Taking stock for students

A dedication to teaching makes Finance Prof. Robert Heinkel tick

by Andy Poon staff writer

For a California native, Robert Heinkel is perfectly happy in rain-drenched Vancouver.

Maybe that's because the 53-year-old Finance professor is too busy to notice that the weather isn't quite the balmy stuff that he was accustomed to as a youngster.

Heinkel not only carries a full teaching load and conducts research in the Faculty of Commerce and Business Administration, but he spends close to 25 hours a week as the faculty supervisor of the UBC Portfolio Management Foundation (PMF) program.

The extra-curricular program sees a selected group of UBC Commerce undergraduates manage an endowment fund and learn the ethics and workings of capital markets for a period of two years.

Heinkel also serves as the vice-chairman of the board of trustees of the university's faculty pension plan.

"I had no idea where Vancouver was. Canada was just up there on the weather map where bad weather comes from," laughs Heinkel as he recounts his interview with UBC's Finance faculty recruiting team 22 years ago.

But he did know about the fine reputation of the university's Finance division. And he had long admired the research of Alan Kraus and Eduardo Schwartz-- members of the recruiting team he met as a fresh-faced PhD student during his 20-minute interview for a position at UBC.

Traditionally, North American finance schools recruit new faculty during an annual winter meeting of the American Finance Association. In 1978, the meeting was held in New York City.

Heinkel relates how he, tired and befuddled with a cold, finally met with the UBC professors after he had already schlepped through a slew of interviews with leading US universities scattered throughout three Manhattan hotels.

"The big difference with them was that these guys were actually listening to what I was saying," says Heinkel.

With that in mind, he readily accepted the offer of an assistant professorship at UBC and found himself on the wet shores of Vancouver in 1979.

He immediately tackled his teaching and research with the same vigour and discipline that he had applied during his three-year stint as a naval supply officer during the end of the Vietnam War.

"It was while I was in the navy that I really learned how to run my life," admits Heinkel.

"He is an extraordinarily well-organized person," says Wayne Deans, a director of Deans Knight Capital Management Ltd., a Vancouver-based investment management firm. Deans was one of the early organizers of the PMF program and continues to be actively involved as a program mentor and on the selection committee.

While his father was also a navy man, Heinkel enlisted because it was a "great adventure." Overall he enjoyed his time in service and says he could have easily stayed on in the navy for 20 years had it not been his experience with naval brass.

"I had two XOs (executive commanding officers). One was good and one was bad, so I asked myself, `Did I really want to run the risk that 50 per cent of the time I would be lucky?'"

So he enrolled in an MBA program at California State University with every intention that upon graduating in 1974 he would head off into the workplace.

Instead, during his studies there, a business professor, Glen Strasborg, encouraged the young Heinkel to apply to graduate school. At the same time, he fell in love with teaching, discovered during his work instructing undergraduate students as part of his MBA assistantship.

He applied for and was accepted into the PhD program in Finance at the University of California at Berkeley, graduating with his doctorate in 1979.

Members of the finance academic community and his UBC colleagues tout Heinkel's research in corporate finance as top-notch.

In fact, he has a reputation that in co-authored research he is the one willing to slog through the heavy number-crunching at hand. (Hence his nickname, "The Duke of Algebra"--a moniker he keeps as part of his office computer screen saver.)

But it is his commitment to teaching that stands out. Besides the classroom, nowhere is this more apparent than in his involvement in the PMF program--a program that will likely be his main legacy at UBC.

"He is the PMF--it's Rob. He is so dedicated to it," says Maureen Howe, vice-president of Equity Research at RBC Dominion Securities Inc. in Vancouver.

She has known Heinkel for over 17 years--first as a student and then as a colleague and member of the UBC PMF client committee.

Over the years, the student managers of the portfolio have done well. Since its inception in 1986, the $300,000 actively managed fund has grown to a value in excess of $2 million.

"He has got to be one of the most dedicated professors anywhere," says Howe. "He puts so much of himself in everything--in every course and for every student. I can say that as a student he always had time for me."

Howe credits Heinkel, who served as her faculty adviser during her PhD program, with a large part of her success at UBC.

"I got my PhD because of Rob," she says. "The most important thing in your grad studies is choosing a good PhD adviser. You need someone who is willing to spend a lot of time with you and to advise you or you are in trouble."

Howe also praises Heinkel for his ability to make financial theory relevant to his students.

"Rob has really done an incredible job at taking theory and providing a bridge into the business community. He takes the fundamentals of finance and manages to make it not only understandable but applicable in the real world and that's not easy to do," says Howe.

Deans agrees, "Rob is a great communicator with the business community."

For Heinkel, the joy in teaching is in seeing "a little light that goes on in students' eyes when they
really get it."

"I am not sure that Rob has a life outside of UBC," laughs Howe. "He is unbelievably dedicated. He is always available for students--he's in late at night, early in the day and on the weekend."

That dedication was recently recognized by the MBA Class of 2000 which bestowed a Commerce Graduate Society Teaching Excellence Award upon Heinkel last fall. He also received the Arne Olsen Master Teacher Award for 1991-92.

Throughout the years, attempts to entice him away from UBC have surfaced, but for the former sun-state resident who has learned to enjoy cycling and running in the rain, Vancouver is home.

"I am not leaving. I am happy here."