Marcia Page, '83 MBA & co-founder and exec chair of Värde Partners in Minneapolis, addressed graduates on character and making good life and career choices during her 2018 commencement address.
Marcia Page grew up as the oldest of three children in Olivia, Minnesota - a long way from the London and Singapore regional headquarters she would later establish as part of the global investment fund she co-founded in 1993.
Growing up, Marcia gained an entrepreneurial education working in her father’s Snyder Drugstore, learning the value of customer service from him. From her mother, Olivia’s first female mayor and a University of Minnesota regent, Marcia gained the quiet confidence to challenge the status quo and to blaze her own trails, something she would most certainly do.
After graduating with her B.A. in Economics from Gustavus Adolphus College and her MBA from the Carlson School, Marcia joined Cargill. There, she developed a keen analytical sense for finding opportunities while trading distressed and high-yield bonds and managing fixed-income portfolios. From Cargill it was on to EBF & Associates, an alternative investment firm. She served as vice president, and helped establish and manage Merced Partners, an investment partnership.
Read and watch Marcia's full remarks below.
Dean Zaheer, Vice Provost McMaster, Regent Beeson, members of the faculty and administration, families and friends and, most importantly, members of the graduating class of 2018: congratulations all! Thank you for allowing me to participate in your great day. Dean Zaheer, that was a very kind introduction. It is truly my privilege to address all of you here today. This is a great day, of course, and for many reasons, some perhaps not so obvious. Just one example: it will be one of the few times in your business life that does not include PowerPoint slide. Which is a good thing, in case you were wondering.
As you prepare to close out one chapter and begin another, I’d like you to think for a moment about when you first became interested in the world of business. Many people see business as the best path to a great job. For some, it reflects the influence of teachers, or friends. For others, it is an area of great intellectual interest. Some of you – and you know who you are – still aren’t sure how you wound up at the University of Minnesota in the first place, let alone with a business degree. I first became interested in business in a town about 100 miles west of here. My father, as Dean Zaheer noted, was a pharmacist and owned a small store. I worked with him in that store for most of my years as a student. For him, the heart of his business was exceptional customer service. He put the customer at the center of all he did. My father thought of it simply as taking good care of the people he served every day. Reliable, thoughtful, considerate – he helped people. What I recall most clearly, though, was that Dad was the same person with customers or on the phone, as he was at family. He treated us the same, decently, fairly, warmly. He did not become a different person when he put the pharmacist’s jacket on. That was just who he was. When I eventually went off to college, naturally I wanted to be a pharmacist as well. And it seemed like a good idea, at least until I got into a wrestling match with organic chemistry and lost. Badly. But I did have a capacity for math and business, and found both to be intriguing. They helped explain and serve as the framework for much of what took place in the world around me… and it looked like a good combination particularly if I wanted to get a job. All that led to receiving a degree from Carlson – which, and I hope you find this reassuring, was one of the best decisions I ever made. Carlson gave me the incredible grounding on which a career could be constructed.
Following my graduation, I was fortunate to get a position as financial analyst at Cargill here in the Twin Cities. And I was even more fortunate when an executive named Bob Lumpkins took a chance on me. One Friday afternoon, Bob asked me if I knew what high yield bonds were. This was the early 1980s, and junk bonds weren’t widely known yet. I told Bob that I thought I knew what high yield bonds were, and then spent the entire weekend feverishly researching and learning everything I could about them. On Monday morning, he took the recommendation of this 25-year-old woman to purchase $5 million in high yield bonds. I learned two important lessons from that experience, one at that time and the other, the more important one, not until much later. At the time, the experience with high yield bonds gave me a greatly expanded view of what was possible in the markets. Of what was a much broader range of what finance and investment could encompass. Not until much later, though, did I realize what had actually taken place. I was being given a lesson into what character means in the workplace and in life. Bob Lumpkins gave me several opportunities and regular, honest feedback. After I went into business with two partners, he became an investor in our funds and he still serves as a mentor today. He placed “chits” on me and took the long view. This wasn’t simply the employee development approach of a successful executive. It reflected a generosity of spirit and openness that defined him as a person.
After Cargill, I moved on to become a portfolio manager at a hedge fund in the late 1980s. It was a frenzied era in many respects. You may have heard about some of the business behavior from that era. You heard correctly. Much of the behavior created characters; character, not so much. I was able to make money in that era, but the culture of arrogant power, belittling, inequity and short-term horizons left a bad taste in my mouth. I wasn’t always happy with the way people behaved, whether in their personal interactions or in business dealings. It wasn’t that I was naïve to the ways of the world. I just didn’t like it, and I refused to believe that being a jerk was a prerequisite for success. So I joined with two of my colleagues to set up our investment advisory firm, which we called Varde Partners. Varde is Swedish for value, and we intended the name to reflect the value we would find and create for our clients, and to signal the importance of values in our approach to business. Just to be clear, we also wanted to make some money, which in turn can also serve important societal benefits. By offering good returns on investments, we and other firms help investors, such as this University, to fulfill there social missions. Our business is focused on alternative investments, meaning alternatives to traditional debt and equity. Many of these are complex and difficult to understand and many of them also hadn’t existed a decade before we started our firm. They certainly hadn’t been on the curriculum at Carlson because they hadn’t been created. That may well be the case for many of you. The sectors you may become involved with might not have existed 20 years ago. Or, as happened with me and countless others, you may find yourselves in fields and jobs you haven’t even thought about at this point or ones that will change radically.
But there will be a constant throughout the jobs and the career you have, the one thing that stays with you the entire time: who you are as a human being, the “content of your character”, as Martin Luther King put it, your values, your attitude, your approaches and, more than anything, your behavior. For people can and will judge us only by what we actually do. They will view you based on how you treat them and others, in moments large and small, personal and professional, public and private. Our words matter only so far as they connect or disconnect with our actions. We are not judged based on who we think we are – but rather how others see us. And, as I suspect you are learning, there is often a gap between how we view ourselves and how others view us. It’s part of the reason that my interviews of job candidates generally include a question about external feedback and prior reviews. Back in 2011 I had my first “360-degree” review at work. That’s where an individual is assessed by the people who work for them, their peers and colleagues, their boss or bosses – a full view of the individual. It was a real surprise to me. Not everyone saw me as the enlightened and engaged person I believed myself to be. Which was too bad, because I was perfectly happy in that little world of mine. Indeed, my review pushed me to demonstrate more leadership across the entire firm – not just in the investing realm which was most comfortable to me – and to leverage my time to increase my impact. The good news for me was that I had a choice. I had a choice in how I conducted myself, in how I acted on what I told myself was important, and the ways I showed up for colleagues, friends and family. You have a choice too. Just like my dad had choices to make, and Bob Lumpkins did at Cargill.
We all have real choices to make about how we treat people in the countless interactions that make up day-to-day life. We elevate – or we diminish - the perceptions they have of us. Importantly, that includes a choice about the people with whom we work. Now, sitting here at graduation, some of you may be anxiously waiting for your first job offer, let alone being able to choose among two or more. But the day will come when you do have to choose, and just as your character and qualities matter, so too will the character and qualities of the people and organizations you join. David Brooks of The New York Times captured this well. He wrote, “It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful.” Sitting here today, you may see the big decisions in front of you being about jobs, careers, or your finances. But to Brooks’s point, I suggest the biggest question is one you will have to answer everyday: what kind of a person are you?
What kind of person do others think you are? Your answer won’t come in response to an essay question or job interview. It will come in the way you choose to treat people, in how you help others in their careers, in the small and the significant. It will come in the people you choose to work with and for. The way in which you answer that question will impact the course of your life and affect all the people you touch. Your choices will lead to actions that will accumulate over time into what people will know as your character. And given how deeply business is woven into the fabric of life, your choices will be shaping society for years to come. Your choices will have consequences. Fortunately, you have received a tremendous foundation here at Carlson and from the family members and friends who have supported and rooted for you all along. Stay close to those who know you well as you make the decisions that will move you through your life and career. You are the next generation of business leaders in this state, country and world. I can’t wait to see how you answer the call. Thank you very much.