After five rounds of competition, MassMutual portfolio manager Phillip Titolo was chosen by chief investment officers and peers for the title of “Next CIO.”
Titolo was the winning contestant in the final round of Institutional Investor’s Next CIO competition, which highlights up-and-coming investing talent at pensions, endowments, foundations, sovereign funds, health care organizations, and insurers.
Twenty-three semi-finalists competed in four preliminary rounds across the country. The top eight contestants moved on to the final round in New York City last week, where they competed on stage in front of 90 attendees at II’s Masterclass conference.
Titolo advanced to the final round after placing second at a March 7 event for insurance and corporate funds in Washington, D.C. Other finalists included Michael Griswold of Ascension Investment Management, Waymond Harris from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, Boeing’s Elizabeth Tulach, Valbona Schwab from CareGroup Investment Office, Sharmila Kassam of the Employees’ Retirement System of Texas, OPTrust’s Wei Xie, and Derek Drummond from the State of Wisconsin Investment Board. Kassam placed second, while Tulach came in third.
[II Deep Dive: Finalists Picked for the Next CIO Competition]
“It was nerve-wracking,” Titolo admits of the competition, which had finalists answering three questions — only one of which they knew in advance — in front of a live audience made up of their bosses and peers. “I didn’t expect to win, but I’m very proud to have an insurance company be the winning firm.”
Titolo, a portfolio manager for MassMutual’s $145 billion life insurance portfolio, has worked on the insurance side since mid-2011, when he started at the Hartford Investment Management Co., the asset management subsidiary of the Hartford Financial Group. While there, he was part of a four-person team responsible for a $2.3 billion portfolio of hedge fund investments. The team was led by Chris Paolino — now a director of portfolio strategy at Titan Advisors — whom Titolo names as one of many mentors who have guided him through his career.
Prior to joining the Hartford, Titolo had worked in alternative investments at Credit Suisse and served as a pension investments analyst at United Technologies — all while pursuing a four-year dual law degree and MBA at the University of Connecticut. Titolo, who also holds the Chartered Financial Analyst designation, credits his brief tenure working under investment chief Robin Diamonte as instrumental to his career, having joined UTC the Friday before Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy.
“I got to see the financial crisis firsthand through the lens of a large pension plan, seeing not just the mayhem, but all the dynamics in the market at the time,” he recalls. “I learned a lot at UTC.”
Senior investors at UTC, including Diamonte, Joe Fazzino, and Charles Van Vleet — now CIO of Textron’s pension plan — “were the first people who took me under their wing,” Titolo adds. “I wouldn’t have gotten to where I am without them.”
It was while at UTC that Titolo was first exposed to the asset and liability management framework, a philosophy popular among corporate pensions and insurers that emphasizes the ability to meet future liabilities, such as the pension benefits owed to retirees.
At MassMutual, portfolio managers like Titolo operate under a similar mindset. “We’re not just investing for absolute total return,” Titolo says.
Due to the long-dated nature of life insurance liabilities, the majority of the MassMutual portfolio is invested in fixed income, though Titolo’s team — which focuses primarily on alternatives — also invests in assets like private equity and real estate.
“It’s nice from an investor standpoint to be able to look long-term when making decisions,” Titolo adds. “We don’t look quarter-to-quarter; we invest over decades.”
At MassMutual, Titolo technically reports to deputy CIO Drew Dickey, but he says the “collegial” culture and flat organizational structure means he is also often working with CIO Tim Corbett and deputy CIO Cliff Noreen.
“The senior leadership here are so knowledgeable — they’ve obviously invested through several market cycles, while I started just before the last credit cycle,” Titolo says. “And here I can walk right into Cliff’s office or call Drew to ask them questions. That kind of exposure is really valuable.”
Despite having been crowned as the “Next CIO,” Titolo demurs when asked if he aspires to become a chief investment officer.
“It is more important to me now at this stage that I work with strong leaders who value what I can contribute,” he says. “I’m still learning — and I hope that doesn’t change.”