In late July, Stephen Blyth stepped down as head of Harvard Management Company; then things happened fast.
By mid-September, a hire seemed imminent and HMC was said to have winnowed the field down to just two: Narv Narvekar of Columbia and Amy C. Falls of Rockefeller University.
Mr. Narvekar, who got the job, was an obvious candidate, according to us as well as many others. He had run a major Ivy endowment for a decade, consistently outperforming Harvard. He was the right age and had the right credentials. Everyone in our world of investment management knew and respected him.
Ms. Falls was not quite so well known. She had been chief investment officer at Rockefeller University in New York for five years, but that's a smaller ($2 billion AUM), non-Ivy institution.
Rockefeller University has a small footprint on Manhattan's upper East Side, and no undergraduates at all (although it does confer a few PhD degrees every year). It's primarily a world-class biomedical research center (including a long roster of Nobelists). They do important work, but don't have the cultural or investment heft of a Harvard or Yale.
But, on closer inspection, it was clear that Ms. Falls was not only an accomplished investment manager, but also an ambitious and formidable networker who was pre-vetted and well-regarded at Harvard. Serendipitously, she had been tapped for a seat on the Harvard Management Company board last September. Back then Mr. Blyth was still firmly in the saddle at HMC, ten months before the job suddenly fell open.
Paul J. Finnegan, who sits on the Corporation board as well as chairing HMC, welcomed her aboard last Fall, saying: "She joins at a particularly important time as we implement a new portfolio and organizational strategy." Clearly, Mr. Finnegan, who had himself just succeeded to the HMC chairmanship, had a hand in her appointment and regarded her as an ally in the refurbishment of the endowment.
Reliable sources tell us that Harvard tried to recruit Mr. Narvekar to succeed Mohammed El-Erian as endowment head. But he declined then for personal reasons, and the job went to Jane Mendillo.
We think Harvard expected Mr. Narvekar to be more amenable this time around, which is why they were pretty confident they could fill the job quickly. But, as battle-scarred head-hunters, we can testify that even "done deals" can inexplicably fall apart. You always need a Plan B. In this case, that was Amy Falls, who was an attractive candidate in her own right.
She had a Harvard degree, was a HMC board member, and had already been vetted by Mr. Finnegan. And, in the diversity-sensitive world of Ivy politics, it didn't hurt at all to have a woman publicly in the mix of candidates.
Coffee with Amy:
Ms. Falls graciously offered me a sitdown when I was in Manhattan last month, and I was eager find out what isn't in her official bio.