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The Numbers Guys
Craig Thomas, 44
Director of Investments, Wake Forest University
By asset-owning standards, Thomas is a true journeyman. He doesn't like to be called that, of course, but how else are we to describe a man who before joining Wake Forest in 2003 worked in corporate pension management for nearly 15 years? "Yes, I've been an asset owner for almost a quarter century," he admits with mock seriousness. One benefit, of course, is that he's seen it all, which comes across most poignantly when discussing the managers he has to visit and vet regularly. "When we talk to managers, we prefer to focus on the risk side instead of just hearing about how much of a return they can make," he says. "Returns are great, of course, but what about the difficult periods? What has your drawdown been? Returns in 2009, 2010, that's great—but what about 2008? It's a dialogue that's interesting—some managers are more receptive than others to that conversation." This "human nature" to "only want to talk about the good periods" reminds Thomas of a famous Buffett-ism: Only when the tide goes out do you discover who's been swimming naked. This willingness to discuss the uncomfortable has served Thomas, and Wake Forest, well: In the nine years since he's arrive, the fund's alternatives portfolio has grown from minor to major, with over 50% of its assets now in what are traditionally labeled alternatives. "The ability to talk about down years, to focus on risk—you can't force it onto someone," Thomas concludes. "It's in a manager's DNA or it isn't." And if anyone knows about asset management's DNA, of course, it's the journeyman of this list.
The Numbers Guys: We're not saying they're nerdy...okay we are. Maybe just a little. But let's be clear: This is a good thing. When, in one sense, fund executives can feel themselves interacting with asset managers and servicers that may not have their best interest at heart (think the Goldman Sachs resignation letter in The New York Times, or numerous transition management teams), it pays to have people on staff who can truly parse techno-speak and figure out what is really being pitched. So here's to the nerds.