If you took one billion dollar bills and placed them next to each other edge-to-edge, the blanket of cash would cover four square miles. Place them atop each other, and the stack would reach more than 63 miles into the sky. Any way you look at it, it’s an impressive amount of money. One might expect a man responsible for that much capital to be rather dry and solemn, but John Alexander is neither of those things. He is good-humored and spirited, quick with a laugh, and projects a natural joyfulness one might not expect from someone responsible for the finances of one of the top universities in the nation.
He’s this way because he loves what he does, and because he’s very good at what he does. In fact, if you compare his results to his peers’ at other institutions, he’s one of the nation’s best.
Alexander holds dual roles at Clemson University — as its chief investment officer and as the Breazeale Professor of Investments. In the former role, he is the caretaker of what’s known as “The Foundation,” a nonprofit 501(c) organization that holds the money gifted to Clemson for dedicated purposes such as scholarships, endowments and buildings. Thanks to the generosity of alumni, family and friends of the University, the diligent work of Clemson’s development officers, and to Alexander’s careful management, that pool now holds one billion dollars — four times what it had when he started the job in 2003.
That role might seem like more than enough responsibility, but his other job is just as important to him: teaching young people the ins and outs of finance.
“Most people don’t realize I have two separate, full careers,” said Alexander during an interview in his airy corner office in the Wilbur O. and Ann Powers College of Business, a wall of windows framing a postcard-worthy view of the Clemson campus behind him. “Most of my students have no idea I’m the CIO. I’m just Professor Alexander to them, and I like it that way. Being a professor means I serve my students and that’s more important than any kind of status they might grant me.”
Clemson hired Alexander as a finance professor in 1990 just as he was finishing his Ph.D. at Florida State University, which makes him Clemson’s longest continuously serving professor of finance. Through the years, he’s held every position imaginable; assistant, associate and full chair, research professor, and department head to name a few.
He expresses particular pride in his efforts leading up to the construction of the Melvin and Dollie Younts Trading Room, one of several jewels in the new, Wilbur O. and Ann Powers College of Business building.
“We were the first trading room in the Southeast,” he said. “They judge you on how many Bloomberg Machines you have — it’s the Holy Grail of financial information. When I started our first trading room in Sirrine Hall in 1999, we couldn’t even afford one. In 2002, I finally got one. Time went by and we got a second. Today we have 25. That’s huge.”
In the late 90s he got a call from John Walker ‘58, the namesake of the Walker Golf Course and the Walker Department of Economics, offering him a new challenge.
“John called me up one day and asked me to do some analysis on behalf of the Foundation for him. I went ahead and did it, which started me working with the Foundation, and that led to me becoming its chief investment officer in 2003.”
In his role as Clemson’s CIO, Alexander manages the funds for an astounding 2,219 endowments that are used to help untold legions of Clemson students achieve their dreams, either through monetary support, by putting world-class professors in the front of their classrooms or by building the best facilities to hold those classrooms.
“If you make a donation to Clemson to fund a scholarship, a chaired professorship, or anything that pays out in perpetuity, I manage those funds,” he said.
Managing funds means investing them wisely so they grow over time, something Alexander has proven to be exceptionally good at. He takes pride in noting Clemson’s portfolio has been in the top 25 percent of returns for all endowments in the nation for more than a decade, as judged by the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO), and Cambridge Associates, a global investment firm that acted as a third party.
“We beat the target benchmark every year, and then we get judged against our peers. They keep a pretty close eye on me. You get a reputation for being a good citizen, and you get a reputation for your performance.”
Alexander’s reputation as a savvy and meticulous investor has grown to reach international status. This year he was presented with a lifetime achievement award at Sir Anthony Ritossa’s Global Family Office Investment Summit, an annual event that brings together the most influential investors in the world. After this year’s summit in Monaco, where he was a featured panelist, he has become a go-to guest on CNBC Arabia, the Arab World’s preeminent and only 24-hour Arabic language financial and business information channel. He is regularly asked to speak at national business and financial seminars, including the NACUBO conference and the Endowments and Foundations Round Table.
As much as he loves the work he does on the global stage, Alexander’s heart remains at Clemson, in his classroom, where he gets to help mold the next generation of investors and philanthropists. He cracks one of his trademark smiles when he talks about it.
“I get to practice what I teach every day. How awesome is that? I’m very grateful to Clemson for giving me that opportunity.”