Virginia Tech Magazine
Virginia Tech

Randall Billingsley: Return on Investment


In a meeting of future CEOs, area managers, and financial analysts, Randall Billingsley quietly observes "spirited discussions" as the group talks about the best course of action for managing a multimillion-dollar equity portfolio. Even though the scenario sounds like everyday happenings on Wall Street, this one occurs weekly in Room 1028 of Pamplin Hall. As a faculty advisor for the Student-Managed Endowment Educational Development (SEED) program, Billingsley interjects his thoughts into the conversation sparingly, allowing students to come to their own conclusions. Although he advises closely, Billingsley leaves in student hands the responsibility of investing
a $4.3 million endowed fund held by the Virginia Tech Foundation.

During his 29 years at Virginia Tech, Billingsley, an associate professor who has served as assistant head of the Department of Finance, has remained committed to practical learning and critical thinking through initiatives such as SEED. Billingsley's dedication to helping students "learn how to learn" was a key factor in his winning of the university's 2011 William E. Wine Award for excellence in teaching.

The award came as no surprise to those who know and work with Billingsley, especially his wife, Bonnie Billingsley, a professor in the School of Education. "She wasn't surprised, but I really have to thank my wife. Much of her work is on how to be an effective teacher, so I bounce ideas off her," said Billingsley. "SEED has been the context that's really allowed me to teach in a way where I can add value to students' intellects and, in the process, develop relationships with them."

Supported by the Virginia Tech Foundation, SEED offers students real-world experience beyond the classroom. "It's one thing to talk about how to manage money, and it's a whole other thing to get students to manage money," said Billingsley. He credits former colleague and friend Don Chance for developing the concept for the program and SEED co-advisor Art Keown, the R.B. Pamplin Professor of Finance, for helping to guide the organization. Aside from professional development, "SEEDlings," as Billingsley affectionately calls them, also benefit from a stronger bond with the university. "By managing Tech funds and being successful, the students are, in a way, giving back to Tech. [SEED is] also great for the foundation, [which is] interested in doing something that supports students and the broader community. It's a win-win for all," said Billingsley.

With Billingsley's guidance, SEED has outperformed the market and other professionally managed funds. SEED's success has attracted attention from investment-banking organizations that typically recruit from Harvard and other Ivy League counterparts. Billingsley and his Pamplin colleagues are working on making the university, already a target school for Citigroup, a recruiting ground for other well-known companies. "We want to continue to focus on our training program and keep relationships with companies like Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, and other Wall Street firms," said Matt Milroy, a senior finance major and SEED chief investment officer.

The skills afforded by the SEED experience provide a competitive advantage: Prior to graduation, several students already have landed finance-related jobs and internships. "All of this really goes back to the finance department and Dr. Billingsley, who foster this kind of learning," Milroy said.

Billingsley recognized early on that teaching presents a lifelong learning opportunity. Concentrating on courses in investments and derivatives, he has taught all over the United States, Europe, and Asia and has consistently garnered strong evaluations from students at the university and industry levels. At Tech, Billingsley initially developed a course on equity valuation and portfolio management as a vehicle to train SEED students prior to managing the foundation fund. The course is open to all finance majors, but SEED students are required to take it.

Striving to reach beyond the standard lecture format in the classroom, Billingsley relies on engaging conversation in his teaching. "To me, I teach the way I like to be taught. What I want to do is cultivate some sort of intuition about the best way to solve a problem by getting students to put themselves in the situation," he said. Nonetheless, finding common ground between students and difficult financial concepts can be challenging. To offset such challenges, Billingsley's teaching philosophy focuses on providing frameworks that students can use for creating solutions. "I came in not knowing anything about finance," said Nick Wasilewski, a senior majoring in chemical engineering. "Dr. Billingsley would walk with me every day after class and even meet with me on the weekends. Knowing my strengths, he used mathematics as a basis for explaining concepts and helped me approach it in a way I understood." Wasilewski now serves as SEED co-chief executive officer.

In his dossier submitted for the Wine Award, Billingsley shared an example of how he explained the recent financial crisis to students. Instead of lecturing, he sparked a class discussion by asking a question. "I wove a framework for identifying and understanding the causes and consequences of the financial crisis. Posing questions and directing the resulting discussion is the best way I can make a difference in students' intellectual development and help refine their critical thinking and problem-solving skills," Billingsley said.

"Dr. Billingsley challenges the way you think. The learning curve in his class was huge," said Chris Haake, a senior finance major and SEED co-chief executive officer. "I was able to take the level of thinking I used in his class and apply it not only to SEED, but to other classes."

In addition to his involvement in SEED, Billingsley has provided consultation to the CFA Institute, formerly known as the Association for Investment Management and Research; the Virginia Retirement System; and firms such as BellSouth Telecommunications, Sprint, and UBS. He also serves as an expert witness for issues concerning public utility cost of equity determination and investment-related litigation. "I'm not unique in being a professor who really tries to engage students," said Billingsley. "Looking at it from a finance risk-and-return perspective, [I can say that] my involvement in SEED does require an enormous commitment of time and energy, but the relationships I've formed with students as a result have provided a really nice return."

Rommelyn Conde (communication '07) is a graduate assistant for University Relations.


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Winter 2011-12
Randall Billingsley