Pioneers: Focus on Carol Proffer
Believes Good Business is All About People, Process and Performance
By Jacque Kirkwood
Carol W. Proffer, FSA, started her actuarial career as a member of the actuarial analyst team at Business Men's Assurance Company in Kansas City, Missouri and she's been moving up the corporate ladder ever since. She has held the title of principal, managing director, senior vice president, senior consultant, advisory board member and is currently partner at Capstone Partners, LP in Dallas, a group that raises capital for private equity and venture funds. According to Proffer, a successful person needs strong leadership skills, strong listening skills and good communication skills to remain at the top of the business world.
Tell us about your job at Capstone Partners. Is it what many of us are looking for–a dream job? Capstone Partners is a boutique placement agent operating worldwide. We help general partners raise private equity, venture capital and real estate funds. These funds may be either domestic or international. Normally we help five to eight funds each year, ranging in size from $200 million to over $1 billion. To illustrate, we are currently assisting a unique venture co–investment fund, a growth private equity fund, a U.S. residential mortgage opportunity fund, a French middle market buyout fund, a euromezzanine fund, a U.K. middle market buyout fund and a value–added real estate fund. For me this is a dream job that builds off of all of my prior experience. I am working with a great team of partners–all who have a common purpose and focus.
As a partner in a small firm with a team of 12 in Dallas and six in Geneva, Switzerland, I can do what I like to do best: first, work to build a world class organization; second, select general partners that we will assist; and third, continue interacting with many of the institutional investors with whom I worked in the past. Capstone's business allows me to apply my consulting and analytic skills, my investment experience and my knowledge of the investment markets.
What about Capstone enticed you to join its ranks? I have known the founders of Capstone since 1993. I joined Capstone as an advisory board member when Capstone was formed in September 2001, and I assisted in reviewing general partners seeking Capstone's assistance. When asked to join as a partner in 2004, I knew the partners well. I was totally comfortable with the organization's culture and business model, and I believed in its real potential for great success.
What excites you most about business in general? New investment opportunities for Capstone to consider are constantly being developed. I like the fact that we think about "people, process and performance" for every group we consider assisting. To me, combining soft analysis along with analytical analysis and attempting to properly select funds that meet investors' appetite is a constantly stimulating challenge and exciting opportunity.
Do you travel quite a bit with Capstone? Capstone's business requires considerable travel. Normally I am traveling parts of two weeks each month. Traveling is always a challenge, much more so since 9/11 and the recent airline difficulties, but it is a necessary evil to be endured. I regularly travel to Chicago and major cities in the Northeast and also Eastern Canada. These are cities where there is a concentration of institutional investors and general partners. Periodically, I travel to Geneva, Switzerland and other cities in Europe and Asia. My partners in Geneva make sure that trips there include experiencing the local beauty and culture.
Define success as you see it. Success to me is building Capstone to a sought after placement agent, continuing our stellar reputation and fully assisting each of our clients in raising their funds and building their organizations.
What was the biggest challenge you had to face on the job and how did you approach it? The funds placement business has a longer time horizon than what I dealt with in my prior roles. My job requires matching specific funds to each investor's focus and time horizon. Effectively and accurately representing a fund requires deep understanding and thoughtful communication; it also requires astute questioning. These are skills that I continue to refine.
Would you provide some background as to how you became interested in the actuarial field? When I was teaching math in public school during the day and at a community college in the evening, I happened to see the brochure "What? Me an Actuary?" I used the yellow pages to find firms employing actuaries and shortly was able to meet with two actuaries, Mary Riebold and Bill Schroeder. Discussions with them confirmed my interest in the field. I felt that the opportunity to apply my mathematical training in solving problems for organizations was a good fit for me. So I began a 3 1/2–year process to become an FSA.I first worked at an insurance company doing many things from pricing to developing agent comp; then I joined Mercer where I initially completed valuations and consulted in the pension field. As a part of my pension consulting, I always considered investment issues. When I had the opportunity to be solely focused on investment consulting, I made that transition.
What do you hope to achieve when you come to work every day? I hope to do several things: connect with investors, learn their areas of focus for private equity and real estate, gain commitments for our clients and make good decisions evaluating potential next clients for Capstone.
Do you think the actuarial profession has changed since you first began your career? I think that the application of actuarial training is now seen in many more areas. The basic concepts and processes are applicable in so many areas, all aspects of finance, investments, risk management and corporate leadership. That is great.
What about the actuarial professional makes you most proud? The professional integrity and the strict training for the designations impress me. As well, the profession is maintaining these attributes while expanding its recognition worldwide.
Has your background as an actuary positively impacted your career? Certainly my being an FSA has been beneficial to my career. Applying the actuarial processes such as valid modeling techniques in different situations has been most helpful. Just the recognition of the rigorous training required has a plus. To me, the broad knowledge gained through the actuarial studies and their application in my career has allowed me to move to each new opportunity I desired.
What do you consider to be your most memorable on–the–job accomplishment? I have so many memorable on–the–job situations. Being a part of the rise of Mercer as a human resource powerhouse; helping to build Mercer's investment consulting practice; initiating Mercer's alternative investment consulting; working with so many exceptional clients at each point in my career; helping to rebuild a fund of funds business; making some exceptional investment decisions; and getting investor commitments for a Capstone client. They have all been wonderful experiences.
What makes a day at work just great? At Capstone, getting an investor to commit to a client's fund.
What are the most important lessons you've learned during your career? It is important to learn from prior mistakes and successes. Not repeating the mistakes is most important to me.
Is there any particular person you admire? Why? I continue to have exceptional respect for Mary Riebold, FSA, and Bill Schroeder, FSA. Mary introduced me to the profession and to a basic tenet of actuarial science, the use of decrements. When I joined Mercer, Bill taught me how to value pension liabilities. Throughout my career at Mercer, they were special colleagues as well as friends. I also have great admiration for many others with whom I have worked.
What do you like to do for fun? I play the piano–classical music–every day that I can. My husband and I fish a great deal including fly fishing and he and I spend considerable time gardening. I love to cook all types of cuisines and I read a lot, particularly nonfiction. I'm also involved in my community as I have been on the board and investment and audit committee of a trust company since 2003 and have recently joined the board of my local Habitat for Humanity organization.
Would you share an example of how you took a risk on the job and describe the process and end result? I took a pay cut to move from teaching to enter as an entry–level actuarial student at an insurance company. Moving from a solid base of clients in Kansas City to lead Mercer's investment consulting in Dallas and build a new base of clients was a big risk. Leaving Mercer after 20 years to join a turnaround situation was also a risk, but one I was very excited about taking.
Is there any advice you'd like to share with aspiring/upcoming actuaries? Learn all you can through the exam process; do not assume that you are limited to certain types of employers; and look for opportunities to apply the actuarial training in new ways.
As you see it, what are the top three attributes of a successful person? Leadership skills, strong listening skills and good communication skills are three key areas to develop.
How does it feel to be considered an actuarial pioneer by your peers? I am humbled by this recognition and would hope that I can be of help to others in the field as they progress in their careers.
Jacque Kirkwood is a senior communications associate at the Society of Actuaries.