The Finance District of St. Petersburg is Getting a Game Changer

The new Merrill Lynch Wealth Management Center opened in downtown St. Petersburg, at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg (USFSP) Kate Teidemann College of Business (KTCOB). Dr. Sridhar Sundaram has been hard at work preparing the college and surrounding area for the Center’s opening, and academic programming scheduled for the fall of 2018.

Dean Sundaram first joined the USFSP team in 2016. He has accomplished many things in his first two years as Dean, with his most recent being the addition of the Merrill Lynch Wealth Management Center. He brings with him a wealth of knowledge and the leadership skills to develop a clear strategic vision for the College. Dean Sundaram was gracious enough to speak with the FLocal Magazine team, giving us a glimpse into what the Wealth Management Center programs will look like, the opportunities the program brings to USFSP students, and the positive impact it will have on the finance industry of the greater Tampa Bay Area.

The project headed by Dean Sundaram will bring a new opportunity that builds upon USFSP’s current offering – Bachelor of Arts/ Science in Finance. Dean Sundaram says of the program, “It complements our current course offerings.” Students graduating with a degree in finance typically pursue careers in one of four tracks: “The ‘investment,’ ‘financial planning,’ ‘banking,’ or ‘corporate’ (CFO) track. Our Wealth Management program focuses on the investment and financial planning tracks.”

Allowing only 24 students per semester, the program is geared towards KTCOB’s elite, requiring success not only on their current finance track, but also in prerequisite investment-oriented coursework. The Center will also provide opportunities for those students not currently pursuing a degree in finance, yet interested in learning about “financial investments.” Hands-on wealth management programs have been making their way to college and university campuses in recent years. “It is a common way now for most universities to set up programs such as this,” says Dean Sundaram. “We have never had the opportunity here [at USFSP], so we are very excited to get it underway.”

As for how the program will compete with those at other universities, Dean Sundaram lets us in on a few key components of the new program that are sure to catch the eye of prospective students and companies in the Tampa Bay Area. Students pursuing the investment track will be prepared to earn the Charted Financial Analyst (CFA) credential. Dean Sundaram says, “One can be prepared to take a level 1 CFA Exam right after college or towards the end of their Bachelor degree, but to actually earn their CFA, one will need two years of work experience in the field. There is a similar track for a Certified Financial Planner (CFP). We are indicating to wealth management firms in the area that our students will be well prepared with both the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed as a financial planner.

It is not only the classroom curriculum that USFSP has to offer. Program faculty and staff are answering real life questions and giving advice for real life situations. “Every person that graduates from this university will likely experience signing up for their company’s 401k program. We are educating our students on how to ask the right questions. How to find the right mix of mutual funds for yourself. What to ask of your financial planner. I’ll give you an example. A simple question that I ask my basic investment class is, if you are investing money in your retirement account and you are given three options: a stock, a bond, and money market fund; how much of your retirement would you allocate to each of these? I was amazingly surprised that several of our students would put much of their wealth into a money market fund, which is short term; even though retirement is a long-term goal. It has a huge effect, showing them that the decisions they make today with respect to your investments impact your future wealth. Figuring out how to educate them with the basics, giving them simple ways of identifying the criteria with which they have to make some investment decisions, and asking the right questions about risk and return from the financial planning firm, that’s what we are trying to do with all of our students.”

When asked how USFSP is prepared to keep up with ever changing technology and educate their students on topics such as cryptocurrencies and financial technology (“fintech”) companies, Dean Sundaram replies, “We are bringing in experts with our business partnerships to speak about the topics and educate the students. We are very open and encouraging for any company in the fintech or finance world, or others, to reach out to us. We are constantly looking to expand our program.”

In addition to superior classwork and lectures, students enrolled in the USFSP Wealth Management program will get hands-on experience managing a real stock market portfolio, entrusted with real money. Thanks to USFSP and supporters and local strategic partners of the College, students are able to take on this semester-long assignment, showcasing the knowledge they receive week to week. An advisory committee, made up of individuals from the local investment industry, will review and provide feedback to students regarding their portfolios and the decisions they make. This mentorship from established Florida-based finance companies sets the program apart, and sets students up for future success by differentiating them from those coming from other programs.

Dean Sundaram says about the success of Wealth Management post-grads, “The philosophy I ascribe to is simple: Know, Do, Be. The ‘know’ is simply the knowledge. We [USFSP] have always been very good at providing the knowledge in the classroom; whether it’s options, investments, bonds, or other instruments; but how do you take that to the ‘doing’, or the experiential part, that bridges the gap between theory and practice? These students are now getting the exposure of finding value for the stocks they handle, and they now know the process and the different methods are used. The last part, the ‘being’, is the professional development. The students are given the opportunity to present and defend these assumptions, and the ability to articulate their decisions allows for growth. When students graduate and join firms, they are ready to contribute from day one. That’s how we differentiate our talent- providing the knowledge, the technical skills, the ability to speak, articulate and present while ensuring the ability to apply it all in an effective manner.”

When it comes to how the program influences the economic development of downtown St. Pete, Dean Sundaram says the long-term goal is to attract the best corporations and the smartest financial minds. He adds, “If these companies see we have strong talent with a background in investments and financial planning coming from USFSP, then the ability to move the firm or to expand their existing operations here in St. Petersburg would have a huge regional impact. Companies enjoy having the opportunity to examine a person before they hire so they can mitigate some of the hiring risks. Having a program such as ours will allow them to have that. Having large, local investing firms that are continuing to expand right in our backyard, our goal is to help cater to that talent need, not only in St. Pete but Tampa Bay as a region.”

When asked who gets credit for the success of the program, Dean Sundaram says, “Credit goes to my team. Dr. Gary Patterson leads the charge. Todd Shank is one of our faculty members leading the Certified Financial Planning track. Wei Guan will be assisting Gary in building the investment track. Dr. Hujian Dong will be joining us in the fall as the Director of the Wealth Management Center. The finance faculty is terrific.”

 

Dean Sundaram continues to be a tremendous asset to the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, and we would like to thank him for his contribution, and those of the USF System, to the Tampa Bay Area.

To follow news and successes of the Wealth Management program, connect with USFSP online at www.usfsp.edu, and on Instagram @gousfsp.

To become a strategic partner with the Wealth Management Center program at USFSP and to assist in the mentorship program, please visit https://www.usfsp.edu/kate-tiedemanncollege- of-business/ and email Dean Sundaram directly.

 

Written by Brandy Schaeffer

 

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