With a celebration ever on the horizon, employees of William Blair Investment Management have many opportunities to bond with their colleagues and far more reasons to stay at the firm.
In fact, three employees who have worked at the firm for more than 40 years each will be on hand for the “white elephant” party CEO and Partner Michelle R. Seitz is throwing to celebrate William Blair's second Pensions & Investments' Best Places to Work in Money Management win.
“Everyone has to bring a present and explain the "who, where and why' they obtained the object,” Ms. Seitz said, hinting that a prize for the worst present is likely.
Every birthday is an excuse to bring in homemade treats; hitting $50 billion of assets under management necessitated yet another party; another celebration is required to award bricks to losers of the annual stock-picking contest; and new partners are feted at a much more formal annual event.
William Blair Investment Management employees join with colleagues from parent William Blair & Co. LLC for a winter holiday party that is “a strong ritual, the event no one wants to miss,” said John R. Ettelson, partner, president and CEO of the Chicago-based parent.
Ms. Seitz and Mr. Ettelson share a strong collective memory of the old days — 2001 to be exact — when Ms. Seitz assumed leadership of the investment unit. Back then, WBIM managed $10 billion in 10 strategies, mostly for high-net-worth individuals, endowments and foundations. Mr. Ettelson joined William Blair & Co. in 1984 and assumed leadership of it in 2004.
“We were the chief cooks and bottle washers. It was different back then, when everyone knew each other very well and could speak in Cliffs Notes and be understood,” Ms. Seitz said.
Today, far more deliberate communication is required as 343 investment and support employees handle the day-to-day business of managing $58.4 billion in 40 investment approaches.
Communication has been a challenge as the firm has grown. Mr. Ettelson makes it a practice of wandering the “cavernous” floors WBIM occupies in an older downtown Chicago high rise to randomly strike up conversations with employees. Ms. Seitz brings executives and portfolio managers from different investment teams together for lunch, she said, “so people can get to know each other well. We really want to have an integrated investment management business and to avoid silos.”
“Collaboration is messy,” said David C. Fording, partner and portfolio manager, “and we have a very deep engagement process. Analysts and portfolio managers from multiple teams could all be looking at the same investment idea.”
“I have a very healthy respect for the fragility of the collaboration process,” Ms. Seitz said, which is why she instituted rotating quarterly “deep dive” presentations by each investment strategy teams to the whole investment team to foster better understanding.
WBIM employees deeply appreciate the collegial culture that Ms. Seitz and Mr. Ettelson are building.
“Everyone seems genuinely glad to be here. The people are so incredibly nice and friendly and there is a sense that people here are in it for the long haul,” one employee responded on the P&I survey.
One reason for the long-haul ethic at WBIM probably relates to the fact that “it is very difficult to get a job at William Blair,” according to another employee survey response. Mr. Fording said he interviewed for a total of 25 hours.
“For an investment professional, we hold up a very high bar. Every candidate talks to an average of 30 people here during the recruitment process. We are tough - extremely tough - on the front end because we need to be certain that the person's values and integrity match up well with the firm's culture,” Mr. Fording said.
Ms. Seitz agreed, noting that just two partners have left WBIM during her 12-year tenure and one of those people came back.
“We are very careful about who we marry because divorces are so hard,” she said, adding that “other investment management CEOs complain to me `your people won't even take my call.'”