University of Vermont

QVM

College Street to Wall Street

Business students bring their A games to the boardroom

As part of the Wall Street Seminar course, business students trade a UVM classroom for a Manhattan boardroom as their learning ground for a day. (Photos: Mario Morgado)

On Friday, October 20, sharply dressed, a bit bleary eyed, a dozen UVM business majors meet at BTV airport for a 5:30 a.m. flight to New York’s JFK. A big day awaits. They’re the latest class to take part in what has become a rite of passage for many, a day when business students trade a UVM classroom for a Manhattan boardroom as their learning ground. It’s a critical element of BSAD 228, Wall Street Seminar, a course that gives undergrads in the Grossman School of Business experience in professional equity analysis and mergers and acquisitions. Launched in 2003 by professor emeritus James Gatti, it is now taught by Andrew Prevost, who holds the Elizabeth and David Daigle Professorship.

The short flight is a chance to grab sleep or gather thoughts. Queens to Manhattan, the mood is light on the subway. Students crack jokes, listen to a fellow passenger dropping rhymes to help pay his rent, peer at their laptops with one last run through presentation slides. The vibe turns decidedly more serious after they arrive at a Starbucks on 47th and Broadway, where they nervously sip coffee before walking next door to Morgan Stanley, filing through security, then taking an elevator to a boardroom high above the city.

Students on subway

Awaiting them are UVM alumni Steve Penwell ’84, Morgan Stanley’s former director of equity research for North America, and Jamie Flicker ’87, managing director and partner at Greenhill & Co., LLC. After brisk greetings, it’s right to the business at hand. The twelve students in the 2017 Wall Street Seminar, divided into three groups, have spent the weeks leading up to this day at work on a financial projection model to determine the valuation of Goodyear Tire, Abbott Laboratories, and Corning, Inc., then advise investors whether to buy, sell, or hold stock.

Now, it’s time to step up.

The first group recommends buying stock in Goodyear, based in part on projected future growth. Penwell wants proof: “Sorry, I’m not very good at math,” he says. “What’s going to drive your revenue growth in 2018, ’19 and ’20? How did you get there, because I don’t understand the math? You’ve got five years of down revenue and you’ve got them up 2 percent in ’18. Why?”

The students say they are convinced there is pent up demand for certain types of tires. “That seems like a pretty key assumption without any data to support it,” Penwell responds.

“Admittedly, we are putting pretty far across the green per se” Matt Duff says.

“So you want us to putt, but with a blindfold on,” Penwell counters. “You are trying to convince us to put capital into this idea, right? Anyway, let’s move on.”

The questioning seems harsh, but it’s part of a grill-educate-praise routine that Penwell and Flicker have perfected. Flicker tends to play the role of good cop, telling one group, “Look, everything is there and you have a good argument to make. You’ve just got to make it verbally and then you’ve got to make it on a piece of paper.”

Reflecting on the exercise a few days later, Penwell notes that this year’s UVM students were among the best ever to present. “Clients are tough and can be belligerent. You are asking them to invest their money and commit capital,” he says. “I’m trying to impress on students that if you walk into a meeting with a client unprepared, they are going to rip you apart. So that’s part of the method to the madness when I evaluate their work. I’ve become more prescriptive lately, so if they don’t give me what I asked for I’m not afraid to give them some tough love.”

Student presenting

Across the fourteen years of the Wall Street Seminar’s existence, this investment world dry run, coupled with some tough love applied as needed, has been the linchpin of many students’ business education. Gatti says the benefits of the first trip to New York for students far exceeded his initial expectations. To this day, graduates of the seminar let him know how significant the experience was to their careers.

James Keller ’03, a portfolio manager with Tocqueville Asset Management, is among them. “Professor Gatti and the seminar were instrumental in my ability to land my first job,” he says. “I believe it’s a great differentiator for the business school for prospective finance students, giving undergrads the opportunity to be thrown into a real-life situation they might not get at other schools.” 

Keller’s father, James R. Keller ‘72, president of Green Mountain Business Consultants and chair of the UVM Foundation, has funded travel and other expenses associated with the seminar, inspired, to a large degree, by the experience of his son.

“In my opinion, this course was the defining element that put my son on his career path,” says Keller. “I waivered as a senior in my choice of what was to come next for me. I contrast that with James's clear focus on getting to Wall Street and into the investment business. When something is that powerful, it needs to be funded, and in our family’s tradition of giving back to those enterprises or programs that shape us, let us grow and develop, we chose to fund this.”

A similar spirit drives the alumni who make the class possible through hosting the Wall Street visit and giving guest talks up in Burlington throughout the semester.

Penwell, a Wall Street warrior who cut his teeth on the trading floors of the 1980s, and Dave Daigle ’89, chair of the UVM Board of Trustees and partner at The Capital Group Companies, Inc., have donated their time and expertise since the seminar’s inception. “They stepped up early,” says Gatti of Penwell and Daigle, who recently funded an endowed scholarship in the professor’s name. “Almost all of the students in the seminar have gotten high level jobs before graduation, which I would attribute to what they learned from them.”

More recently, the course has expanded to include help from younger analysts and associates at Morgan Stanley. Patrick Halfmann ’14 gave a presentation at UVM on how to give a professional stock pitch. Evan Silberberg ’16 G’17 helped students build a fully functioning financial model before they started working with analysts. “I’m just returning the favor,” says Silberberg.

Someday soon, senior Kyle Hubschmitt may be joining them, but on October 20 he is ready for that same-day round flight trip back to Vermont. “I was nervous right up until we started presenting,” he says. “Once we started I was fine and was actually happy when he (Penwell) started asking us questions, because it gave us a chance to differentiate our work. It was a fun day. The elevator ride down after we presented felt really good. I can tell you that.”