from female students. “Getting more women interested in the program is one of the objectives I have as director,” she says.

As a woman who rose through the ranks of the traditionally male-dominated field of finance, Atanasiadis says she’s encouraged by this year’s marked increase in gender diversity in the program. “I know what it is for a female to come into this business, which is a very strong boys’ network, but women in capital markets are now getting a lot of media attention.”

She proudly points out that this January has seen an unprecedented five women in the eight-member cohort assigned to manage the portfolio. “That ratio is extraordinary,” she says. “We don’t select a female over a male at the expense of quality. It’s just that females haven’t been applying as much. But this year, of the best eight candidates among the 30 who applied, five were women.”

Woods is also pleased to see that shift. “We’ve been trying to get that balance for a while,” he says. “The dynamics are so positive when you have that.”

For Elissa Colucci, who graduated from the program last May, not being the lone woman also facilitates the learning process. “When I applied, I was happy that they were encouraging more women,” recalls Colucci, who expects to complete her BComm in spring 2017. “Because they embrace it, I felt much more at home and more comfortable to do my work. The learning is more accessible and you feel like a community. Having other women in the program meant we were more diverse and we could mesh a bit better.”

A crash course on portfolio management

Michael Gentile Michael Gentile, vice-president and senior portfolio manager at the Montreal investment firm Formula Growth Ltd., says he jumped at the opportunity to enter the Kenneth Woods Portfolio Management Program when it launched while he was a student.

For their part, alumni Hynes and Gentile remain deeply involved with the program. They returned to serve as mentors for several years after they graduated and designed and have cotaught a course on investment analysis every winter semester since 2007.

“We were really grateful for the experience we had in the Ken Woods Program, but we realized there was a lot of stuff we didn’t learn in the classroom that we wish we would have learned before we entered the program to make us better investors,” Gentile recalls.

Describing it as a crash course in how to be a portfolio manager, he points out that enrolment is not restricted to the Kenneth Woods Portfolio Management Program students. “When Phil and I were mentoring students — answering their questions, guiding them through the process — we thought that since we were only reaching eight or 16 students at a time, it would be nice to open up our knowledge to the greater student body so they could benefit as well. So now every year some 25 students can come through our class and get some handson practical experience.”

The Ken Woods Program success was contagious: today there are more than 20 hands-on investment programs at other Canadian universities, although the Ken Woods Program remains one of the few that run for two years and are fully integrated. And in spring 2016 the program’s students showed their market value: they earned first place out of 78 universities from 40 countries at the Quinnipiac G.A.M.E. VI Forum student-managed portfolio

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