Ben Bartelt Vice President, Marketable Investments, Advocate Aurora Health Art by John Jay Cabuay
Ben Bartelt

“Ben brings both breadth and depth of investment experience to the Advocate Aurora Health investment program. In addition to spearheading all marketable investments for the organization, Ben is our resident retirement plan expert with a detailed focus and understanding of the nuances of both pension and defined contribution plans. Ben is the consummate team player, always willing to jump in and lend a hand all in the spirit of furthering our health care mission.”

Leslie Lenzo, CIO, Advocate Aurora Health

Ben Bartelt, CFA, CAIA, is vice president of Marketable Investments at Advocate Aurora Health, working across multiple asset classes and portfolio types, including endowments, pensions, defined contribution, operating, and insurance. He boot-strapped his way into the industry as a self-funding, first-generation college graduate from Indiana University, and prides himself in his day-to-day responsibilities helping to better our society by making direct contributions to the mission of nonprofit health care.

Bartelt began his career working for a retail advisor, then spent some time at an asset manager, where he discovered a passion for asset allocation. He began pursuing the CFA designation, which enabled his transition to a consulting firm working as a Research Analyst, and then led to an allocator role within health care.

In particular, working on behalf of retirement plan participants and ensuring their financial security encourages Bartelt to be a top performer. As he has risen through the different stages of his career, his work across asset classes, focus on continual improvement, and attention to detail has garnered substantial praise and a ranking in this year’s NextGen series.

CIO: What did you think you understood before the COVID-19 crisis … and if, during the crisis you were proven wrong, what did you learn from it?

Bartelt: I underestimated how difficult it can be to sell treasuries and buy investment grade credit. Safe haven assets face technical pressures, too!

CIO: What took you by surprise? What worked?

Bartelt: I’ve been surprised with how quickly the market rallied from the March lows. On what has worked, we’ve seen the funded status of our pension plans increase year to date by having a higher hedge on interest rates than credit spreads. Our portfolio overlay also helped us maintain the target asset allocation through the period of dislocation without incurring elevated transaction costs.

CIO: How would you build the portfolio differently now that you have gone through this massive accelerated shift in the market? (What changes do you plan to implement? What were the biggest challenges?)

Bartelt: Our main portfolio has a manageable return target and is well diversified. We didn’t extend out on the risk spectrum during the last cycle to chase return. In fact, we did the opposite in fixed income, where we migrated from core-plus implementation to a conservative core roster paired with multi-sector credit. As a result, we don’t have wholesale changes to make but are looking for pockets of opportunity where we can
play offense.

CIO: What do you think will be the impact of COVID-19 on developing economies?

Bartelt: Unfortunately, the negative impact will be the greatest in the countries that can least afford it.

CIO: What are the new creative/innovative strategies that you are researching right now?

Bartelt: We are kicking off a project to re-underwrite our domestic equity exposure, which includes an opportunistic composite of go-anywhere strategies. The composite currently consists of sector specialists, an activist, a long-biased fundamental long/short manager, and a concentrated all cap manager. We’ll be reviewing the optimal weights of the existing pieces as well as if any other types of strategies should be added.

CIO: With the shakeout of industries currently going on—where do you see the most exciting opportunities over the coming years?

Bartelt: It is a bit of an oxymoron, but I believe boring, fundamentally sound businesses will finally have their day in the sun.

CIO: And professionally, where do you see the most exciting areas to specialize further over the coming years?

Bartelt: As a generalist, you always have a lengthy list of areas to become more proficient in. The top two on my list are (1) strategies that are overlooked since they don’t fit neatly in a box, and (2) effective governance management. You need the latter in order to implement the former and my appreciation for well-functioning governance increases each year I sit in the allocator seat.

CIO: How is the quarantine affecting the way you view teams and working environments, such as work from home, meetings, etc.?

Bartelt: We were fortunate to implement Microsoft Teams right before the quarantine and that tool has helped tremendously in the transition to remote working. It has also been encouraging to see certain meetings fall by the wayside entirely or replaced with email (the memes are right!). On a more serious note, increased use of video conferences both internally and externally will stay with us post pandemic.

CIO: What exercises have you found useful?

Bartelt: Endless planks, just kidding! It took me a couple of weeks to adjust to remote working with three young children. We’ve embraced the idea of family recess by spending time on bike rides or walking around the pond at our neighborhood park. Truly unplugging on these short breaks to connect with the family has made a world of difference in keeping me centered.

CIO: Who is the manager you don’t currently work with whose brain you’d most like to pick for an hour?

Bartelt: Fairly generic answer, but as a contrarian, Howard Marks.

CIO: And in a fantasy scenario, if money was no obstacle, where in the world would that meeting take place?

Bartelt: Following the contrarian theme, a secluded mountain town. I’ll take any chance I can get for solitude on a hiking trail and can’t think of a better way to reflect upon the preceding conversation with Howard Marks.

CIO: What asset class or investment troubles you most right now—and why?

Bartelt: US Treasuries, go forward returns are muted and the dollar printing press has shifted into high gear.

CIO: Describe the weirdest interaction you’ve had with an asset manager.

Bartelt: After a period of disappointing performance, a manager came in for a meeting and presented two cartoon warriors. A narrative was woven on how the manager has learned from previous mistakes or “battles” and has “leveled up” for better results in the future. Points for creativity but we ultimately did not retain.

CIO: What should be an investment trend, but isn’t (yet)?

Bartelt: Genuine effort on diversity and inclusion. We are seeing signs of change but there is still a lot of box checking at both the GP and LP level.

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