The entrepreneur and financier reflects on how the foundational skills he cultivated at Booth continue to help him chart new pathways to opportunity.The Book of Booth: Kendrick Foster Ashton Jr., MBA ’04, JD ’04
Chicago Booth Magazine What Does the Chicago Approach Mean to You?
An alumnus, a professor, and a recent graduate all weigh in on how the school’s unique approach to learning has influenced the way they solve problems.
- June 30, 2020
- The Chicago Approach
Ted Brandt, ’87, is the founder and CEO of Marathon Capital, a Chicago-based investment bank that focuses on global power and infrastructure markets and companies.
I was an Evening MBA student at Booth, and getting my degree took me three years of taking two classes a quarter while also working full time. It was a grind. That’s the only way I can describe it.
What I took away from my Booth education was a respect for markets, as well as The Chicago Approach: a framework for thinking about how supply meets demand, how problems are solved, and how risk is absorbed and distributed.
I think a lot of people come out of business school with the idea that markets can be outsmarted. But it’s impossible to come out of the University of Chicago believing that there’s a bunch of unexploited arbitrage just lying around. Booth taught me that markets tend to be incredibly efficient, and that, while they may gyrate at times, they tend to snap back to what economists call an equilibrium.
You can’t be an investment banker and also be a pessimist. You have to believe in the future and want to innovate while also making sure your company is financially successful, and that your employees and shareholders are taken care of and are making a decent living. My job is to balance these forces as efficiently as possible.
I took my seminal finance class from professor Merton Miller in 1985, and I still remember him saying, “When you hit retirement in 30 or 40 years, you will find that how much you have saved will have been a heck of a lot more important than your investments.” I’m on the other side of that equation now— I’m 63—and I find that he was exactly right. The magic of compounding interest over time is one of the most powerful financial ideas ever invented, and I learned it at Booth.
Over the years, I have hired a lot of Booth graduates as well as graduates of other business schools, and what I have found is that thanks to The Chicago Approach, Booth has been our most consistent supplier of analytically grounded modelers.
One of the things we’re modeling right now, of course, is our response to the coronavirus. We have to ask ourselves: How do we manage our cost structure? What’s the revenue outlook? And who are the key people we have to have in place to order to keep the important clients happy? And that’s where the analytics come into play. One of the things The Chicago Approach teaches you is to get the data before you make a decision.
I started my company in 1999, and it’s a complicated business that involves issues such as valuation, debt sizing, tax equity, structuring, and placement. In order to be successful—particularly at the associate and vice-president levels—you really have to know your stuff when it comes to things like analytics and statistics. Booth provided me not only with those skills, but also with the information I would need to start my own company, by teaching me how the financial world works and what information banks and equity inventors need to see before they will put money into your business.
“What I took away . . . was a framework for thinking about how supply meets demand, how problems are solved, and how risk is absorbed.”
Haresh Sapra is the Charles T. Horngren Professor of Accounting. He joined Booth in 2000.
For me, The Chicago Approach is about how you frame questions to shed light on important issues. We don’t teach specific problems, because the world is a moving target, and we have no idea what problems are going to arise in the future. The coronavirus is a good example of that. It created massive uncertainty and, to many, it seemed to come out of nowhere.
So instead of focusing on specific problems, we focus on creating frameworks or models drawn from fundamental business disciplines, such as economics, psychology, and statistics, that allow students and businesspeople to evaluate and test responses to various problems.
Basically, what we’re saying is, “Here is a model based on certain assumptions. Let’s try to understand how a problem or situation is likely to play out given these assumptions.” It’s a disciplined way of thinking that allows you to alter your approach as new information becomes available.
Without models, you’re basically dealing with anecdotes and conjecture. And that’s dangerous, as we found out earlier this year when certain untested drugs were being proposed as possible cures for the coronavirus.
When we hire faculty at Booth, we want people who are working on ideas, not methodology. And if you learn that your ideas are incorrect, you have to be humble enough to change your views.
For instance, I used to believe that people are rational in their decision-making if given the right information. But I’ve learned over time and experimentation that that’s not true. Even though we try to treat all agents equally, not all agents have the same starting point or the same ability to do things. So I have had to adjust my thinking.
The students who do best at Booth have analytical minds and do not take things at face value. They’re willing to challenge and question things because the animating idea at Booth is that nobody knows the truth. It’s all about thinking through a problem and saying: Given the information we have right now, what should we do? We know we’re going to make mistakes, but that’s better than doing nothing.
Students do enjoy an unusual degree of flexibility at Booth. There are certain basic requirements you have to fulfill, such as accounting, finance, microeconomics, and statistics, but once you get those out of the way, you can essentially create your own curriculum. The freedom to choose ideas that excite you—to follow your dream—is an important part of The Chicago Approach.
And, ethics is very much part of The Chicago Approach. We should be fair. We should be altruistic. We should think about what’s best for society. And by society, I mean everyone, not just one privileged group.
I always ask my grad students, why is this an important idea? How is it going to improve society or the way people think? And behind that is the hope that we can improve, that we can get better. That’s what The Chicago Approach is all about.
“It is classes like these, that are a little unexpected, that provide you with some of your most revealing insights.”
Miranda Runmin Zhao, MBA ’20, MS ’20, will be joining Google as a product manager this summer.
I first heard about The Chicago Approach when I was working for Deloitte and an admissions officer from Booth came in to give a presentation on the school. The presentation involved a video that talked a lot about analytical thinking and the importance of taking an inquisitive approach to business education. But the uniqueness of Booth and The Chicago Approach did not really come into focus for me until I started classes and began interacting with professors and students.
I took a class in Winter Quarter called Leadership Studio, taught by professors Harry Davis and Nancy Tennant, that encourages students to experiment and challenge their own assumptions and, from that experience, develop a framework of what it means to be a good leader. One of the surprising elements Professor Davis introduced was when he invited a musician to come in and conduct a workshop that ended with the class rehearsing and performing a concert. There were so many lessons there about listening and relating to people and building a team.
Booth was the only business school choice that offered a dual-degree program in computer science. To me, that was a unique value proposition because my goal was to shift into product management roles in the technology industry. While pursuing two degrees at the same time is definitely a challenge, two factors have made it possible. The first is the ability to reach out to alumni who have completed a similar program for advice on classes and scheduling. The second is the strong relationships you form with your fellow students in the joint-degree program.
This kind of teamwork and group interaction is an important part of The Chicago Approach, because you learn how to collaborate with people who have different strengths and different working styles. You also benefit from the overall diversity of the group. I took a class called Literature and Strategic Leadership with professor Brian Barry in which we had to read and discuss two classic texts, Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote and George Orwell’s 1984. The class had people from a wide range of business backgrounds and from the military, as well as international students. Everyone offered their own perspectives, and it was sort of mind boggling to see the connections they made between fiction and our professional careers. It is classes like these, that are a little unexpected, that provide you with some of your most revealing insights.
In Spring Quarter I took a marketing class called Consumer Behavior with professor Celia Gaertig that I thought was going to be about conducting consumer surveys and putting together marketing campaigns. But the core of this class is more open ended and conceptual. It’s about psychology and the role consumer behavior plays in successful marketing campaigns. It starts from a more intellectual place.
Business leaders have to make choices that will transform their companies—for better or worse. The Chicago Approach says that if we teach these leaders how to think and how to learn lessons from research, history, and literature, we stand a better chance of going beyond numbers and balance sheets in order to build a better customer experience and also a better working environment for employees.
Illustration by Brett Ryder