When billionaire hotelier Leona Helmsley died in August 2007, she left the bulk of the fortune she and her late husband had accumulated to a charitable trust — and instantly created one of the largest foundations in the world.
The money, in those early days measuring around $2.5 billion, first landed at JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s private banking division. But when Linda Strumpf, then preparing to step down as CIO of the Ford Foundation, arrived in 2009 to chair the investment committee of the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, her first order of business was convincing the trustees — non-investment professionals still shaken by the financial crisis they’d just watched unfold — that they needed an investment staff of their own.
“In the course of interviewing with the trustees, I told them you need to hire a CIO,” Strumpf says. “I got a call the next day asking, ‘Would you be willing to be CIO for a period of time and help us hire your replacement?’”
Enter Rosalind Hewsenian. Introduced to Strumpf by a mutual friend, Hewsenian would ultimately become the Helmsley Charitable Trust’s permanent investment chief, a job she still holds today.
“We got together and had breakfast,” Strumpf recalls. “The more I talked to her, the more I realized she had an incredible skill set.”
Unlike more traditional candidates for CIO of a multibillion-dollar foundation, Hewsenian had no prior experience as a chief investment officer — making her a “risky” hire, according to Strumpf. But what Hewsenian did have was something the investment chair considered just as, if not more, valuable: two decades of working with public pensions as an investment consultant for Wilshire Associates.
“She knew every asset class on the planet — and knew how to think about structuring portfolios,” Strumpf says.
She also had personality to spare, combining a blunt-force wit with a gift for translating investment jargon into plain English that financial neophytes can understand.
“Part of it is her personality and part of it is her background working with large public funds, but she can explain complicated investment concepts to laypeople better than anyone I’ve ever seen,” Strumpf says. “She can sit down with trustees that don’t know anything about investing and walk them through it with enormous patience.”
Today, Hewsenian runs the now nearly $6 billion portfolio with a team of 12 that peers have recognized as one of the strongest in the industry, nominating Helmsley for Institutional Investor’s 2018 Team of the Year award. Her decades of industry experience have also earned her this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
“She has been a star,” Strumpf says. “Having been through a lot of market cycles, I think that experience has served her well — and served the trust well.”
Despite the love from her peers, Hewsenian’s reaction to the Lifetime Achievement Award underscored her self-deprecating, dry wit.
Upon learning that she had been nominated for the honor, Hewsenian cracked, “Am I dying?”
Before she was an institutional investor, Hewsenian was a special-education teacher.
“I loved teaching, but teachers were getting laid off,” Hewsenian says, describing how the outsized baby boomer generation resulted in a “glut” of teachers. “It was very difficult to get teaching jobs,” she adds. So she went back to school for her MBA.
Degree in hand, she began working in corporate finance, first at Kraft Foods Group (now Kraft Heinz Co.) and then at PepsiCo. It was Pepsi that gave Hewsenian her first investing job: managing the company’s pension plan. She became responsible for both domestic and international pension assets, and implemented Pepsi’s first 401(k) plan in 1982. It was a role that solidified Hewsenian’s desire to work in investment finance, despite the fact that women at that time were “not welcomed with open arms.”
“I tried not to rise to the bait and instead kept my head down, doing good work, and letting that work speak for itself,” she says.
Hewsenian says she told herself that any problems she encountered with other investment professionals due to her gender were their problems, not hers. “They’re not the ones getting a lifetime achievement award,” she quips.
Hewsenian would eventually leave Pepsi to work for one of the asset managers she had hired for the pension plan, joining Dimensional Fund Advisors’ office in Santa Monica, California. But she didn’t stay very long: She jokes that she was “literally raided away” by Wilshire Associates.
A presentation she’d made at the California State Teachers’ Retirement System had caught the attention of Allan Emkin, who was then working with CalSTRS as a Wilshire vice president.
“After we got the account closed, Allan invited me to lunch,” Hewsenian recalls. They had discovered that Dimensional and Wilshire had offices on different floors of the same building, making it easy to meet up. “During lunch, he said to me, ‘How’d you like to come work for me?’”
Emkin proved persuasive: Hewsenian joined Wilshire in 1985, and stayed for 21 years.
“What I found with consulting was that I was getting to work with governmental pension fund trustees who had been tasked with making multimillion- or multibillion-dollar decisions without having the technical skills,” Hewsenian says. “I’d found a way of combining my old love of teaching with my new love of investing.”
Hewsenian only ended up working under Emkin for about four years, but “there’s no question that Roz and I working together created a great team,” Emkin says.
“Roz cared more about her clients than anyone I’ve ever met,” he adds. “She completely put her feet in their shoes and embraced their issues and did everything she could to help them obtain the right goals.”
When Emkin left to form Pension Consulting Alliance, where he continues to serve as a managing director, Hewsenian took over from him as the primary consultant to the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, the largest pension fund in the U.S.
“She had to tackle a whole series of difficult policy issues regarding divestiture, emerging markets, and internal management — and to her great credit, she helped that staff address all those issues in a thoughtful and professional way,” Emkin says. “The thoughtfulness, the work level, the commitment to getting a superior return and meeting whatever objectives were set — those were Roz’s hallmarks. And she managed to do that without giving up an iota of her humanity.”
By the end of her two-decade-plus run at Wilshire, Hewsenian had become the consulting division’s highest revenue producer and served on the firm’s board of directors, with CalPERS and seven other pension funds as her clients. Along the way, Hewsenian picked up a number of lessons that she credits with shaping the rest of her career.
“One of the things that was really important was that I got told ‘no’ a lot,” she says, noting that one of the Wilshire partners was “famous for saying 'no.'”
“I learned to view ‘no’ as an opportunity, not a defeat,” Hewsenian continues. “It just meant I wasn’t creative enough the first time. When somebody told me ‘no,’ it meant I needed to come back at the matter in a different way to figure out how to get a ‘yes.’”
It was only after a lengthy investigation by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission — a probe into Wilshire’s short-term mutual fund trades that Hewsenian says was ultimately revealed to be about improper behavior by the mutual funds — that she decided to leave consulting behind.
“I left Wilshire in August of 2006 not knowing what I was going to do and figuring that I’d figure it out,” Hewsenian says. She was lying on a beach when she got her first call from an asset management firm asking her to come speak to their employees. Word had gotten out that she was a free agent — and asset managers were eager to get her insights. “Now that I wasn’t with Wilshire, they were hoping I’d be really honest,” she says.
One of the firms that asked her to come speak was Old Mutual Asset Management, the parent company of struggling asset management firm Clay Finlay. It was after that speaking engagement that Old Mutual chief executive Scott Powers approached Hewsenian about taking over Clay Finlay, whose CEO, Francis Finlay, was retiring.
She took the job and joined Clay Finlay as CEO on November 7, 2007 — just in time for the financial crisis.
“The market sold off 400 points the day I started,” Hewsenian says. Despite this rough start, she put together a business plan to turn the firm around and spent the next 18 months executing on that plan.
“The biggest issue was I had to deal with employees who had been used to doing whatever they wanted to,” Hewsenian recalls. “Having to get them to be accountable and fix the investment performance and strengthen the firm. I actually had to let several of them go and replace them with others who were willing to work.”
In the end, however, the recession was too tough a blow. Leaders at Old Mutual — which was facing challenges of its own — decided they could not continue to support the struggling boutique. Clay Finlay was shut down.
Hewsenian was back at the beach when a friend called her about the opening at the Helmsley Charitable Trust. When she arrived at the foundation in 2010 as deputy CIO, there was no investment policy and few staff to speak of.
“I was able to take all of the lessons that I learned over my career and, with a blank slate here, put them into place,” she says.
Hewsenian and Strumpf first set to the task of weaning the fund off of JPMorgan. As Hewsenian describes it, they were “building the investment program and the team from scratch.” Hewsenian’s primary mandate, according to Strumpf, was to structure the portfolio and build out an investment office.
But there was another challenge. As Strumpf saw it, Helmsley’s trustees were lacking in investment experience and wary of a market that had just experienced its biggest downturn since the Great Depression. Coming out of the financial crisis — when many endowments and foundations “suffered mightily,” Strumpf notes — the gun-shy trustees had to be persuaded that taking no risk at all actually posed a bigger threat than wading into the market.
“Some of [the trustees] would’ve been happy if we left the whole thing in cash,” Strumpf recalls. “We had to convince them that we had to take risk.”
Rather than divide the portfolio up by asset class, Hewsenian split the fund into liquidity tiers: “safe” assets like investment-grade fixed income, liquid assets such as long equities, semi-liquid investments like hedge funds, and illiquid investments like private equity.
“I had to build up the private capital program from scratch,” Hewsenian remembers. “We had no venture capital, none of that.” To mitigate the J-curve — private equity’s tendency to underperform in the early years — the Helmsley team started out with secondaries, stakes in existing funds purchased second-hand from other investors. “As a result, we’ve never posted a negative IRR in the history of Helmsley’s private capital program at the aggregate level,” she says.
There was yet another wrinkle.
“We started out with a name that was either unrecognized or had a negative connotation,” Strumpf recalls. “It was an unusual thing for a CIO to have to think about for their role, but it was important.” It was yet another obstacle that Hewsenian handled deftly, Strumpf says, adding that today, portfolio managers often say Hewsenian is “at the top of their list” of CIOs they work with.
These days, Hewsenian says, the team is focused on figuring out a way to actively manage that private capital program. “Many investors make investments in limited partnerships and hold them to the bitter end,” she says. “I’m a firm believer that we might be able to sell some partnerships and buy some at the margin that will enhance our overall results.”
Another recent objective has been preparing the portfolio, which mostly funds medical research and health care, for the next downturn. In spite of the Helmsley trustees’ fears early on, the foundation has not yet weathered a bear market. But whether it’s the result of a continuation of recent volatility or a selloff yet to occur, Hewsenian believes the market is due for a slowdown in the near future.
As a result, the charitable trust has allocated more to “safe” assets, while also investing in alpha-generating hedge funds that can provide some downside protection. “We think the economy is going to roll over,” Hewsenian says. “We want cash reserves so we can take advantage of cheap prices and invest.”
It’s this sort of thinking that had led Hewsenian to invest in mortgages after the financial crisis, when they were “performing horribly.”
“We were buying mortgages, taking them from nonperforming to performing, and turning around and selling them,” she says. “I had always learned that the best returns were earned by being contrarian — but being contrarian is a tough sell to those who are risk averse. Here I have an investment committee made up of investment professionals, so being contrarian has played out well.”
Helmsley’s philosophy of not boxing managers into specific asset classes carried over to the investment team, which Hewsenian has structured as a group of generalists who work across the entire portfolio.
“That’s really helped me with my staff retention because people can always look at something new and different,” she says. Strumpf describes the office today as an “extraordinary team,” and Hewsenian proudly points out that two former employees — investment directors Al Kim and Josh Fenton — “came back to work for me a second time.”
“When I look back on my career,” she says, “being a good boss and leading a strong team is what I consider to be my most important accomplishment.”