Risks Pay Off

Sammy Suzuki grew up in Japan where he attended an international school in Yokohama. Sammy describes his childhood, saying, "I grew up feeling like a foreigner in my own country." He attended college in the United States and went on to quit his first job just a year out of college in order to join a firm he had never heard of before. The company was investing outside of the United States for the first time, and that sounded exciting enough that Sammy took the risk of switching jobs. Initially, Sammy thought it would be a short-term stint, but he remains with that same firm where he has now been for 28 years. Sammy founded an investment strategy within this company which grew from zero to $13 billion. He is currently the inaugural head of the emerging markets equities business.


Iroha: What projects are you currently working on?

Sammy: AllianceBernstein has long been known for the quality of its research. Yet, when it comes to Emerging Markets research, AllianceBernstein is not always the first name that comes to the mind of our clients. This was, in part, because we had disparate Emerging Markets teams that weren't necessarily managed and organized as one unit. I essentially created an Emerging Markets-focused boutique within the firm, combining and coordinating the collective talent that we have in this space. It's all about bringing vision, leadership and strategy to a group of people. My goal is to provide exciting research, innovation and investment results to our clients and as a result grow the business several-fold. After building a family of investment strategies from zero to $13 billion, I was told by some colleagues that I was crazy to take my career in a different direction. I had already taken a big risk and made it to the other side. Why give that up? While I grew up being told that risk-taking was a bad thing, I proactively embraced a more uncertain job for the first time after the age of 50. For me, it really took that long to fully understand the joy, excitement, impact and payoff of jumping into to the unknown and creating something that didn't exist before.

IrohaWhat have you most recently completed or plan to do in the near future?

Sammy: After the Global Financial Crisis, I saw how many of our clients pulled out their investments at the bottom of the market, thus locking in their losses. I realized that while beating the market is important, it is also insufficient. I created an investment strategy that aims to protect during down markets so that investors can stay invested for the long-run. Conventional wisdom taught at business schools is that low risk means low returns. Empirical evidence is, however, to the contrary. In fact, one can combine low risk with better outcomes. This is in part because many investors forget the power of compounding. If you gain 50% and then lose 50% you just lost 25% of the your original investment ($100 goes to $150 then drops to $75). Even smart people tend to forget this simple principle. Therefore, this strategy aims to make more money by losing less. We called it winning by not losing. There were other bells and whistles, but it's ultimately a simple concept. When we were launching the strategy, we were told that there was no market for such a strategy because nobody else was doing anything like it. Ten+ years later, nobody else is doing it, and we created the market.

Iroha: What are your thoughts regarding Asian glass ceiling issues?

Sammy: Ten years ago, when a group of five of us who were the most senior Asian professionals at the time went to the partner group, saying that we have a bamboo ceiling issue, we were flatly told that we don't have an "Asian issue" and that Asians are well represented at elite colleges and junior levels. However, the partners of the firm didn't "see" that none of the US-based partners/executives were Asian. We've come a long way since, and there is clear recognition that there is a "good worker, bad leader" stereotype that negatively affects Asian professionals. I would encourage young Asians to build their leadership skills. Hard work and technical skills will get you through the first ~5 years of your career but certainly not when you get to the manager level. That is when Asian representation drops significantly. In addition, I would encourage them to be politically active. Asians tend to be politically docile. But if you don't ask, you don't get. I was a late bloomer myself, but I hope young Asians figure this out earlier.

I am also involved in AAAIM (Association of Asian American Investment Managers). It is a pan-Asian organization that provides advocacy and support to Asian investment professionals. There were many workplace issues that I realized so many other people were also going through. Other members can serve as a mirror so Asian professionals don't have to struggle in isolation. Thanks to initiatives by organizations such as AAAIM, I know that the next generation of investment professionals will be better prepared than previous generations so that they can reach further.

Iroha: Based on your background, do you have any advice or a message for young people who want to follow in your footsteps?

Sammy: I would encourage young people to take bigger risks! You will grow from it.

Iroha: Outside of work, what are you most interested in right now?

Sammy: A year and a half ago, I joined a rock band as a vocalist. I didn't have any structured prior experience in singing or performing so it was a little stressful, but I wanted to challenge myself. I have so far performed in four gigs, and I am working on my fifth. Aside from it being fun, there aren't many Asian rock singers, so I needed to be a role model for myself!

written by Jessica Woolsey


Summy Suzuki | Linkedin