Conversations with members of the Harvard and Radcliffe Class of 1992.
Hosted by Will Bachman.

Episode: 88

Brett Janis, Principal at Strong Bridge Advisors

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Show notes

After Brett Janis left Harvard, he worked as a journalist in Southeast Asia and later attended Georgetown University’s Masters of Science and Foreign Service program, which introduced him to the International Affairs world. After a stint in Egypt, Brett joined the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in 1995, where he focused on economic issues related to the Southeast Asia crisis, including issues related to banks and financial markets. He left the CIA just before 9/11, which was a critical moment in his life. He went back to Asia and started a business which dealt with finances for family offices.  Brett returned to the US in 2005 and went to Columbia Business School, where he managed money for a family office with an international focus. Since then, he has been doing finance and consulting, working for PWC, McKinsey and the Treasury Department under Obama’s second term. Brett joined the Financial Stability Council as a senior analyst during a time of financial system regulation. He also reconnected with Tim Geithner, who was one of his first principals at the CIA. Brett currently runs a private Wealth Management Practice called Strong Bridge Advisors, LLC, based in San Francisco. 

 

Working at the CIA

Brett talks about his interactions with Tim Geithner and Larry Summers, two influential figures in the Treasury. Geithner was part of the committee at Treasury, which focused on social stability and risks that had not yet been faced and not just economics. The remit at that time was to understand the impact of a banking sector crisis on smaller Asian economies. Brett had his most critical briefing with Larry Summers in 1998, where he brought valuable insights from his deep knowledge of Southeast Asia and Thailand. He believes that the role of an advisor is to bring insightful information, listen to other views, and he states that a lot of the  quality policy decisions are made through authentic dialogue and respect for different perspectives. Brett goes on to explain why he was comfortable with the processes and structure of the role at that time. 

 

Working at McKinsey vs. CIA

As a former associate partner, Brett compares the approach of the CIA to McKinsey, both with a reputation for intense cultures and intellectual horsepower. While the CIA  dealt with serious issues, such as life-threatening issues, national security and social stability issues, Brett believes that both prioritize risk-awareness. He mentions that people at the CIA have more seniority and dedication to the issues they are passionate about because their sense of public duty to the government is higher than for employees at McKinsey.  In conclusion, Brett’s experiences with the CIA and McKinsey highlight the importance of maintaining strong relationships and being creative in risk-taking and decision-making.

 

Setting Up an Investment Advisory Practice

Brett discusses his decision to set up an investment advisory practice after becoming a CFA. He began managing money and private capacity for family office clients at Columbia Business School, working with people who were friends and retired from different government agencies and services. He completed a value investing program at Columbia and brought this skillset to his company. Brett felt that larger institutions often didn’t provide the same attention to clients as they needed, and industry pressures were often not in clients’ best interests. His company, Strawbridge, cuts through this clutter and focuses on the investment process, serving the best interest of his clients. The practice provides skills in tech investment, good value investing, and understanding macroeconomics.

 

A View on Relationships

Relationships play a significant role in Brett’s career. Many former friends and associates have become clients. He enjoys building relationships with people who have helped him or who he respects and has maintained relationships through personal changes, geographic changes, and stress situations. Brett believes that relationships are more important than what people are doing in their lives, and that it doesn’t have to be business relationships. Trust is essential for managing assets and staying in touch with clients. He also enjoys staying in touch with people who share similar experiences.

 

The Impact of the Ukrainian War

Brett discusses the impact of the war on his family and his Ukrainian wife. The war has been a massive refugee issue; many families have been torn apart, they have faced issues in bomb shelters, suffered daily harassment, and medical care has been impaired leading to deaths that could have been avoidable. He is a huge supporter of Ukraine and hopes that people in the US will take action to continue their support.

 

Influential Harvard Courses and Professors

Brett shares his experiences at Harvard, His major is in English literature and he also pursued a visual arts course, where he took oil painting and continues to do, he also took Mandarin Chinese which helped him pick up Thai, some Cantonese, and even a little Russian.  continued to write and explore various writing techniques. Brett also mentions learning Thai while living in Southeast Asia, where he was trained by the CIA to be like an Uber Thai speaker. 

 

Timestamps:

05:15 CIA experience, problem-solving approaches, and McKinsey

12:06 Investment philosophy and business practice

16:03 Relationships, career, and personal life

22:17 Ukraine, language learning, and personal experiences at Harvard

 

Links:

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/brettjanis/

Company Website: StrongBridgeAdvisors.com

 

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Transcript

 

  1. Brett Janis 92 Report

SPEAKERS

Brett Janis, Will Bachman

 

Will Bachman  00:02

Hello, and welcome to the 92 report conversations with members of the Harvard and Radcliffe class of 1992. I’m your host will Bachman and I’m here today with Brett Janis. Rhett, welcome to the show.

 

Brett Janis  00:16

Thank you so much. Well, great to be here.

 

Will Bachman  00:18

So, Brett, tell me about your journey since graduating from Harvard.

 

Brett Janis  00:22

Okay. All right, well, that’s definitely a big ask. But, you know, for anyone listening that knows me Hello, for those that you haven’t spoken to in a while, I’d love to reconnect. But, you know, just let me kind of go a little bit back into the past. So when I left school, I went to Asia for a few years was a journalist in Southeast Asia that typically Bangkok, and always sort of, you know, had a interest in Asia. I focused on that at school. And so I spent a few years doing, doing what I love in sort of writing in foreign environments, it was pretty exciting. And then went to graduate school, the School of Foreign Service, and starting in 1994, that Georgetown University was a great program called the Masters of Science and foreign service. And that just really kind of put me into more of the International Affairs world. And so I got that degree. And then it was also an entry point into government service. And I chose to join the Central Intelligence Agency after sort of doing a stint in Egypt in 1995, so, you know, my major kind of first entry into a real job was at the CIA, I followed a lot of economic issues. At that time, particularly related to the Southeast Asia, kind of crisis. For those of you remember it, it was sort of a big deal with places like Thailand, Indonesia, and South Korea. And that sort of had a lot of financial aspects to it. And I got increasingly kind of pulled into more specific issues related to banks and financial markets. So I left the CIA right before 911. And that turned out, I think, to be quite a sort of critical moment in my life, that was probably one of the forks in the road, so to speak. And I went back to Asia and had a business that was dealing with, you know, family offices and institutions weren’t doing debt workouts. But it was a moment when I left government, like right before, there was like a sea change due to due to 911. I probably would have stayed had, you know, had it just been a couple months later. But you know, I did that. And then I increasingly focused on finance. And so I came back to the US in, let me think 2005, and I went to business school, a couple years later, at Columbia Business School, started managing money for a family office still with sort of a international focus. And then since then, I’ve been doing finance, a little bit of consulting ever since. And worked for a couple places that maybe others have worked for, as well consulting firms. PwC McKinsey. I, interestingly, did another stint in government, at the Treasury Department, under the second term of Obama. So you know, for those of you listening, who think that it’s just, you know, government service is a one and done or just, you know, one moment, it turned out for me to be kind of always running in parallel, and it was a great opportunity. So I joined the financial stability Council and was a senior analyst at the Financial Stability Council, during a moment where there was a lot of regulation of the financial system going in. And I also kind of reconnected with a gentleman by the name of Tim Geithner, who was one of the principals in my first sort of part of my career at CIA. And he, you know, was running the Security Council then. And I think a lot of what I had done in government and in private sector helped me at that particular moment, so it was great three years. And then, since then, I’ve been managing money and I currently have a private Wealth Management Practice called strong bridge advisors, LLC. I moved out to San Francisco about five years ago, and running the practice from San Francisco now. So that was a lot and maybe not as coordinated or as organized as I thought. But let me pause there. We’ll All

 

Will Bachman  05:23

right, great walkthrough. So a bunch of follow up questions. First, though, since you mentioned, Tim Geithner, how were you interacting with him when you were at CIA? I don’t. He wasn’t at CIA. Right. Was he but he was on the one at the Federal Reserve or something, or what was the relationship then?

 

Brett Janis  05:41

Yeah, no, so he was part of the committee to save the world back at Treasury. I mean, I think he was always a little bit of a wunderkin. You know, always within treasury, but there was Bob Rubin. And then Larry Summers, were the two other kind of principles that are probably widely known. And, you know, Treasury just always has a, you know, view that rightly so is not just about economics, but a lot about social stability, about risks that we haven’t faced yet. So, you know, the whole remit at that time was about the impact of a banking sector crisis. For the smaller economies, these Asian economies. Little did we know that that was going to be on some, you know, important levels, the same type of situation that we faced as a world with the global financial crisis? So, you know, that’s why I think, you know, the response, in my view, we had some understanding of how that playbook worked. And it was obviously a much bigger issue. But that was kind of like the genesis of what we were doing and why I thought I had some skill sets that that could help and security clearances and things of that nature.

 

Will Bachman  06:58

And were you interacting with him like directly?

 

Brett Janis  07:03

Yeah, no, I mean, I think there’s, I can’t get into too much of it. But you know, the most kind of critical briefing I ever had in my life was going back to I believe it was 1998. With, with Larry Summers, when he was treasury secretary. And, you know, oftentimes, it’s just like, if you have knowledge that’s specific, that can be helpful to the overall mission. In this case, I had like a mandate and deep knowledge of the region, Southeast Asia, Thailand. So what I could offer was understanding from that perspective, you know, I’d spent time with bankers in Southeast Asia, to know their stress points. And so always, it’s like what you bring to the table. And in that case, I brought some good, valuable, like, insights from the ground. And, you know, the role of the advisor, I think, is always the same on that level, are you bringing something that’s insightful? Do you have information that others don’t? Have you done your homework before you kind of walk into that discussion? And, you know, are you also listening to what, like, other views are because a lot of these quality policy decisions, at least in the policy world, they’re done through, you know, a really authentic dialogue and, and respect for, you know, what people know, and what, what, what various parties bring to the table?

 

Will Bachman  08:41

That is so fascinating to me, because I was in the Navy for five years. And it sounds like you were having those briefings when you were two years into the CIA. So in my world, that’s like being a, you know, Lieutenant Junior Grade or something going and briefing the Secretary of the Navy. Yeah, no, that’s,

 

Brett Janis  08:58

that’s exactly right. I think that is the whole, like, you know, I would probably say that the CIA in terms of like, the impact and the quality of like thought processes, it’s always something that I keep, as, you know, the benchmark of like, you know, the best kind of process and, you know, politics changes, but at that time, I felt comfortable with that administration. You know, that was part of, I felt comfortable also with the Obama administration. So that’s part of the reason why I chose the people, right. And then the other point I would make is, throughout my career, I’ve always, like had relationships with, with individuals, no matter what they changed in terms of, you know, their careers or their their main jobs. I just always liked to keep in contact with people that I enjoy working with or I respect and then, you know, certainly with government, always there’s mission oriented, that you’re doing something that is beyond just a commercial issue. Of course, it’s you’re having an impact on a broader level.

 

Will Bachman  10:12

I am very curious to hear about your how you would compare and contrast, the problem solving approach or the analytical approach at CIA versus McKinsey. So a lot of listeners, you know, I spent a lot of time with McKinsey folks, I was there five years. So I’m curious to hear about your experience comparing those two.

 

Brett Janis  10:37

Great question. Great question. Yeah. I mean, I think they, they, they both have a reputation for these intense cultures. And that’s certainly what I kind of did. McKinsey, first of all, much later in my career. So I had the benefit of, I think, a lot of practical experience working in business, and then having like, done government first, but you’re absolutely right, that they, they have a similar sort of like, you know, deep, deep and storied intellectual horsepower within within them. I mean, I would say the difference is with the CIA, and, you know, it is, you were in the military, you know, this, I mean, you’re dealing with life or death issues, you really just kind of have to always be on and understand that. The end of the day, this is about, you know, very serious. You know, issues that affect lives, a lot of it, at least that I did, while economic had social stability issues, and, you know, national security issue. So in both cases, I think it’s always about still being creative about risk, right. You know, McKinsey dealt, at least I dealt with a lot of risks, but Theo’s worried about, and we live in a very uncertain world. So thinking through that. And realizing when some of these are actually upon us is kind of like critical to both jobs. There’s a lot of the dedication at CAA, typically, you have people that are a little bit more senior in terms of their experience and have spent literally their entire lives, kind of within families or, you know, following issues that they feel passionate about. So maybe the, to answer your question, the sense of public duty was higher, obviously, in government and maybe at McKinsey, where there’s a lot of people that do do great work, but it’s just a little bit under like different parameters and a shorter timeframe.

 

Will Bachman  12:58

Helped me a bit about your current practice. What drove you to do that, among all the other possible things you could do after having been a sociate? Partner McKinsey what how did you decide to set up a an investment advisory practice? And, and what what sort of segment of clients do you focus on?

 

Brett Janis  13:18

Sure. Great. Thank you for that question. So I began managing money, and private capacity for family office, when I was at Columbia Business School. And it’s sort of these were people that I had been working with, at the business in Asia, good friends, some of them, you know, actually retired from different government agencies and services. So it started as something that was related to my becoming a CFA, my just skills going deep with companies and constructing portfolios. So I’ve always, I think, focused on the poor professional skill set. That’s part of the reason why I went to Columbia was to advance that I did the value investing program. And I’ve got great respect for people that apply the principles of value investing, which to me is like doing your homework and trying to make sure that you don’t overpay for assets, which is a great principle to have. And it’s borne out in terms of like performance, like the idea of value investing is changing with the time so even someone like Warren Buffett isn’t, you know, the old school of value investing, he does a lot of more growth oriented investments now, for various reasons. But it’s always about doing the work being analytic, thoughtful, trying to set up a fundamental thesis. And so when I got involved in finance, you know, that was really a skill set or just an intention that I felt was lacking often with larger institutions. And so I had some experience, the reason why I went to San Francisco was working at Wells Fargo asset management. And there were certain aspects that I liked of that much larger shop was always within the industry, the industry, I felt that the client was not getting the most attention that they needed, and that all of the industry pressures were about decisions and enforces that we’re reducing returns for for individuals, because of things like, you know, what are my incentives? You know, what commission what product, it was all, like, kind of, like industry noise. So the purpose of Strawbridge was to kind of cut through that clutter, and then just really focus on the investment process, serving clients getting closer to people’s lives. And fortunately, I had enough people that believed in me to do that, that we were able to do it on a boutique level in a sustainable level. And, you know, it’s been great, I think, the core thing that I was looking for was just can I make my own decisions, can I protect client assets, the way I see the fit, and not be subject to, you know, decisions that would impact that, and larger organizational pressures that I think sometimes tilt advisors into the, into the wrong area, and they do things that are not in the interest of the client. So it was very, it was a long time for us to get to this, but we’re in a good spot now and the practices is great, you know, involves a lot of, you know, tech investment, but also just really good value investing. Understanding macro economics. So a lot of the skill set that I think I have, we bring, you know, bring to the table and do for ourselves, our own money, exactly what we do for clients as well.

 

Will Bachman  17:13

I’m always interested in the role that relationships play in our lives, and you sound like someone who has been particularly good a lot of attention to that yourself in building and maintaining relationships over time. Sounds like you’ve been good at it, I’d love to hear a bit about what role relationships have played in your career, either in introductions to clients, or changes in jobs or other sorts of opening up opportunities. And, you know, sometimes those might be very serendipitous. But talk to us a bit about about that in your life.

 

Brett Janis  17:57

Great question. You know, relationships are key. You know, first of all, it’s what I enjoy the most. I mean, I think some of my clients now are going back to my very early days, people that, you know, helped me or I respected in some level. And we just, you know, the relationship persisted, some of it is just natural, you just naturally have things in common and natural kind of outlook, or, you know, an intellectual bond. And I think, as I mentioned, you know, always the relationship is always more important than what people are doing in their lives. I mean, maintaining relationships through many, many personal changes, you know, geographic changes, I’ve lived in, you know, six or seven different places around the world, paying attention to, you know, how people are evolving through their lives, good, or ill, I’ve also, you know, tried to maintain relationships at really stressed moments, whether they’re stressed because things are happening in the world with, you know, high extreme, you know, rapidity. COVID, or, you know, the crisis going back a little bit, you know, in the past, and most recently, frankly, with the Russian invasion, my wife is Ukrainian. So that’s been, you know, a dramatic set of events for us as a household. But also we’ve got, you know, Israeli friends who are going through pretty significant issues in their lives with family members in Israel. I wish the world were like a safe and placid place, but it’s not so. I just important that relationships and people that we care about kind of is maintained through that. And again, it doesn’t have to always be, we have a business relationship. I think the business or relationship just is because we trust there’s trust. And so I in my world can manage assets through that and, you know suitable to what their needs are than that. That’s a, that’s a relationship that just helps us stay in touch. But I have plenty of people that I love to stay in touch with, even if they you know, we’re not doing direct work together. There’s so many different paths out there, you know, incredible things that people are doing and love to hear it. And anyone listening would love to connect with you.

 

Will Bachman  20:33

Did you talk a bit about the since you mentioned that your wife is Ukrainian? What’s, what’s the experience been like for you and your family and your wife? The past couple of years with the war going on? Does she have family there? Does she, you know, what’s been the impact on your family?

 

Brett Janis  20:54

Yes, yeah. And I think this will be a little bit more of a somber, you know, kind of view, it has been very, very tough. I think it’s been shocking. You know, for since we have we do have, she is, she came over here for graduate school. So she’s got all of her family back in Ukraine. So they’ve lived through everything. She’s also specifically from our cough, which is in the eastern part of Ukraine, which right now is extremely active with a lot of military efforts, versus Kyiv. She has now his family there, but everyone is involved with Ukraine has been affected. It’s been a massive refugee issue. So some of the family members have gotten to other places, primarily in Europe, Spain, being the one place where at least her family members have been able to get to, it’s torn families apart, a lot of these family members have young children, I can share some of the gruesome things that they’ve been through in terms of bomb shelters and daily kind of harassment and life issues, we did unfortunately, have two family members that did Pat, on the last six months. So that’s always tough. It wasn’t directly through vines, but it was through some of the medical care issues that are have been strained that society, you know, just makes it harder when there’s a war just to continue with what we would consider kind of normal social functions. So I’m a huge supporter of Ukraine, I hope people listening are as well. It frustrates me every time I hear sort of wrangling in the US about the support that we you know, want to give in theory, but we don’t, you know, they don’t take action to continue that though. That’s, you know, broader set of issues. But I’m also encouraged by in our community here in San Francisco, there has been extremely strong support for for Ukraine. So you know, that that’s great too. And, you know, there throughout the country in the world there is, but to be on the frontlines and to live it is a whole different, whole different thing. So

 

Will Bachman  23:24

that you dial back the clock and turn, talk to us about any courses or professors that you had at Harvard or extracurricular experiences that continue to resonate with you.

 

Brett Janis  23:38

You know, so much of what I studied there, I took a very generous approach. And I tried to just like, do the things that I enjoyed, and I felt would have meaning over the very long term. So I was my major was English literature, and I had tremendous courtship courses with multiple professors. You know, I, while my profession has now become sort of International Affairs, and finance, I would really point to everything else that has enriched my life, even going to things like you know, a visual arts course where we did, you know, oil painting, which I continued to do. writing anything that was writing has always helped me. So, and then certainly, just, you know, as point of fact, I did Mandarin Chinese. And while Mandarin Chinese was not my core language that I needed for my job in my life, Thai language was actually a little bit more important. The fact that I learned how to learn a language, a language that was tonal in nature, which Thai is as well allowed me to very much pick up Thai, some Cantonese and some other or languages, a little bit of Russian even. So learning how to do things versus like the how much you can absorb. And, you know, as an undergraduate was a little bit more of what still is with me. When

 

Will Bachman  25:14

did you learn Thai was that when you were living in Southeast Asia?

 

Brett Janis  25:18

It was that and then I was trained by the CIA to be like the Uber Thai speaker. And then I lived in Bangkok for about six years, after six years of doing business in in Bangkok, I should I should improve, you know, sadly enough, I don’t I don’t really eat much Thai now. But it’s a great party trick when I walk into a Thai restaurant, and so but but, you know, the process of learning language was more of the, the, you know, the benefit. So now when I do need to learn language, I think having done that, I think, easier. No, I know that know the techniques. Great to visit. You know, I wish I had more opportunity to go to hang out in Phuket these days, I wouldn’t, but maybe soon. Wonderful.

 

Will Bachman  26:14

Bret, how can listeners follow up with you and find you online? Any of our classmates that want to follow up with you?

 

Brett Janis  26:22

Yeah, so I keep my my LinkedIn profile pretty much. Fresh, you know, please feel free to you know, my personal email, my Gmail account, mobile number, you know, very accessible, we’d love to reconnect, especially if you’re coming out to San Francisco. You want to grab a drink or live out here. I’m only West Coast for five years. So it’s still feels pretty fresh. But we’d love to see people and reconnect. Fantastic,

 

Will Bachman  26:59

and we’ll include that link in the show notes. Brett, thank you for joining today.

 

Brett Janis  27:06

All right, thanks. Well,