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Finance alum leverages interest, education and experience to make a difference

Thursday, June 2, 2011
Finance alum leverages interest, education and experience to make a difference

Robert Manilla, SBA (BS Finance) '85, is at the helm of The Kresge Foundation investment team as its Vice President and Chief Investment Officer. Synonymous for philanthropy, the Kresge Foundation is a $3.1 billion private, national foundation that supports nonprofit organizations in arts and culture, community development, education, the environment, health, and human services.


Having received its last incoming capital from the founder, Sebastian Kresge, in the 1960’s, Manilla and his team are responsible for funding 100 percent of the organization's charitable work and operations. The responsibility is immense, but Manilla is up to the task.  In 2010 alone, the Kresge Foundation Board of Trustees paid out $158 million through 481 awards.


"We have 65 people trying to make a meaningful impact in the world through our grants giving, my job is to make sure we have enough money to do that each year," he says. "I have a phenomenal job."


Stepping stones to success


As an OU SBA student, Manilla took full advantage of the education, experiences and opportunities available to build a foundation leading to a successful career and his self-described phenomenal job.


Key to this success included participating in a hallmark of the SBA program -- then and now -- gaining valuable, hands-on, real-world experience as a co-op student at Chrysler. This early connection to Chrysler led Manilla to a 20-year career there.


After graduating, he moved into a full-time Chrysler position as a budget analyst in manufacturing. Over the next two decades, he gained experience in finance, sales and marketing, product development and international business at Chrysler. Recognizing the value of advanced education, he also earned his MBA from University of Detroit Mercy in 1989.


In his last position at Chrysler, Manilla found his career passion -- managing the pension fund.  Here Manilla discovered an intense interest in investments, which ultimately led to his current position.


"After 20 years, 11 jobs and a variety of valuable experience (at Chrysler), I found something I really liked to do," he says. "The reality of big companies meant that in a couple years I'd be asked to do something else -- but by then I knew I wanted to be an investor."


Taking the lead

Combining his focus, experience and education, Manilla turned this newfound passion into a career when he joined The Kresge Foundation in 2005 as a Senior Investment Director to help build an in-house investment group.


By 2008, he joined the Foundation's leadership ranks as Chief Investment Officer alongside colleagues who hold degrees from universities such as Columbia, University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, University of Notre Dame, Purdue, Carnegie Mellon and University of Texas - Austin.


With his experience, education and passion for investment behind him, Manilla had no qualms about taking the lead. "I joined with another colleague at the same time, and we knew one of us would eventually be the CIO," he says.


Naming Manilla Chief Investment Officer with responsibility for all the organization's investments proved a good decision for The Kresge Foundation. With Manilla at the helm, he steadily navigated the wild market fluctuations of the recession that negatively impacted corporations, charities and individuals alike. 


In 2010, Foundation & Endowment Money Management commended his leadership for hedging The Kresge Foundation's equity holdings and reallocating its capital to U.S. Treasuries just ahead of the economic meltdown. Under Manilla's guidance, The Kresge Foundation's portfolio finished 2010 up 12.4 percent. For the five years ending Dec. 31, 2010, the total return of The Kresge Foundation's portfolio was 7.0 percent, ranking in the top ten percent of large Foundations and Endowments according to Cambridge Associates.


Making connections


Having experienced the combined value of an OU business education and the power of its connections, Manilla offers similar support to today's SBA students -- from hiring graduates to mentoring students by speaking at student events.


Throughout his career, Manilla has been involved in recruiting new talent. Knowing the valuable skills he gained at OU's SBA and the school's success in graduating students with knowledge, skills and ethics that make for good employees, he has returned to campus to search for employees.


During his time at Chrysler, Manilla estimates he hired -- or influenced the hiring -- of more than a dozen OU graduates. He continued that support of SBA students in his position at Kresge, where he recently hired Elena Popova (Economics, '11) as an Investment Analyst (read full story here). This spring Manilla returned to campus as a speaker to share his insight and advice at a recent Beta Gamma Sigma meeting, which also included inducting students into this selective honor society for business students.



Bringing it all together


While Manilla credits the education and hands-on experience he gained through the SBA's program with helping him build a strong foundation for a successful career, he notes his role a student-athlete enhanced his discipline and time management skills. It also offered a romantic connection -- it's where he met his wife, Joanne Mecoli, SEHS (Elementary Ed) '89, who also played basketball for OU.


"I look back at what I learned at OU, being an athlete, and taking that discipline and structure to manage my class work, and get some real work experience through the co-op job all brought me to the place where I am today," says Manilla.


At the Beta Gamma Sigma gathering he shared advice he first learned as a student in Frank Cadimen's class, "Always work for someone who is smarter than you and good at what they do. Quite often I wanted the next job, not because of the promotion, but because of someone I could work with or for."


Hands down, his most memorable class was the capstone course, taught by Cardimen, that gave students a real-world business case to analyze. In this course, Cardimen was in the forefront of business education trends when he challenged students to present a real life business strategy course. This approach has expanded into the SBA curriculum, and business schools today now offer similar models.


"He was my favorite professor," Manilla adds. "His assignments were based in the real world. In this course, we had to take apart a business and present a strategic case about how it should move forward."


It was a unique experience for Manilla. After analyzing a business case for the Heideman Brewery Company, Manilla and his team were selected to present their strategic plan to representatives from the company -- complete with suits and ties. "We tried to convince management that it shouldn't be a stand-alone company, that it would be the perfect candidate to be purchased. Fast forward ten years, and that's exactly what happened."


It's that kind of forward thinking which has made Manilla so successful -- on the court, in college and in his career. And that's why the leaders at The Kresge Foundation trust Manilla to steer Kresge Foundation to continued success.



By Dawn Pauli