First in Finance

June 21, 2015

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BUFFALO, NY - Every spring, millions of basketball fans tune in to watch the NCAA’s few magical weeks of March Madness. But at Canisius, all eyes were focused on a different tournament – one that’s considered among the most rigorous and competitive of all college contests.

The Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) Institute Research Challenge pits top university teams against each other in an intensive financial analysis competition. It’s the “Big Dance” of finance (brackets and all). The contest culminated in April when a five-man team from Canisius’ Golden Griffin Fund (GGF) beat more than 4,000 (undergraduate and graduate) students from 865 universities in 70 countries to take home the world championship.

“It’s just surreal,” recalls team captain Matthew Coad ’14, MBA ’16. “There was excitement and relief, and then we started fist-bumping one another.”

Brains supersede brawn in this college match-up, which begins each fall. Teams are assigned publicly traded companies. They then spend the next few months researching and analyzing those companies and outlining their findings in detailed equity research reports that make buy, sell or hold recommendations. In the spring, the students present and defend their reports to financial professionals who judge the teams on their investment skills, professional standards and ethics.

The single-elimination contest starts at the local level where Canisius has established an elite status with first-place success for the past five consecutive years. The world championship now catapults the Golden Griffin Fund into the international spotlight.

“The Canisius team competed against the most prestigious universities in the world,” says Richard A. Wall, PhD, vice president for academic affairs and team faculty advisor. “Our students won based on their knowledge, research, academic training and especially, their dedication.”

The Golden Griffin team invested a combined 2,000 hours to research, write and prepare its 10-page report (plus a 30-page appendix) about its assigned company, Sovran Self Storage Inc., which operates under the name Uncle Bob’s Self Storage. That’s 2,000 hours spent outside of class, and in addition to full course loads and full-time jobs, for some.

“We definitely pulled a few all-nighters but somehow we were able to balance our schedules incredibly well,” says Stephen Miller ’15.

He and teammate Carl Larsson ’15 gave up playing hockey for Canisius their senior years to join the GGF program. “It was a difficult decision but I’m glad I made it,” adds Larsson. “It will be beneficial toward my career.”

Future clients of these Canisius world champions will bank on their educational and professional experiences when entrusting them to turn hard-earned money into nest eggs or college funds. That’s why Canisius took a more innovative approach to teaching investment management in 2003, when Nelson D. Civello ’67 established the Golden Griffin Fund.

Civello, the former president of Dain Rauscher’s Fixed Income Capital Markets Group, developed the student-run investment management program to give students the opportunity to make real investments using real money. Novice financiers select potential companies in which to invest; create and manage portfolio holdings (stocks); and evaluate and recommend companies to add to the portfolio. Throughout the process, students are mentored by industry professionals.

“The Golden Griffin Fund operates just like a mutual fund,” explains Civello. “Students buy a portfolio of stocks and manage them for a total return to clients.”

The Golden Griffin Fund originated with an initial investment of $100,000 from the college’s endowment. It’s currently valued at more than $400,000 and consistently beats the market benchmark.

The GGF program and the finance major have benefited also.

A nearly half-million dollar renovation to the Nelson D. Civello ’67 Family Financial Markets Lab in 2012 tripled its size and equipped it with many Wall Street tools-of-the-trade: A four-color ticker display broadcasts stock and index prices, and a Bloomberg terminal provides live market data and news information on virtually every public and private company.

The renovation helps Canisius meet demand for growing enrollment numbers. With 180 students, the finance major is now the fifth most popular at Canisius. Enrollment in the Golden Griffin Fund has more than doubled from 10 students in 2003 to 25 students this past year. The GGF boasts a 100 percent job- placement rate with firms such as Morgan Stanley, Morningstar and Citi recruiting Canisius students well before graduation.

“That’s a testament to the professors,” says Ryan Zimmer ’15, who turned a summer internship at Wells Fargo into a full-time job. “The professors here push us to do more and to be better.”

In fact, the real value of the Golden Griffin Fund is the educational experience students receive.

“Certainly, we want students and investors to see a return but at its core, the GGF is an experiential learning program,” says Steven Gattuso ’87, MBA ‘89, director of the GGF and president of the CFA Society in Buffalo. “Our objective is to prepare students for what they’ll experience in the job market in a much more effective way than traditional academics.”

To do this, the Golden Griffin Fund functions as a six-credit, 12-month course open only to top-seeded seniors and MBA students in the finance program. The first semester focuses on exploring and analyzing potential stock picks. Students conduct in-depth research on the selected stocks and build financial cash flow models during spring semester. “Students learn to fundamentally analyze companies and select stocks, and how to be independent and objective analysts,” says Wall.

Life skills are built into the curriculum.

“Students have to become experts on their companies so a lot of self-study is required outside of class,” says GGF teammate Kevin Monheim ’15. Students make site visits to their companies; interview management, customers, suppliers and competitors; and present and defend their findings.

“Every couple weeks you’re in front of class pitching a stock, analyzing one in the fund or going over indicators,” adds Stephen Miller. “I used to shake in my boots but now I’m much more confident and prepared when presenting.”

Miller’s confidence and that of the entire GGF team were in overdrive during the CFA global competition. In this “final four” of the research challenge, Canisius beat the University of Florida, Kyiv National Economic University (Ukraine) and Ateneo de Manila University (Philippines) “to prove that it’s not just top- name universities who win this competition,” says Bryan Stype, director of the CFA Research Challenge. “It’s the students who put in the most effort.”

And, the ones who work best together. 

The Canisius squad took a “man-to-man” approach, assigning responsibilities that played to the strengths of each team member. “We were a group of five acting as one,” says Coad.

The whole experience “taught us to work toward something greater than our individual selves” and was exemplified by their coaches, Professors Wall and Gattuso.

“We could not have done any of this without their help,” adds Zimmer. The team’s efforts paid big dividends for the students and Canisius.

The five teammates split a $10,000 cash prize from the CFA Research Challenge. Most plan to use those winnings to settle themselves in new cities, where they were recruited to work.

In the aftermath of the big win, the Golden Griffin Fund received a five-year, $125,000 commitment from Uncle Bob’s Self Storage, which owns and manages more than 500 self-storage properties in the U.S. The gift will go toward the purchase and support of new Bloomberg terminals in the Financial Markets Lab to “put standard industry tools in the hands of students before they hit the real world,” explains Kenneth F. Myszka ’70, the company’s president.

Stock in the college’s finance program is sure to rise, as well.

Like any successful tournament run, this one put the GGF on the map. Gattuso expects that will translate into “a further boost in interest and enrollment from high-quality students,” in Western New York and beyond.

The financial world is also taking notice.

“This is a head-turner in the industry,” says Civello. “The banner of Canisius College is now on Wall Street and in the financial capitals of Chicago, Los Angeles, London and Hong Kong. CFAs are paying attention and asking ‘Who is this college in Buffalo, New York that’s producing such quality finance students?’”

For Canisius, it’s a fairy-tale ending – and beginning – to its very own Cinderella story.

“The perception of us going into the competition was that we were a small school, and so we had a bit of a chip on our shoulder,” says Miller. “Well, we’re not so little any more. We proved our Canisius finance program is not only the best in Western New York – it’s the best in the world!”