Michael Weilheimer '83 2015 Commencement Address


Dean Siegel, members of the faculty, administration, family, friends and most importantly, the class of 2015, Congratulations on this wonderful achievement. This is a truly special day for you, and a milestone in your life. Also, a special shoutout to your parents and grandparents, many who have made significant sacrifices in their lives to enable you to achieve this milestone. You owe them a special thank you for helping make this day possible.

Before I start my remarks I would like to acknowledge the late John Levato, Associate Dean of the School of Business for 20 years and a member of the UAlbany community for more than 40 years. His commitment, his passion, and his ability to advise and motivate his many students, including me, will always be remembered.

As I reflect back at my time at UAlbany, boy things have changed. Today you have fast food restaurants on campus, a beautiful new School of Business, and two basketball teams that regularly make the NCAA Basketball Tournament. And, I might add, a heck of a lacrosse program.

When I went to school here it was called SUNY Albany, we were playing Division III, there was a bar in the campus center, and yes, RAs were not forbidden to “mingle” with students in their dorm. And a good thing for the latter, as I met my beautiful wife, Janis Greenberg, serving as her RA.

But as I thought about what I wanted to say to you today, the theme is not about change. Yes, when I was looking for a job I literally had to walk up and down Wall Street and Park Avenue stopping in the personnel department to fill out an application. Quite frankly that’s how I got my first job at Morgan Stanley. I’m still not sure why, but someone took a chance on me, someone liked what I was offering, they liked what I was selling!

And it took me about 10 years to realize that’s what it’s all about. To succeed you need to sell yourself that’s right: sell yourself, who you are, what you stand for, your capabilities, your accomplishments and even your failures (and why they’ve made you better).

In marketing they taught you about brand management. Well I would argue that in the abstract this will be your most valuable concept. Your brand, your brand, is what you’re selling. It will need constantly refining and defending, and it will come to define you. Your brand will have a huge influence on your ultimate success. The good thing my fellow graduates, is you are your brand manager.

I have heard commencement speeches centered around “Think big,” or “Take chances,” or “Make mistakes.” I would like to approach things from a different tact. It’s not that I want to dissuade you from thinking big (you should), or taking chances (when warranted), but I’d like to talk about achieving success by building and marketing your individual brand. Though far from complete, I’d like to offer up a few observations for you to consider.

Often people will tell you to find your passion and follow it. I would tell you the same thing. But as a recent graduate you may still be in the process of defining your passion. I was lucky. As a teenager, I really enjoyed reading equity research reports looking for investable ideas. Though I never figured that one day I would be managing over $10 billion in high yield bonds, I knew I had a passion for investing. But whether you have discovered your passion or you’re still defining it, you can start your career by acting with passion at every opportunity that comes your way, intensely focused on the job at hand. Acting passionately to achieve a goal is infectious. Whether the task at hand is exciting or mundane, taking a passionate approach, applying yourself intently, will produce your best work and you will get you noticed. To start, define your brand as passionate and focused, versus dispassionate and “just doing a job.”

Second, project confidence. Now I know this is easier said than done. Many of you might be thinking how I can project confidence when I’ve never done the job before. I have no experience. Well don’t ever succumb to the voice of doubt, the fear of failure that all of us have had from time to time. Do you think that the person before you had specific training for the job? Do you think that even if some did that it guarantees a greater chance of success? I doubt it. Realize that you have actually had a lot of relevant and transferrable training all along. For one, you’re academic coursework and training here at UAlbany School of Business is rigorous, and one of the better programs in the country. But also realize this, through your many life experience as well as your academic studies at U Albany, you have learned how to identify problems, to correctly frame the issues, and then to accurately solve for that problem or situation. You’ve done it many, many times before. Problem-solving is the most important skill set employers are looking for that is a skill set you have, and that’s why your brand should project confidence.

The Boys Scouts have a motto, “Be prepared.” Simple, yet the best advice one can give. As you look to build your brand, as you think about how you want others to view you, always being prepared is paramount. For instance, if you’re interviewing for a job and haven’t spent at least several hours learning everything you can about the firm, the industry, and the position you’re interviewing for, you’re simply wasting your time going on the interview. Often in interviews with young candidates, I find that they are just responding to the specific questions. And then we’re done. Well, whether it is in an interview, a sales call, a company meeting or a big presentation, have a game plan. Identify what you want to impress upon the party across the table, what you want to leave them thinking about. Have a strategy to sell yourself, your product or you’re idea. Try to identify areas to focus on, and possible questions that might arise. In an interview for example, weave in experiences that exhibit transferrable skills like leadership and problem-solving and things that help define and differentiate you. The advice “just be yourself” sounds good, but being prepared will serve you far better in achieving your goals and building your brand. Being prepared will surely get you noticed.

Jimmy Johnson, the legendary former coach of the Dallas Cowboys said “The difference between ordinary and extraordinary is that little extra.” Most times this means long hours, meticulous work product, extra preparation. Sometimes it means just asking the question again until you understand the answer. And sometimes it’s simply just doing a little more due diligence. Several years ago a bottled water company called Le Nature came into our offices looking to raise financing. Their financials showed that company sales were losing momentum. But the CEO claimed that they had recently started up a low cost manufacturing facility and were ramping up production for very large customer, Stop & Shop. So on my home I stopped at a Stop & Shop, walked down the water isle, and found that there were only two six packs of LeNature bottled water on the top shelf. When I lifted one off the self, it was covered with dust. And when I went to pay for it, the register was unable to scan it. After rechecking, the woman at the counter proceeded to tell me that that SKU was discontinued and she’d charge me 99 cents if I wanted it. The LeNature 9% senior notes got issued that week without our participation. Within one year the CEO was behind bars on fraud charges and bondholders were left with a big zero. Being meticulous in your due diligence, doing that little extra, is an easy selling point to your employer and will serve your brand exceptionally well.

A wise friend once told me “Every time you make a plan, G-d smiles.” Whether in sports or in business, having the ability to adapt from the original plan will further your chances of success. Having flexibility and patience will give your brand time to flourish. I wanted to be a stock investor. My first job, though, was in foreign currency operations. Not stocks… but it got me into the business with a pristine company. Four years later, after getting my MBA from The University of Chicago, my first job was investing in distressed debt securities. But when our hedge fund closed in the middle of the 1990 recession, we moved our young family to Boston. I did workouts and distressed investing for Eaton Vance’s leveraged loan product. Three years later they moved me to the high yield group and within three years I was running the entire group. Today it’s going on 20 years. I wanted to be a stock investor, I thought I’d be living in New York, but I needed flexibility and patience to allow my brand to grow, and flourish and be appreciated.

Along that way there were opportunities to jump to competitors. But remember, when you change employers you leave a lot of brand equity behind. Though we try, we can’t always control a new environment. A new boss that doesn’t keep his word, co-workers who want to undermine the new employee, or a new firm that lacks the resources you left behind. This is not to discourage you from changing jobs. Just do it for the right reasons, for big reasons. Be patient and make sure you’re decision reflects strategic, long term thinking about who you are, what you want to accomplish, and how this continues to build your brand.

Highlight your brand with humor and humility. Years ago I was at a dinner table with the late Margaret Thatcher, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. The conversation turned to how much she liked Ronald Reagan. She went on to say how arduous and laborious some of the G7 meetings would get and, at times, how boring the French and German ministers were. “But then Ronnie. Ronnie would crack a joke, or poke fun at himself and everyone would rally.” If Ronald Reagan, one of the most well liked and well respected presidents of our time (and yes, I’m pandering a little to Dean Siegel), could poke fun at himself, so can we. Injecting humor, at times self-deprecating humor, can humanize a situation, allow people to identify with you, like you and appreciate your brand more.

Lastly, what’s the cost/benefit to show appreciation, to say thank you. I’ve financed thousands of companies over my career and I still remember the only CEO to call and thank me after the bond deal was done. That was Donald Trump. Donald Trump, one of the most successful promoters of his brand that I can recall. So whether it’s finishing every email with a thank you, thanking the cleaning help for taking out your garbage as you work late hours, or writing a handwritten thank you note after an interview (a very good strategy I might add), you can only increase the value of your brand by showing appreciation and respect to others.

For those of you who have a job congratulations. For those of you who don’t, don’t panic. I didn’t get my first job until October. Many companies don’t even begin hiring until September. The good news is that the job market is stronger today than it’s been in the last eight years. We should create 2.5 – 3 million net new jobs this year. The baby boomers are starting to near retirement ages. There are new industries popping up all around us. Trust me, there will be a lot of opportunity for you. But in order to capitalize on these opportunities you need to build, nurture and sell your brand. You need to make conscious decisions, really think about the decisions you make, the actions that you take, and how they reflect on your reputation. In today’s high-tech world there are a lot of potential pitfalls. Take for example Justine Sacco. According to a February 2015 New York Times article, Ms. Sacco, then director of corporate communications for IAC, tweeted the following to her 170 followers as she boarded a plane from London to South Africa. “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” When Ms. Sacco arrived in South Africa she was the number one worldwide trend on Twitter, she had been terminated from her job, and she had a huge “scarlet letter” on her brand.

As you sit here today know that the most important time to focus on a brand is when it’s being launched. That’s when the buzz is most important. Today you are standing in front of a clean whiteboard ready to create your brand. If you define it with passion, confidence, preparedness, humor, humility and appreciation, if you support it with patience and flexibility, and if you go the extra yard when called for, you’re chances of success will increase immeasurably. But if you remember anything about this commencement address, remember, your brand is your reputation, it’s what you stand for, it’s what you embody, and it’s what others will define you by. In every walk of life, always contemplate the possible implications of your decisions and actions on you brand. UAlbany has given you the skill set to succeed in the workplace and in life. Now it’s up to you to mold them into a successful brand and sell it. Good luck to you on this exciting journey, and congratulations, to you, the Class of 2015.