Financial Sales Manager Joins Dean’s Board, Reflects on Career
Kent Elwell with his son, Michael McGrath
Elwell, 11, and, says Elwell, "the man my
son was named after, my stepfather
Michael McGrath. Three generations of
long suffering Giant fans at the most
improbable [Superbowl] victory ever!"
When Dean Janet Rifkin of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences asked Kent Elwell ’83 (economics), vice president and regional sales manager for OppenheimerFunds Distributor, Inc. headquartered in New York City, to serve on her advisory board, he was both “surprised and honored.” Elwell accepted and is looking forward to helping “with optimism and a heck of a lot of enthusiasm,” he says.
“One area Janet brought up,” Elwell explains, “was the endowment. She made it quite clear that most graduates believe UMass Amherst gets all the money it needs from the state. The truth is that growth and improvement can come only through alumni generosity, so getting that message out is a top priority. But I realize too that connections with alumni must be more than writing a check. We need to help them reignite the passion they had as students for this great university.”
Elwell loved his years at UMass Amherst. “I even miss the ‘chicken pucks’ from the dining commons,” he laughs. (He wouldn’t get those anymore, though, since dining at UMass Amherst has of late consistently been ranked among the nation’s best.) Elwell chose to attend largely because of his sister Kimberly Elwell Colbeck ’80 (marketing, Isenberg School of Management). “My family visited often during my last three high school years. Talk about an extended recruiting trip! One of the high points in my academic career was opening the acceptance letter from the School of Engineering.”
And not long after came one of the low points. “It took only one semester and a 1.41 GPA to realize that I was not going to be an engineer in this lifetime,” Elwell recalls. “I was humiliated, embarrassed, and stunned by my first semester implosion.” Elwell began his second semester determined to show himself that he belonged on campus. He turned it around academically, graduated with a degree in economics and began his journey in the financial world.
“Throughout high school and college,” Elwell says, “I was a maintenance worker at a shopping mall in my hometown of Staten Island, NY. A friend from there had moved on to the investment banking firm Lehman Brothers. She gave my resume to the HR department, and after multiple interviews I was hired in October 1983 as a trading assistant.” Elwell realized very quickly that he’d joined the big leagues. “The chaotic and fast-paced environment was both challenging and exciting,” he says. “I aspired to become a bond trader.”
The following spring Shearson acquired Lehman Brothers. “As layoffs mounted and job security concerns grew,” Elwell remembers, “one of the traders left to join First Boston Corporation. He recommended me to their government bond trading desk, and they hired me as a trading assistant in August 1984.” By June 1986 he was promoted to bond trader: “My dream job,” Elwell says.
Dreams do sometimes turn to nightmares. In November 1988 Elwell was part of a 10% reduction due to heavy financial losses in both the equity and bond trading operations. “It was a bitter disappointment to an incredible and memorable professional experience,” he says.
The next years Elwell worked for different firms in different capacities as he searched for the next big thing. That opportunity arrived on February 1, 1993 when he joined OppenheimerFunds as a regional sales rep headquartered on the 34th floor, Tower 2, of the World Trade Center. At the end of that month, the first terrorist attack occurred.
“Descending the 34 floors took 45 minutes,” Elwell recalls. “The stairwells were packed with people calmly trying to go downstairs. There were no emergency lights and only the flames of lighters showed us the way. With each floor closer to the ground, the smoke grew thicker. I prayed every prayer in every religion I could think of. I truly resigned myself to the fact that I might not make it out alive.” When they finally did make it to the ground floor, Elwell remembers being pushed out of the building while the firefighters and rescue workers were rushing in to help. “I’ll never forget their courage and heroism.”
Elwell was fortunate to have a terrific career mentor at Oppenheimer. “Our former president Jim Ruff, who retired last year, was instrumental in my success. Jim told you how it was. If you listened to his advice and encouragement, you could achieve any objective. He believed in me—it’s a funny thing how a high school coach, a college professor, or a professional mentor can change your life, especially if you believe in yourself.”
Much of Elwell’s success, he notes, has come from lessons learned from his mother. “My parents divorced when I was seven. I watched this dynamic and talented woman take on the world, juggling jobs, bills, three kids and the effects of a nasty divorce, with tremendous drive and a fiery spirit. She was a first-rate butt-kicker (mellowed with age now)—and it was usually mine. But she always had faith in my potential—and she never let me feel sorry for myself.”
Elwell’s stepfather too was a major inspiration and role model. “I was serious about following in his footsteps as a police officer with the NYPD,” Elwell says. “I’d been called to join the February 1982 class at the academy. Young and idealistic, I figured I’d finish my education using NYPD resources. We had a heart-to-heart conversation about realities. His biggest regret, he said, was leaving college to join the force. He never did finish that degree. Because of his advice, I stayed in college.”
Family for Elwell is a priority, but the demands of his professional life can get in the way. “My wife Betsy has a wonderful sense of humor,” he says. “A former CPA, she runs our crazy household that includes Sara, 13, Michael, 11, James, 6, and a nutty dog named Fonzie. We do our best to shuttle our kids to sports, orthodontist visits, and school events, and we help out with coaching and Sunday School. It seems like every family we know in Yardley, PA has the same circus routine.”
Remembering September 11, 2001, Elwell says, “I wasn’t in Manhattan that morning, but spent that day thinking that all of my coworkers had perished. The relief of finding out in the next few days that all of our employees survived that terrible day was tempered by learning that seven of my friends from other companies did not. Ours was the largest company that didn’t lose a single employee.”
Days like that make one reflective. Elwell says it’s important to take risks. “Don’t be afraid to fail, because the odds are, as I have found out myself many times, you will. If your career is based on your passion, you will be wealthier than you can imagine. Life is way too short to hate your job.”
March 12, 2008