‘The Things That Rusty Did Even 40 Years Ago Would Be Considered Cutting Edge Today’

A reporter writes about interviewing pension guru Rusty Olson, whose work pre-dated that of David Swensen, last year for a profile in Institutional Investor.

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II Photo by Becca Gilgan

Rusty Olson, the former Eastman Kodak CIO likened to David Swensen in his impact on the investment industry, died on December 23 in Rochester, New York.

Under his oversight, Kodak’s pension was one of the best performers in the nation. He helped ensure that tens of thousands of Kodak employees — including himself — were able to retire and pushed asset owners to be more sophisticated and savvy.

Olson devoted much of his career to Kodak’s pension fund. After 15 years in Eastman Kodak’s public relations department, he went to Harvard Business School, then returned to the film company to join its treasury department. He was the first-ever chief investment officer at Kodak, spending 29 years in the role before his 2000 retirement.

“Rusty was in the vanguard of our business,” said Kodak’s current CIO, Tom Mucha, by phone. “A lot of the things that Rusty did even 40 years ago would be considered cutting edge today. Maybe more importantly than that, I think Rusty really understood that what was important was the fiduciary part of the business.”

I met Olson in the fall of 2022 at the suggestion of Mucha, who considered Olson a friend and mentor since he joined the pension fund more than ten years prior. I started writing about institutional investors only after Olson had retired, so I didn’t know him. But Mucha didn’t have to say much about Rusty before I got just how important his impact on the fund had been. I was eager to write about the then 90-year-old’s work and how it quietly changed how asset owners operated.

I planned a trip to Kodak’s offices in Rochester and where Olson still lived with his wife, Jeanette. In preparation for our meeting, I read one of Olson’s five books on endowment and pension investing and was struck by how early he was investing in strategies like venture capital and portable alpha. Olson was the real deal — how had I never heard of him?

Indeed, after our meeting, I spoke with Bridgewater founder Ray Dalio about Olson. He compared Olson’s impact to that of Swensen: “Both were great,” Dalio said at the time. “If you made me bet on who would win over the long run, I’d pick Rusty. While David Swensen justifiably gets a lot of credit for making the endowment model and [for] his focus on equities, especially private equities, in my opinion, Rusty was stronger in understanding all asset classes, betas, and all managers’ alphas, and how to put them together to make a good portfolio of return streams.”

Mucha, Olson, and I met at the company’s headquarters on the top floor — the CEO suite where all the old Kodak ephemera still lives. Olson had dressed up for the occasion in a sports jacket and collared shirt. We talked for about an hour before Institutional Investor’s photographers stepped in. They shot images of Olson and Mucha on Kodak film in the CEO suite, on the balcony that overlooked Rochester, and downstairs, when we all met with the rest of Kodak’s investment team over lunch.

Olson was kind during our meeting and humble. He shared with me about his past as a public information officer who had studied journalism before earning his MBA and pivoting to investment management. He was generous in sharing all he could about his work at Kodak, downplaying its impact before Mucha jumped in and reminded us both of how he shaped the fund’s success.

Kodak employees, perhaps like anyone with a pension, were eager to talk about the value. Just an hour or two after our conversation, Mucha’s assistant, Melissa Higgins, joined us on a balcony. She pointed across the city to the company’s business campus, where her husband works. The two, like many in Rochester, will one day benefit from the retirement program that Olson set up and that Mucha and his team now steward.

“I had a vested interest in my own job,” Olson said during our meeting. “And I think one of the things I can be satisfied about is that through our 401(k) plan and the pension fund, both of which I was deeply involved with, it’s benefited tens of thousands of Kodak people. They don’t know it. They don’t have to know it, but I know it when I go to bed at night, and you can know it too.”

Beyond his work as Kodak’s CIO, Olson helped manage the endowment funds of the Girl Scouts of Genesee Valley and Planned Parenthood of Rochester in the 1970s and ‘80s. For 30 years, he also helped manage the funds of his church and the nonprofit, Children Awaiting Parents. He served on the investment committees at Rochester Regional Health, the United Way of Greater Rochester, Strong International Museum of Play, and Friendly Senior Living.

It was an honor to write the story about Olson and Mucha’s friendship, which Institutional Investor published in June 2023. It’s a rare treat to write about someone’s impact and legacy while they’re still alive. I cherish the day that Olson, Mucha, and I spent together, and hope that I was able to capture Olson’s impact on the industry while he was still with us.

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