When most people think of Wall Street, they think of investment bankers in New York City. But for W. Bryan Lewis, a career on Wall Street launched him into the world of pension fund asset management. Lewis’ journey to Wall Street started in North Carolina as a young man who wanted to influence his community through business leadership and now he is one of only a handful of African-American executives in the public pension fund industry. Public pension funds ensure that public employees – the nation’s firefighters, teachers, police officers, and other government employees retire with the benefits they were promised during their careers in public service. The U.S. pension fund industry is the largest of 16 global pension markets according to a 2015 Willis Towers Watson Global Pensions Asset study. Lewis recently stated in a speech that “pensions provide a unique intersection of the global economy with local impact and his ability to provide financial security to members at this intersection is what motivates him daily”.
After working for JP Morgan and Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith Inc., Lewis returned to graduate school at the University of Miami where he obtained his master’s degree in business administration, finance with a focus on investments. After accepting an offer and working for Citigroup for five years, Lewis returned to work in his home state of North Carolina for the State Treasurer in the Investment Management division – leaving as Chief Operating Officer where he was responsible for the management, investment, operational strategy, legislative policy and regulatory compliance of the North Carolina Retirement Systems’ defined-benefit retirement plans for 850,000 participants and over $90 billion of assets.
Lewis recently stepped down as Executive Director of the Illinois State Universities Retirement System (SURS), a $17.4 billion state pension fund to join Pennsylvania State Employees Retirement System (PSERS) as Chief Investment Officer. As the Chief Investment Officer of PSERS he will direct the management of a $25 billion fund – setting forth the investment strategy, implementing the right mix of investments, selecting asset managers – from the largest publicly owned firms to the best small, growing, and emerging, that are many times, African-American owned asset managers. Decisions are made from a combination of analyzing data, being attentive to the markets without being wildly responsive, and focusing on portfolio risk mitigation. It is Lewis’ belief that success in investment management requires having a desired target return, investments with the best managers, and strategies that perform well in all market conditions.
The right mix of asset classes – bonds, stocks, alternative assets such as private equity and real estate is a start – seeking the best performing asset managers and being a patient fiduciary – understanding that institutional investing is a marathon not a sprint, is what differentiates someone with Lewis’ background from a novice investor. At the State of North Carolina, Lewis was charged with creating and implementing an Emerging Manager Program seeking the firms that had a great track record, prudent risk management, strong investment strategy, and owned by minorities and women. “The best managers do not all work for established firms. Many of the best investors are also entrepreneurs with diverse backgrounds with the ability to be positively dynamic in opportunistic markets” according to Lewis.
Ultimately, Lewis thrives on being a fiduciary that helps to provide benefits to thousands of retirees and their beneficiaries. Through a combination of his investment strategy and a diverse group of talented managers, Lewis looks forward to a bright future for African Americans in institution asset management.