March 22, 2012
Passion for Asian Cultures Steers Investment Manager’s Life
Todd Riikonen-Gelinas, holding child, with Robert Parsons, founder and
president of HOPE for Children, at Cho Lach Orphanage in Mekong Delta -
Ben Tre, Vietnam.The best part of being managing partner of Hong Kong-based Pacific Capital Advisors, Todd Riikonen-Gelinas ’87 (economics) says, isn’t about investments and advising. While he’s extremely talented at that, “deciphering foreign languages and cultures and using those insights to gain new perspectives and build bridges” are his major motivators.
“My interest in Asia began in childhood when close family members introduced me to various Asian cultures,” says Riikonen-Gelinas. “My great uncle, Col. Roland Fournier played a key role in organizing the defense of Pearl Harbor and then, after the Japanese surrender, served with the reconstruction forces there. My cousin, Sgt. Maj. Raymond Paquette, served in Korea and Vietnam, and my uncle, Sgt. Maj. George McCoy, PhD, spent a long while in Vietnam and Thailand. Hearing about their encounters with the people and the cultures sparked an interest to experience it for myself.”
Upon graduation from UMass, where Riikonen-Gelinas majored in economics, minored in Japanese, worked as a lifeguard, and joined a fraternity, about $4,000 in gifts came his way. He used it to go to Hong Kong and start a career in the Asian emerging markets.
Riikonen-Gelinas scored a break with Swiss Bank Corporation Investment Banking, starting off as a securities analyst, writing buy and sell reports, and then transitioned to institutional sales, advising Japanese institutional investors. Soon Nomura, then the world’s largest investment bank, whisked Riikonen-Gelinas away to open their Southeast Asian equities trading desk. As their 24-year-old “expert,” he traded millions in stock market positions daily while trotting around major global financial centers, meeting with fund managers, pension trustees, and bankers.
The next logical step was to start Pacific Capital Advisors, which offers strategic relationship management for government institutions and corporations seeking to invest and develop their presence in Asia. “I became a Chartered Financial Analyst and served on various global committees and country chapter boards of the CFA Institute,” says Riikonen-Gelinas. He delved further into investment management theory under professors from Harvard and Stanford and leading practitioners. “I also studied Asian languages and social anthropology at universities in Japan, Hong Kong, and Vietnam, gaining basic skills in Cantonese, Vietnamese, Thai, and becoming fluent in Japanese at the Ni-kyu level.” In time Riikonen-Gelinas won top-10 and top-20 rankings in Nelson’s “America’s Best Money Managers” and “World’s Best Money Managers” as well as awards for stock selection and market prediction in the Asian Wall Street Journal.
Riikonen-Gelinas is proud of his association with the UMass Department of Economics, and has served on its advisory board since the late 1990s. “The department is renowned for producing scholars as well-versed in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations as they are in Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. I’m a free-market capitalist, but the department’s fervent Marxists made for exciting and radical debate,” Riikonen-Gelinas says. “I’ve worked with the Vietnamese since the mid-1990s—and now closely with a major state-owned enterprise run by Communist Party members—and have experienced first-hand the transformation of China since 1987. Having some understanding of the philosophies behind their systems is a huge benefit.”
Life, however, for Riikonen-Gelinas is not all work. Early on in Hong Kong he played for the Valley Knights Rugby Football Club, a motley crew that morphed into a championship squad. He joined the Hong Kong Clay Target Shooting Association and competed in the Asian Regional Shooting Competitions. Never having fulfilled his military calling, Riikonen-Gelinas fell in with the airborne community, going “all the way” at various airborne, scuba, and special warfare schools. Riikonen-Gelinas’ training experiences were “amazing though I broke a few bones in the process.”
Some years ago Riikonen-Gelinas was introduced to Dr. Robert Parsons OBE, founder and president of UK-based international charity HOPE for Children. “Dr. Bob is a shining star of humanitarianism whose organization assists handicapped, orphaned, poor and exploited children around the world. It has been a great honor to serve on his Board of Patrons and help kids.” Riikonen-Gelinas currently devotes time working with women and their infants in the Phuket (Thailand) Prison, as well as in orphanages there, doing “my fair share of ‘head, shoulders, knees and toes.’”
Always looking for students to organize fundraisers, Riikonen-Gelinas proposes that anyone interested visit the HOPE for Children website and learn about the organization and its various projects. “I’m happy to talk to anyone interested in helping out.”
For a more international experience, Riikonen-Gelinas suggests a volunteer stint in a Phuket orphanage. “Write me about your motivations, along with some letters of recommendation. Rotary or Lions have helped facilitate travel (U.S. side) and accommodations (Thai side); a background check is required. I’d partner the student with a staff member from the Prince of Songkla University with which the chair of Child-Watch Phuket is affiliated. A one-month stay would be about right, and there would be plenty of exposure to local language and culture. Of course, I’d want to ensure a good fit. Phuket has plenty to do if one likes nature and the outdoors. The beaches and scuba diving are renowned.”
On a more general level, Riikonen-Gelinas offers advice to students: “There’s a difference between building your career and building your future. Combine your passion with industriousness. If you’re getting a lot done, constantly learning, and having a great time, you’re doing it right.”
Riikonen-Gelinas, is married to Helen Heung-hing Ho, and has a son and two daughters. He lives between Asia, the Middle East, and Massachusetts.