In this special series, we celebrate the university’s 125th anniversary by catching up with the graduates of 1989, UI’s centennial year, sharing their success over the past quarter century and their hopes for the years ahead.
Raised on a 40-acre ranch outside Coeur d’Alene, Jeff Scott grew up accustomed to hard work. Morning and afterschool chores had to be done – taking care of horses, cows and pigs. The weekends might mean mending fences. School was a two-hour, four-wheel-drive bus ride away in Coeur d’Alene, and not optional.
That early experience established a strong work ethic – one that Scott carried with him to the University of Idaho, where through the College of Business and Economics he received the hands-on skills and industry knowledge to help him become a leader and innovator in finance.
“Back in my early days at the University of Idaho, I wasn't exactly sure what avenue I was going to take in school,” Scott said.
But in his junior year, a finance class with instructor Tom Liesz proved fascinating enough to lead him to a senior-level investment class with Mario Reyes, now dean of the college. A group project in Reyes’ class put Scott to work on an investment using simulated money. Racing home to watch Lou Dobbs’ “Moneyline” TV program in the afternoon, Scott realized he was hooked – he won the contest, and as his fellow Vandal, future chemical engineer and soon-to-be wife Carmen noticed, he had discovered a passion for finance.
Fortunately, in 1989, UI’s centennial and Scott’s senior year, a generous gift of $100,000 from J.E. and A.D. Davis, founders of the Winn-Dixie supermarket chain, helped create the Davis Investment Group at CBE, a then-$200,000, student-managed investment portfolio. Real money, real decisions, and real consequences were all part of the class.
“At that time 25 years ago,” Scott recalled, “maybe a few programs in the whole United States had real money to invest by students. It really helped us to take what we were learning in the classroom and apply it in the real world. So that definitely kicked off my career – gave it a big head start.”
Relationships with professors were an important part of Scott’s experience at the University of Idaho – to this day, he exchanges Christmas cards with many faculty members.
“I knew the professors by name, they knew me by name, and they took interest in us,” Scott said. “It wasn't the great buildings or the big trees, it really was the individuals that were there at the time, that are there today, that made a difference on my education. And that's how I fell in love with investing and finance.”
Moving to Michigan with his wife after graduation, Scott leaned on his hands-on investment experience at UI to work his way into a job at Dow Chemical Company, a Fortune 100 company. Applying for a job in the finance division, he found that the highly competitive openings most often went to graduates of elite, Eastern schools. But the practical experience he’d gained managing real money at U-Idaho helped convince Dow that hiring him was worth the chance.
“Getting my first real job at Dow Chemical Company was showing that I had experience of actually buying and selling stocks, buying bonds, and setting up an investment portfolio,” Scott said. “Given our experience with actually managing real money and what we were taught in the classroom, I think our classroom experience, because it was a small number and it was pretty in-depth, was just as good. My hunch is that it was better than some of these elite schools.”
He began by working on modeling for leasing rail cars and a “sophisticated” tax-exempt swap that relied on a derivatives-based strategy. He was able to recall an options and futures class taught by Reyes to help execute the swap, and his career at Dow took flight.
Eventually drawn back to the Northwest by the quality of life, Scott took a position in Microsoft’s treasury department, helping lift the company’s portfolio from $5 billion to $80 billion through the 1990s. He went on to manage the Alaska Permanent Fund – a nearly $40 billion account by the end of his tenure as chief investment officer (CIO) – before forming KEI Investments, as CEO and CIO, and Wurts and Associates, where he also serves as CIO today.
Wurts and Associates manages investments for large institutions. That enterprise, starting with a portfolio of about $800 million, has grown to a $20 billion venture over two years.
“Typically our clients are institutions where we're managing money oftentimes for a pension plan,” Scott described. “The value-add is that if we do a good job, there will be money to pay the participants when they're retired. So it's extremely important.”
Over the course of that successful career, Scott has also found it important to stay connected to the University of Idaho, where it all started. Among many commitments, he served on a committee that helped create the Barker Capital Management and Trading Program. Now a signature program in CBE’s unique Integrated Business Curriculum, the Barker program offers students the chance to do develop hands-on capital management skills.
“There are not very many trading programs where you're trading futures and derivatives,” Scott said. “You're actually going in, you've got your Bloomberg screens and you're making trades. And so it gives the students a unique perspective on some of the things that happens on Wall Street and in Chicago on trading.”
Allowing students to take real money and try to make it grow is what helped set Scott on the path for success. Of course, students also face the risk that money might be lost – another real-world scenario that can actually be an opportunity for growth.
“You get to actually feel what that pain is like,” Scott said. “And it's how you handle yourself when things are going against you, because in your career, there will often be times – it may not be managing money – where things are not going the way you expect it. How do you deal with adversity?”
Judging by the past 25 years, Scott has relished adversity and challenges. And he’s committed to making sure others have the same opportunity in the future.
“Our 25 years in being involved in giving to the University of Idaho, my goal isn't to have a better housing for the students or a better soccer field or baseball field – that's not my goal,” he said. “My goal is to try to make an impact on somebody young like me, lower-middle-class, that they get an opportunity to be involved in the university that changes their life for the better. If I can give and give them an opportunity, hopefully it'll grow.”
“Idaho is what changed everything, because coming out of high school, I had no clue what I wanted to do,” Scott said. “And it comes down to a few individual professors and the unique opportunities that the business school offered that you really couldn't get anywhere else in the country.”