Interview #2: Jeff Branstad, CFA
Jeff Branstad is a Senior Investment Product Specialist at Thrivent Financial, where he serves as an expert on investment products, portfolio construction and asset allocation strategies as well as serving as a resource for economic, financial market and specific asset class commentary. He also supports other areas including product management, product development and product marketing. He received his undergraduate degree from Luther College in 2004 and later earned his MBA from Augsburg College in 2007. He received the CFA Charter in 2010.
Tell me a little bit about yourself, where did you go to school?
I received my undergraduate degree from Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, where I majored in Economics and Accounting. The business department did not have a specific “finance” degree, but I was able to take a handful of finance courses. I was always interested in the investment industry and my dad is a Financial Advisor, so I had been exposed to the industry to some degree. However, I wasn’t certain what I wanted to do when I left school except that I knew I didn’t want to be an accountant.
So being an accountant is out. Where did you land your first role?
I got my first job out of college at Thrivent, which is where I’ve worked to this day. I was in the mutual fund administration department where my responsibilities included performance reporting and SEC reporting. It technically was an accounting job, but there were no debits or credits, so I was okay with that. The position gave me a great introduction to the investment industry and I got to meet and learn from a variety of investment professionals at Thrivent. After some time in that position I concluded that I did indeed want to make a career in this industry.
So is that when you felt it was the right time to pursue your MBA and CFA charter?
Yes. After spending about a year and a half at Thrivent, I knew I wanted to pursue both an MBA as well as the CFA charter. I felt the CFA charter was going to be a better differentiator, but I still wanted an MBA, so I chose to complete that first at Augsburg, which allowed me to start right away and finish quickly, too, since they offered an accelerated program. When I completed my MBA and started towards completing the CFA exams, it was in the midst of the 2008-2009 slowdown where hiring in other areas ground down to a halt. So while at Thrivent I tried my best to branch out into other departments, doing different adhoc projects when needed, which included doing some work for the product management department. I was fortunate enough then to work my way into their department and was offered a job that was much more investment-specific, which is the job I have today. The position has a great deal of breadth compared to something like an equity analyst responsible for covering a specific sector, and having that variety is one aspect I really enjoy. I get to work closely with our Investment Professionals as well as our sales representatives across the country which gives me a lot of perspective on how the entire investment process flows from the portfolio managers all the way through to the ultimate shareholders.
When did the CFA program first come on your radar?
I was actually thinking about this question on my way over to meet you, and I have to admit I can’t recall the designation ever being mentioned during my undergraduate work at Luther. If it was mentioned, it certainly wasn’t stressed. I understand that its presence at the collegiate level has been growing, with many college courses even aligning themselves with the CFA program to teach a curriculum similar to what you may find at various levels of the exam.
Outside of college, however, I found the CFA charter to obviously be much more well-known among industry professionals. For someone who is younger and trying to break into the industry, I think entering the program shows your dedication to developing yourself as a professional within the industry. This initiative can help set you apart from the perspective of a hiring manager searching for potential employees. I think completing levels of the exam shows that you’re bright, that you’re willing to commit yourself to this industry and that you have the capacity to learn the material, all of which indicate that you have a higher probability to be successful in your career. So to summarize, I think it’s a great program and a huge asset for young professionals in the investment industry.
How would you compare and contrast the MBA and CFA?
I would say they were pretty complementary. I pursued a general MBA rather than a finance-focused MBA, so the curriculum didn’t overlap as much with the CFA program. As for as the challenge of obtaining each, one of the big things that sets the CFA charter apart is that it’s a self-study program, which is obviously not the case in an MBA program. While some people may be able to kind of slide by in an MBA program, that’s going to be virtually impossible for the CFA exams. I found that since I was so much more accountable for the results in the CFA, I got a lot more out of the exam process. Never before had I gone through a period of such intense studying compared to undergraduate and graduate school.
So to wrap things up, let’s talk about your study strategies. You had just completed your MBA and were still working at Thrivent. What worked for you?
Until I had a good study space at home, I would stay late and study at my desk at work. This provided me with a quiet environment with little distraction, and had the added bonus of making everyone at my office think I was working 12 hours day. At first I would study on weeknights when I didn’t already have plans. Then I would stop actively making plans and study every weeknight. As I got closer to exam day, I would keep incrementally increasing my studying: longer hours, more time on the weekends, etc… Then the week before the exam I always took Wednesday through Friday off from work for continuous, uninterrupted study time. For level 1 and 2, I used only the CFA curriculum; I didn’t supplement the CFA text with any other study materials. Then for level 3, when the end was in sight, I pulled out all the stops and purchased the Kaplan Schweser study materials. I can’t believe I didn’t use that for the first two levels! I found the QBank from Schweser and the practice exams to be especially effective tools to drill the concepts into your head. I learn more by doing, so I got much more out of repeatedly doing questions from the study materials and mock exams, then evaluating my results and focusing more on any areas that I struggled on. If I had one piece of advice for people sitting for the exam it would be to fully commit yourself to your studying: No matter what method you use, make studying your top priority and your odds of passing will increase dramatically.