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On the Badger Experience and Why They Give Back: A Conversation with Dean Massey and WSB Alumni

By Clare Becker

December 4, 2017

MBA students listen to alumni Weikel speakers in the Plenary Room
Dean Anne P. Massey moderates a panel discussion with distinguished alumni during the M. Keith Weikel Leadership Speaker Series. PHOTO: PAUL L. NEWBY II

Since its inception in 2004, the M. Keith Weikel Leadership Speaker Series has allowed Wisconsin School of Business students to develop and strengthen their leadership skills through interaction with industry and alumni leaders.

On this 10th anniversary year of the Wisconsin Naming Gift, Wisconsin MBA students had the opportunity to hear from distinguished alumni, two of whom are also Wisconsin Naming Partners, at a recent Weikel Series event. In an interactive panel moderated by Dean Anne P. Massey, the speakers shared experiences from their professional journeys, including getting started in business, recovering from setbacks, and being part of the Badger legacy.

Massey began the evening by thanking the speakers for their commitment and dedication to the School. “We are really lucky to have three of our distinguished alumni and partners here in support of the School…they are very special, both as alumni and in their careers.”

The panel participants were:

  • Signe Ostby (BBA ’75, MBA ’77) is a Wisconsin Naming Partner and a co-founder of WSB’s Center for Brand and Product Management. She is a founder of Software Publishing Corporation.
  • Paul Leff (BBA ’83, MS ’84) is a Wisconsin Naming Partner, a University of Wisconsin Foundation board member, and alum of the Hawk Center. He is the founder of Warbasse67 and the co-founder of Perry Capital. He is a co-owner of the Oakland Raiders
  • Stephen Petersen (BBA ’79, MS ’80) is a University of Wisconsin Foundation board member, generous donor, and alum of the Hawk Center. He is the managing director of Seaward Management and the former senior vice president of investments at Fidelity Investments.

Here are excerpts from the conversation:

On how they got their starts

Ostby: I got my MBA here at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. I had taken Jack Nevin’s product management course and from the second I stepped into that course, I knew that that’s what I really wanted to do with my life. I was really fortunate that that happened to be a year that Procter & Gamble was recruiting at UW–Madison, and I was lucky enough to get a job there and loved every single minute of it. It was a great company, and what I particularly liked about product management is it gave you an opportunity to be the president of that one product. You worked with the R&D team, you did a lot of customer research, you worked with package design, you worked with the ad agency, the sales force, and you worked with manufacturing. I loved managing every single part of that.

Alumna Signe Ostby speaks to the Weikel audience
Signe Ostby (BBA ’75, MBA ’77) speaks to MBA students about her school and career experiences. PHOTO: PAUL L. NEWBY II

On their UW–Madison experiences and why they give back

Leff: It wasn’t one thing, it was a composite. I’m sure I would not have achieved the success I was able to achieve without having spent my time here.

I was fortunate; I had a great career and did well. My priority was Wisconsin—I just simply wanted to give back… I feel like this is my fountain of youth; I still feel young when I come here. I’m all in on Wisconsin.

Ostby: I think it was a really formative time in terms of my figuring out what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I, of course, had a blast. I travel all over the world and I’ve never met a Badger anywhere that when you say, ‘Oh, yeah, I went to the University of Wisconsin,’ they don’t get this huge smile on their face.

Petersen: For me, attending UW–Madison changed my life. My father was a factory worker. I always remember that my first lesson in finance was every night when my dad would come home from work. He’d take a shower. He’d sit down and we would watch the evening news; back then it was with Huntley and Brinkley on NBC. At some point during the 30 minutes, they would have their financial market report where they would say the Dow Jones closed up 10 points today. Of course, I was [probably] nine years old. I asked my dad, “What does that mean?” My dad says, “I’m not really sure, but up is good.”

Education is truly the equalizer for all of us in life. It doesn’t matter who you are or what your background is, what you did, what qualifications you have. There are ways to succeed and it is a meritocracy in our business.

On leadership

Leff: Communication skills are a very important thing to develop…In the investment business, there are difficult moments. Investments don’t always work out, and having those difficult conversations with people that you work with or people that work for you, how you drive to consensus around decisions, how you make those difficult decisions, how people feel around those decisions—it’s really critical as a leader.

Petersen: I was very fortunate that I worked for the chairman of Fidelity, a guy named Ned Johnson. In addition to many other attributes, there were three things about him that I always appreciated.

One was that he was always very ethical in terms of how he approached things. There were never any corners cut at the firm. We always did things as thoroughly and as well as we possibly could. The second factor, which I think is equally important, was that he had a lot of faith in the people that worked with him. He gave them a lot of responsibility. If you went into his office and said, “I think we should do something this way,” he would sort of look at you and maybe debate you a bit, but in the end, he’d say, “well, give it a try and see what happens.”

Dean Massey moderates a panel with Paul Leff, Stephen Petersen, and Signe Ostby
The event also celebrated the 10th anniversary year of the Wisconsin Naming Gift. PHOTO: PAUL L. NEWBY II

The final thing was, you have to show the team that you’re working every bit as hard as they are. I never saw a guy that worked so much and so hard. He was there early, left late, and was really leading by example, which I think is just a great attribute.

On finding mentors

I was really lucky early on in my career to work with a lot of people who were outstanding. And my performance was really key to their success, so it was really important that they make me as successful as I could be. [In the tech world,] I think the one consistency that you’ll have is that there’s a tremendous amount of change. You may be in one job for three months. You may be in one job for a year. You’re going to have at least a different boss every nine months, if you’re lucky.

You need to be able to gain insights from whomever you’re working for. If they’re a great boss or if they’re a terrible boss, you’re going to learn something really important from them.

On pivotal points in your career

Leff: It was a severe stock market event in 1987. I was a young portfolio manager at Harvard Management and my portfolio took a significant hit.

At the end of that day, I kind of had to take stock: I’m thinking this might be the end of the road for my investment career. I was 26 years old working at a very prestigious endowment fund and my portfolio was taking a big hit. I felt sorry for myself for an hour or two, and then…that was my moment. It was, okay, either I’ve got to figure this out or this is the end of the road for me.

On leveraging your strengths, balancing your weaknesses

Leff: I was fortunate that my business partner for 25 years, Richard Perry, had a completely different skill set than I do. He was a people person and brought people and relationship skills to the table, and I was kind of the investment guy. We made that work. We gave each other the space to do our part of the business, but it did over the years require me to be a better people person and for him to become a better investment person. While we had these sort of natural areas we gravitated toward, it wasn’t going to work unless we figured out a path where we could be involved in each other’s strengths. People looked at us as a partnership. It was an odd partnership in the beginning, but I think we’re the longest lasting partnership in the history of the hedge fund industry. We just made it work and really respected each other and were able to be successful.

Alumni Paul Leff, left, and Stephen Petersen, discuss their business careers
Paul Leff (BBA ’83, MS ’84), left, and Stephen Petersen (BBA ’79, MS ’80) share with students their perspectives on working in the financial sector. PHOTO: PAUL L. NEWBY II

On being a Badger

Petersen: We all know what we have here. Maybe the outside world doesn’t know it, but we know what we have here. The Badgers that I’ve come across throughout my lifetime, I think of us as humble and confident. And that’s different than a lot of fancy Ivy League schools. We get stuff done. We don’t look to be acknowledged for every little thing we do; we just get stuff done, we work hard, we’re confident in how we’re going to go about it, and that’s kind of the [community] that we live in.

Read about this year’s previous Weikel Series speakers, Jia Jiang and Bill Davis.