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On Episode 81 of The Edge of Innovation, we’re talking with Alexander Lowry about creating and directing the new MBA finance program at Gordon College.

Sections

A Crisis of Confidence
An Ah-Ha Moment in the Job Search
Working For PA Consulting Group
Moving To London With PG Consulting Group
Moving Back To New York City After Seven Years in London
Scratching The Finance Itch
Working For JPMorgan
Why Gordon College?
Master of Science in Financial Analysis
Building a Finance Program From Scratch
Moving to New England
The Entrepreneurial Side of Things
Building the Vision, the Strategy, the Execution, & the Marketing
Building Connections For Gordon’s Finance Program
Marketing to the Business Professionals
More Episodes
Show Notes

Creating the New MBA Finance Program at Gordon College

A Crisis of Confidence

Paul: Well, welcome to the Edge of Innovation. We’re here today with Alexander Lowry.

But now, that must have been a huge crisis because you lost a job. And the economy… Well, when did you lose the job?

Alexander: So we’re talking the year 2000.

Paul: Oh, okay. 2000.

Alexander: So definitely a crisis of confidence at the very least. As men, I think the general stereotype — and I believe it — is that our identities, if not fully, at least partially, are wrapped up in our job and who we are and how well we do it. So for me, this was a gut-check time of “Am I doing the right thing? Am I headed in the right direction?”

Paul: So what came back?

Alexander: What came back was a little bit of help realizing I was not the only one let go. There were a lot of people losing their jobs at that point because the internet bubble was bursting. And there was probably also an assessment of this is a chance that, to step back and take stock. And that was probably when I first came up with the idea that I could use some help and let’s talk to some other people. Some of my dad’s friends were in business, and were very useful for me to sit down and talk with and learn from and sort of realized that I don’t have to do all this life stuff on my own.

An Ah-Ha Moment in the Job Search

Paul: So can you recall like an ah-ha moment during any of those talks?

Alexander: Well, yeah. I can remember one. So, I want to say about two weeks after I was laid off, I was at a Haverford College mixer/networking event. And one of the alumni, his wife, they were an older couple, was there. And she was a recruiter at Goldman Sachs. So I went up and talked to her. We had a really good conversation. She goes, “You would be a great fit for our position.”

I thought, “Yes, I would.”

And then she started asking me about my career history, and I explained. “I was at my first company for a year, and I left to join this internet consulting company, and then they’ve just laid off all their young analysts.”

She said, “Oh, I can’t hire you.”

I thought, “Why?”

She said, “Well, you’re a job hopper.”

And I said, “I don’t think I am. I’ve got a very good story.”

She goes, “It doesn’t matter. That’s the perception is reality, and that’s what you look like on paper.”

So from my point of view, that was a gut-check in my career thinking I don’t ever want that again. And I was determined that my next job to find a great place where I could grow and develop. I thought, I need to be there at least three years. We’ll talk more about it. Fast forward. It was 12 years, the next job. So it’s never an issue again. Right? But, yeah.

Working For PA Consulting Group

Paul: So, where did you go?

Alexander: So I actually ended up realizing that I loved the consulting, and I wanted to stay in that. But I wanted to be in more of an established company. I loved the startup vibe; I loved the opportunity behind it, the sense that you could grow faster in your career because you’re not in a typical pyramid structure of… Accenture is a good example where they have this very clear pyramid. They bring in tons of young people every year, and you move up. And not that you can’t have a fast-career trajectory, but it’s established. It’s set. And I thought I would like to join a company that somehow mixes the established firm company that is very secure with a startup.

Paul: Okay. That sounds great, yeah.

Alexander: It does. And I actually found one. So PA Consulting Group headquartered out of the UK. It started during World War II. It was Personnel Administration Consulting. The men went off to fight in the war. The women came to work in the factories. They integrated the women in the factories. The men came back after the war. They integrated the men back to the factories. Personnel Administration. And it abbreviated down to PA, so they basically expanded to do every other type of consulting. At one point, they were the second biggest in the world. They had been shrunk a lot, but they were very big in Europe. The Financial Times called them the McKinsey of Europe. Huge name, well recognized. But they were just starting to get a footprint in the US.

So for me, this was the perfect situation. They had, I think, 10, 20 people in the US. I was able to join the New York office at a very critical moment where it was like a startup mode for an established company.

Paul: Cool. Alright. Okay. So did you move? You were in New York still?

Alexander: Still in New York.

Paul: So then what happened next?

Moving To London With PG Consulting Group

Alexander: I worked for them in New York for about three years. And at that point, there was an opportunity they presented me with. They said, “Would you like to go over the headquarters in London?” Now I will also be very clear, one of the reasons I chose this company was also Machiavellian. I did not study abroad in college. I had a great time. I was sitting with professors in their homes junior and senior year, ten people in their living room with very smart people. Really enjoyed that. I didn’t want to go abroad. But I did now. I did. I thought the idea of living somewhere else… Again, I said New York, in my mind, was a normal city. Abnormal, absolutely. But for me, what are the other standards like that? London, in my mind, maybe Paris, maybe Hong Kong. A couple of cities. Can I get to one of those?

So joining this company headquartered in London was always in the back of my mind that that will be of benefit. My assumption was you can always get a transfer to headquarters. Take JPMorgan, for example. If you join them in the London office or the Hong Kong office, New York is the show. If you’re really good, you will eventually get an opportunity to move.

And I became the first American that got the opportunity to go to the London headquarters for this firm.

Paul: Wow. Really.

Alexander: So I was excited about that.

Paul: That is very cool. And so you moved to London.

Alexander: I moved to London. The intent was for what they call secondment. So two years with a third year option. That was the deal. And I got over there and got established, and it was a personal and professional success. So I was enjoying traveling every other weekend, though. It’s a cheap flight capital in Europe, right out of London. Every other weekend you spend a couple of hours, and you’re in a different country, a different culture, a different language — everything else. Just wonder experiences for me.

And I decided I wanted to stay even longer. So after three years, they put me on the local citizenship track. They kept the papers there. I was able to stay long enough to get my passport and the citizenship. So I’ve got that dual standard now. I stayed seven years.

Paul: Wow. Okay. Well, did you leave there?

Moving Back To New York City After Seven Years in London

Alexander: They brought me back to New York. I was missing my friends and family. I felt like I was living a good life over there but wasn’t really established in the sense of… I love the Brits, but they are a careful, closed community, and to be—

Paul: Sort of like New England, but we’ll talk about that later.

Alexander: Okay, that’s good. I need advice. And to break into the circles, you almost had to be dating someone local too. So you need someone to get you in. Right? You needed a reference to get a bank account opened. It’s just the way the society works there.

And from my point of view, I was sort of one foot on this side of the pond one foot on that side, coming back regularly seeing friends and family. And I got to thinking, “Am I going to live here forever, or am I going to go home?” Because if I’m going home to meet someone and settle down and start my life, I’m kind of way behind here. If I’m going to do it here, I better just go all in. So I decided I needed to go back home.

Scratching The Finance Itch

So they brought me back to New York. And at that point, I was thinking, “You know, this is really fun, but I wonder… I’ve never scratched that finance itch. We’d been talking about Wall Street since back in the Haverford days. I think I’d like to do that.”

And the traditional way that someone makes a massive career change like that is business school. That’s the way most people tend to do it. For some reason, it’s so common now to get a two-year traditional MBA — you do a summer internship in between, and you switch — that employers never question it. If you switch most jobs, they say you need a story. You need to be able to explain to someone why. It doesn’t need to be long. It just needs to be clear and believable. You just say business school, and everyone is like “Oh, yeah. Okay.”

So I thought, “Why don’t I use the MBA to switch?” And I ended up going to Wharton to get the MBA, and I also wanted that school, partly, specifically because it is a finance name and it resonates. Everyone hears Wharton, and they’re like “Oh, yeah, finance, Wall Street — makes total sense.” And that was how I switched over to JPMorgan.

Working For JPMorgan

Paul: Wow. Okay. So you went to JPMorgan. What did you do there? What was going to be your job?

Alexander: I joined at a fascinating time. They hired me — which makes total sense — partly because of my consulting background and skill set. And there was what they call the London Whale Scandal. Jamie Dimon famously called it a “tempest in a teapot,” which actually ended up being a really big deal. And what they realized was that they called one of the companies “It’s too big to fail.” It’s just too big to manage is what it is. Even Jamie Dimon, the best banker in, probably, the history of banking, must struggle with it because you have five Fortune 500 companies in one. Absolutely massive. They’re all best at what they do.

And what the company realized with that London Whale Scandal was they actually did not have a true handle on what was going on in the business. When you think about it, Jamie Dimon sitting 50 stories up in the sky does not know anything about what’s going on down below. Information was not getting fed up. They built a brand new unit called oversight and control, which was supposed to sit on top of audit, finance, legal, compliance — everything — to get one source of truth and also to be a single point of contact with the regulators. And the regulators were, say, either coming into the London office and then later coming to the New York office finding the same problems or coming into the investment bank and finding the same problem as the commercial bank. And the business was going, how do we get our own house in order? How do we get this under control?

So they needed that unit established. And I came in, and I helped asset management get it under way, and that’s how I started out.

Paul: Okay. Was that your last job before this?

Alexander: It was not. So after I’d been in that role a year, a year and a half, the business was getting sorted out. Things were under control. We had unearthed a lot of problems, which we expected to, and now we had this long list to solve.

So then in a US private bank — you can think about it as very wealthy clients, affluent individuals — they needed to solve a lot of their problems. So the COO over there said, “Hey, I need a deputy. Come over here. All that stuff you figured out, come over here and solve.” So I was working in the US private bank, deputy COO, which a role I absolutely loved and enjoyed. And another real interesting thing helped. JPMorgan always has fascinating stuff going on. They decided to accelerate the recovery for Detroit. Remember this was when Detroit was going through bankruptcy — big problems. JPMorgan committed $100 million over five years to help accelerate that, which was a huge opportunity.

Now, at that point, our private foundation was already one of the, say, 25th biggest in the country, giving away about 240 million a year. But that system had been set up a long time ago, sort of being held together with Band-Aids. You’re going to add another 100 million on top of that, it would have fallen apart. So I was brought over to be deputy COO there and help solidify that and get it under way. And unbeknownst to me, I did not actually know at the time exactly why that was happening, but there was a clear plan. That role helped set the foundation for where I am now. And, I don’t want to jump ahead too much, but that got me one foot in the nonprofit world already, which led to the academic rollout.

Paul: Interesting. Okay. And is there another job?

Alexander: No, no. So that was four and a half years at JPMorgan.

Paul: Okay so four and a half years at JPMorgan and that brings us to what?

Alexander: Then we came here to Gordon College.

Why Gordon College?

Paul: Why in the world did you…? So you said you were never interesting in academia. And you were never interested in this. Let’s go down this road a little bit. If Gordon hadn’t happened, where would you be?

Alexander: I think we would have ended up in Colorado. So the other thing going on at this time — which we’ve talked a lot about professional — there was the personal life. And my personal life was changing. We talked about being in London. It felt like I hadn’t fully settled down into the roots. As I got back, that was what took up a lot more importance in my life. And I’m fortunate now, just over two years married to the amazing Rebecca, and she is a blessing in my life. And as Rebecca and I were courting and getting ready to get married and were engaged, she said to me one day, she said, “I don’t think you working a hundred hours a week at a bank is really going to be good for us.”

Paul: Yeah, good. Good for her.

Paul: Yeah, she’s great at challenging me in very healthy ways. And I said, “Good point, darling.” So we began thinking about what that could look like and feel like. And we thought, well, you know, we want to settle down. We want to have a family. We’d like to have a house, maybe a picket fence, the dog — whatever it is.

And her brother’s out in Colorado. And we know that it is just an amazing and beautiful place, high quality of life. It’s so popular, all the companies are either relocating or building offices there. And we thought that’s where we would be going as well. So I began looking for opportunities out there and found some really good ones. But about that same time, this opportunity at Gordon College came up.

Now I’ll be very clear, I had never heard of Gordon before. It is a fantastic liberal arts school, but it wasn’t on my radar. You know, I’m a New York fan. It wasn’t really coming to the Boston area.

Paul: Right. Exactly. Well, exactly. It’s an outlier, at best for you, especially. But it wasn’t just an outlier of a school. In other words, this small school in north of Boston. So you’re sort of like oh, my gosh. I’m in finance. That’s like going from being a doctor to something completely different. And so how did that even get broached? Because it’s sort of like maybe you can’t even teach.

Alexander: Well, I think I can, and we’ll find out soon. And that’s a good point. So it’s not as big of a leap, when I explain it, as you’ll think it will be. So I’ve actually done a lot of teaching in my past, and that’s only a part of my job. Leading, it is more. But, so I’ve done a T8 at Wharton and at Haverford and did a lot of running of presentations is part of consulting and a lot of training.

So I’ve got all of the teaching aspect in my background, but it was less about me being brought over to teach. It was more of there is this unique program that was an exact fit. But let me sort of finish off the story from where we were just a moment ago.

So Gordon came and actually found me. I didn’t find them. It was through some friends, again, people on my board who said, “Hey, I know you’re looking in Colorado for these sorts of finance opportunities. This is not what you’re thinking about, but you would be a great fit for this role.” And in my mind, one of the fascinating tests in doesn’t have to hold is, do you find the job, or does the job find you? Which I always find a little more fascinating.

And my wife and I looked at it and, again, wrong geographic direction, wrong sports teams, our family is other parts of the country, so it wasn’t what we were looking for. But when we started digging into it, I realized, in many ways, this is a perfect fit for me. So I probably need to describe the program for just a minute to help you understand what that is.

Paul: Okay. Yeah. Let’s go ahead.

Master of Science in Financial Analysis

Alexander: So the Master of Science in Financial Analysis, again, let’s just call it Masters in Finance — rolls off the tongue a little more easily. This is designed to be a one-year program for people to get a fast track to a great career in finance. And I will contextualize it against a traditional MBA, just because that’s the easiest thing to wrap our head around.

When you go to an MBA, like I go to Wharton, I went to Wharton to study finance, but every MBA program is generally set up the first year you do a little bit of everything. They want to make sure you’re a generalist with some knowledge about strategy, operations, marketing, finance, accounting — everything under the sun. You do your summer internship where you’re testing out do you really want to specialize in the field you think you do. And you come back, and you go, “Yeah, that’s great,” and you spend your second year doing deep dive — marketing, finance, whatever it is.

So I went to Wharton knowing I wanted to be in finance. I’ve already done all the general stuff in consulting, but it was still a great brand for me to have. Compare that to the program that we offer. The assumption for us is you know you want to be in finance. Right? So therefore, you don’t need that first year of general knowledge. You’re just going to specialize. So therefore, it’s half of the opportunity cost in terms of time — and that’s expensive because it’s lost salary. Obviously, there’s a program component cost to it. Average MBA is $140,000. And the top school like Wharton, getting closer to 200.

We charge 30 because we don’t want big debt loads for our students.

Building a Finance Program From Scratch

Alexander: So for me, it was exciting to realize, okay, we were going to build a program from scratch in finance, my field of enjoyment and expertise, all of my project management background, which we might talk through, is great for setting that up. I love being out there and engaging with students and coaching and developing them. Teaching in some of the classes will be exciting. So there were just a lot of reasons we felt like there was a unique opportunity.

Another part of it is you’re talking a small school. We’re not talking Ohio State. We’re not talking big, established brands. You’re building something which is entrepreneurial — I know we’ll get to that. Another part of it is at a smaller institution, you don’t have the same — I’m going to call it — rules, rigmarole, structure. You have some of that at Gordon, but it’s not like at a place like Ohio State where you have to be locked down. Otherwise, it’d be chaos. Therefore realizing there’s probably so much value I can add in other ways to the school. So that was the professional part.

The personal part — my wife and I got up here and visited. This is a beautiful part of the country. I also know I’m going to love three seasons. We really got here and experienced winter. I don’t know about that one as much, but I think it’s justified by the other three. You’ll tell me. But, we’re excited about that. We’re just had our first child, and we just bought a house, and we get to settle down and enjoy this wonderful lifestyle with a better work-life balance in academia.

So all of that is, to us, a big package, which was what made it very attractive.

Paul: Alright, I guess it’s almost like a 180-degree turned.

Alexander: Dramatic.

Paul: Yeah, a dramatic turn.

Alexander: A lot of people actually challenge and say, “Usually people go the other way.”

Moving to New England

Paul: Yeah, exactly, yeah. So now you have a new job, and you’re here in New England in a new world, in many more ways than one. And for those of you who aren’t in New England, New England is an interesting place. You’re not considered somebody who — how would you put it? You’re a newcomer if you’ve been in town for 25 years, okay? And after 25 years, they sort of accept that you’re going to be there, and then you just automatically become a regular, a “towny” if you will, depending on the town you live in.

But it’s really amazing. My wife was born in and raised here, so she’s a New Englander, but for me, it was, against, get some of that by association, but now that I’ve been here over 30 years, it’s inconsequential. Resistance is futile I guess I should say.

So, you’re here. And you’ve been here since January.

Alexander: Well, I started in September, moved up in October.

Paul: Okay. Alright. So, not long at all.

Alexander: Less than a year.

Paul: And so you need to go out and you’re going to sell vacuum cleaners door to door. And you’ve got to sell 30 vacuum cleaners this year for $30,000 apiece. Is that right?

Alexander: Something like that.

The Entrepreneurial Side of Things

Paul: Yeah, you’ve started a new business, effectively. So let’s get into a sense. This sounds like Gordon is being very entrepreneurial with the department that is there. So this finance department or this role is saying, okay, let’s make a go of it, and you’ve got support from Gordon to do that, but you ultimately have to put the people in the seats.

So you’re on a process of that as you’ve been sort of peeling this onion, I guess. What are your hopes, dreams, concerns, plans? How are you going to…? You have a magic wand?

Alexander: Well, that’s interesting because at the moment people ask me, “How are you doing it all? How are you doing, physically getting all of this done?”

I said, “Well, at the moment, it’s just me, myself, and my dog, and I don’t have my dog yet.” So a lot of it’s just the chutzpah and the manpower. My wife would tell you I don’t sleep enough working many days a week. But all of this is great and exciting.

Building the Vision, the Strategy, the Execution, & the Marketing

A big part of it is building the vision, the strategy, the execution, the marketing that get people excited. So a big part of the program for us is just sharing, raising that awareness that if you are going to a great school, and you’re in Podunk, Wherever, no one will know, because the big employers cannot come to you at a small school because you don’t have enough people to justify their time.

Paul: Sure. Okay.

Alexander: So part of the outreach is we have this great school. It’s a program custom-built for you, and it’s right outside the financial hub of Boston. When we talk finance jobs, Wall Street is, of course, what everyone thinks about. That is number one. Number two is a close between San Francisco and Boston. Lots of big companies either headquartered or large presence in Boston. It’s on our doorstep where we have all the connections. And we feel like, for some students, it’s saying, “You come to our program. You get this great credential that makes you stand out.”

So when I got an analyst role at JPMorgan, I was feeling I would have a stack of resumes the size of my hand. I don’t know how many hundreds I would get. How do I take that to a small pile that I might actually look at? Part of that would be if I see someone who has a differentiator like some Master of Education. That shows me they actually care about it, and they’re dedicated to it. You combine that to try to stand out in the market against access to the companies in your local backdoor with strong connections. We feel like that’s a very viable opportunity for a lot of people when you think about this is probably the first time in the last eight years that the businesses expect to hire one to two percent less college grads than they need the previous year.

Paul: So, I can imagine. Let me put this to you. You have people who, if you could get to them at that inflection point where they’re thinking “What do I do next?” or they’ve said, “Gee, I’ve got to do something with finance.” If you could be at the Starbucks when they just spit that out of their mouth and said, “Boy, I’ve got to find a good finance program,” you’d like to be able to sit down next to them and say, “What about considering this?”

So how are you doing that? Because it sounds like you’ve built this in your own life, this mentor system, the personal board. They may or may not have that. But it seems like you’re taking a much more holistic approach that, I think that maybe five years from now, you want to look back, and you have gotten a bunch of people that have personal boards that are advising them to go into this, and they could choose this smaller school to do this and be well on their way to a good career. So how are you thinking about that sort of instantiation or the realization of that, I guess, is what I want to say?

Alexander: So, in terms of how you would take that and execute it for a program like this, to me it’s stages. Take it as project management terms. Like, you cannot do it all at once. You’ve got time, cost, and qualities you’re trying to all balance and how do you want to balance that? Do you want to be average on all of them or good on whom of them? And what I would rather do is make sure we’re building a very strong, quality program and building it with a small cohort initially.

Building Connections For Gordon’s Finance Program

Alexander: So it’s how do you build school connections — a couple of key schools — and leverage it out from there while you’re perfect your messaging. And, we’re thinking about different cohorts of how do you appeal to the locals for the part-time program, build connections with businesses that not only will bring in students as interns or hire them but also will want to send it to their employees and say, “Hey, you should be aware of this program. Take it as a benefit.”

At the same time while going out to undergrads and connecting with them or looking at people that are maybe thinking about an MBA, and you could go to them and make the pitch of, well, instead of a two years and much higher cost, it will fit your needs because you can do it this way. So part of it just the bandwidth of building all of that marketing capacity and taking it to market.

Paul: So I think there’s some things that bear sort of digging into a little bit. So one of your market segments, if you will, is for the undergrads, to talk to them — “Hey, what are you doing next? This is an option. We’d love to talk to you and educate you through that and help you make the best decision for yourself.” And is that the nature of it? Because you go to a website, and it’s so impersonal. And you see a brochure, and it’s so impersonal. Are you trying to break that personal barrier? Are you saying, “Hey, call me. Email me. Let’s talk about your career.”

Alexander: Great question. So I think about it as how do I get change agents. How do I get advocates for the program? And undergrads are a great way to think about it because they are all at an inflection point when they graduate. Whether they go to grad school or get a job, they’re going to do something or take a time and go study abroad. They have to make a decision about something. And you want to, just as you said, if you could find the right people at the right time with the right information, it’s magic.

So senior year, for example, is the right time for people to be saying “Oh, you know what? Maybe instead of grad school, I’ll go work for a little while first,” or “I will consider my other options.” People are wrestling with those decisions. And they’re often wrestling with their advisors. You asked me back at Haverford, “Well, what were your advisors saying? Or your faculty members saying?” If you can make connections with people at the right schools — and it’s no different from any other business. Right? Who are going to be the people that influence for you? There’s only so much of your own time that you can go out and bang on door to door to sell the vacuum cleaners. But, you think about in social media today, if you could have someone on, who is a LinkedIn Influencer or who has got a huge Twitter network, someone like that… Imagine, on your podcast, if you got someone who is incredibly famous — Richard Branson sat down today — like he would sell your podcast to everyone else just by his name just being associated with it.

In some ways, if you can do that for us, if you could get some of the right schools around here, some of the influential faculty members, hopefully will help sell the program.

Marketing to the Business Professionals

Paul: Okay, so now, that’s definitely applicable to the undergrads, but then there’s also this other market opportunity which are professionals. And how do you think you can reach out to them? Like you’ve said, sort of going to local companies, I think that’s a brilliant idea, is to go where they are. But, is there any magic grand plan there?

Alexander: Part of it is, we think about it in different ways. So you could use maybe the geofencing term as a way to think about it. If you were tracking the people who are local to that area, either live or work there. So for example, I had one person who said, “Oh, two years ago, I had to fight traffic to go to BC to get their one-year master’s program. I would have much rather not have fought the traffic and just done it locally.”

So sharing that message and getting that out there is a very smart thing to do. But, of course, you’ve got to figure out the right channels, like for any business. How do you communicate what you need to communicate? Do you go on podcasts? Do you focus on buying ads on Facebook? Are you going to conferences and getting speaking slots? So I’ve gone to some of the North Shore Chambers breakfasts, having connect with the influencers and make that happen.

Paul: Sure. You could wear sandwich boards and just walk up and down streets.

Alexander: That could be the most… Maybe in the summer at the beach.

Paul: There you go. There you go. Definitely a challenge, and I think that’s why I sort of leapt to the “You’re an entrepreneur” because you have an idea; you have some wind at your back with the institution; but you really have an idea and some process, converting that into a business or a success is really a huge step to make that happen.

So, we’ve been talking with Alexander Lowry of Gordon College.

Alexander: It was a pleasure, thank you for your time today Paul. I enjoyed it.

Paul: Well thank you for coming in.

More Episodes:

This is Part 2 of our interview with Alexander Lowry. If you missed Part 1, you can listen to it here!
Stay tuned for Part 3 coming soon! We’ll be talking with Alexander Lowry about Ethics in the Finance World and more!

Show Notes