My Story: Vanguard’s Chief Investment Officer Greg Davis

In his last careers blog, Managing Director and Chief Investment Officer Greg Davis uncovered key moments from his time at Vanguard. In this blog, Greg looks back at his upbringing, his early job history, and why he ultimately came to–and stayed at–Vanguard.

Greg familyI was born in Germany and raised in a U.S. military family. We were a multicultural, multilingual family; I spoke German with my mom and English with my dad. Of course both parents understood the other language, so there was no pulling one over on either of them. Both of my parents worked, and I was co-raised by my maternal grandmother who spoke primarily German. My grandmother was an instrumental part of my childhood and spent a lot of time with me at home. The summer before second grade, we moved to the U.S. and settled in South Jersey.

Throughout my childhood and young adult years, I looked up to my older brother a lot. He achieved a great deal of success in the field of computer science, and he did it without a college degree. In fact, I’m the first person in my family to attend a four-year college. But because I so admired my older brother, I first decided to follow in his footsteps and start my high school education at a vocational-technical high school, where I could spend half my day working on computers. As I was thinking about college, initially my plan was to study computer science or engineering. Once I arrived at Penn State, I loved the math side of my education but found myself less interested in chemistry and mechanical drawing. As a result, I decided to change direction and focus on studying business. Post-graduation, I went into the insurance industry as an underwriter, followed by a stint as a premium auditor. While both roles were great experiences, I still felt as though there was something else that would be a better long-term fit for me.

During these years, I would periodically drive by Vanguard’s campus. Although I never thought of pursuing Vanguard as an employer, I was curious about their trading floor and Vanguard’s approach to investment management. I started researching the markets and the investment side of the insurance industry. I had no idea I was planning my future career.

In order to break into the investment side of the business, I realized I had to pursue an advanced degree, so I went back to school to pursue my MBA at Wharton. This afforded me an opportunity for a Wall Street internship in Fixed Income Sales & Trading. Fortunately the internship was successful, and I was able to leverage that experience into a full-time opportunity at a large NYC Investment bank in a Fixed-Income Trading rotational program. My timing wasn’t great, as shortly after starting the program the Asia Financial Crisis swept around the globe, leaving a very significant mark on many of the Wall Street Banks. Our rotational program was abruptly ended and I was placed into a non-trading role and I was extremely unhappy. The truth is, I felt as though I was settling. I decided to start looking at opportunities at other firms. Then a childhood friend, who happened to be a Vanguard recruiter, asked for my resume. I was hesitant at first, but she finally convinced me to meet with a man named Ken Volpert, who at the time ran Vanguard’s bond index team. During the interview, Ken talked about career options, Vanguard’s investment philosophy, and company growth, but it was something else that piqued my curiosity. Ken spoke about how dedicated he is to developing people and how he makes sure his crew get opportunities to learn and grow. At that moment, I knew I wanted to work for him and Vanguard.

I started as a trader and quickly saw how my values aligned to Vanguard’s investment principles.  Not only had I found a firm whose mission I connected with, but I also discovered how many people advocated for me to get exposure to projects, resources, tools, and new experiences. I loved being part of the trading world–getting involved in the markets, owning something right away and seeing it through to success. As I grew and moved into bigger roles, I was able to then provide personal and professional development skills—those that I learned and admired from Ken—to other crew that I’ve led and mentored. It’s refreshing to see the focus on development come full circle.

Because I believe so fervently in developing others–including leaders of leaders–often someone will ask me, “What do you do when someone isn’t performing well?” I advise leaders to start by having an honest discussion with their team member about that person’s performance–what’s not going well, what they need to do to improve, and how you as a leader can support them. There seems to be a misconception that nice cultures don’t give strong feedback, but that’s actually a rather unkind approach. No one should ever have to guess why their career isn’t moving forward.

Greg family

Of course, there were setbacks along the way. I recall a time when our bond index funds experienced a period of substantial underperformance, bonds that we owned were being downgraded to junk (below investment grade credit rating). It’s quite distressing to see something you’re responsible for underperform. Luckily, the team rallied and reengineered our approach to bond indexing. As painful as that experience was, it allowed the team to learn and improve our process, which helped us be well-prepared for the global financial crisis of 2007-2008. That team-focused mentality is why I’ve stayed at Vanguard for over 15 years. In addition to hurdles, there are also moments of pride: watching my team rise through the ranks to become officers and senior leaders. I’ve also loved watching Vanguard grow–adding a personal advisor business and expanding outside the U.S. This means better outcomes for our clients.

Moving to the U.S. from Germany–and having to quickly improve my ability to read, write, and speak English–taught me a lesson I’ve carried with me from childhood until now: If you’re comfortable, you’re not growing.

You never know, your future just might be in that building you drive by every day.

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