Q&A: Investment Consulting

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Kelli P. Washington is an investment consultant at Cambridge Associates.

Tell us about your career path.

As an undergraduate at Washington University in St. Louis, I majored in business and was intrigued by the financial markets. That interest intensified when I was chosen to serve as a student representative to the finance committee, which was responsible for managing the endowment for the university. From that point, I knew my career path would be tied to investing, and the seeds of working with endowments began to grow.

After I graduated, I went to work for the brokerage firm Edward Jones. I spent 10 years working in several roles with the firm. Initially, I participated in a rotational training program before becoming a due diligence analyst. Ultimately, I became a portfolio manager. During this time, I also earned the Chartered Financial Analyst designation. In late 2002, I decided to re-think my career path and research endowment-focused opportunities in financial services. Ultimately, that research led me to earn an MBA at the Yale School of Management, where many alumni have focused on working with endowments. Finally, I joined Cambridge Associates in 2007.

What is your current role and range of responsibilities?

I am currently an investment consultant. I work with a range of clients including foundations, universities, and settlement trusts on developing and maintaining investment policies and asset allocation. I also assist clients with manager selection. In making recommendations to clients, I have to consider the short- and long-term missions of the organizations, their risk profiles and tolerances, their spending needs, and their broader financial needs. Endowment oversight is more than simply trying to invest in the best hedge fund or private equity fund. It requires a holistic understanding and review of the entire organization.

What are your biggest challenges?

Generally, the biggest challenge is staying current on the broad market trends and the trends within each asset class. To best serve my clients, it is important that I understand performance trends in each asset class relative to other asset classes as well as what these trends may signify for future investments in these asset classes. This is an ongoing challenge that all investment consultants face, but it is key to helping clients position their portfolios relative to their specific goals as well as to market trends.

What skills and qualities are most important for an investment consultant?

While a deep understanding of the financial markets is necessary, it is equally important to hone relationship management skills. It can be challenging to learn how to develop and maintain long-term relationships with clients. There are typically committees involved with the decision making process for the majority of my clients. Each person has a different opinion and perspective on the recommendations I make. As a consultant, I have to be prepared for the unexpected and learn to meet, manage, and balance the different and sometimes conflicting objectives of the committee members, the staff and the organization mission the investment pool ultimately supports.

What should students interested in this field be reading?

Working with endowments requires a broad knowledge of different asset classes, global markets and the global economy. Students interested in this field should regularly read The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, and the Economist among other periodicals. Additionally, they should read the monthly and/or quarterly market reviews by industry experts like Bill Gross of Pacific Investment Management Company (Pimco) and Jeremy Grantham of Grantham, Mayo, Van Otterloo & Company (GMO). Lastly, they should read Pioneering Portfolio Management by David Swensen and Foundation and Endowment Investing by Lawrence Kochard and Cathleen M. Rittereiser.