Consultant Corner: A Look at Young Talent in the Consulting World

From aiCIO Magazine's April Issue: Keep your eye on this rising star in the independent investment consultant community. 

To see this article in digital magazine format, click here.  

Lisa Needle does not vie for attention. A Google Image search of her will yield no pictures. There are no easily accessible bios of her work, nor accessible evidence of a Facebook page. Did she recently get married and change her last name? Is she the equivalent of the ironically shy performer, in love with the stage but ashamed, maybe embarrassed of the public recognition and scrutiny that come with it? In a digital age of social media where privacy is nearly impossible, Needle—one of the brightest, most up-and-coming independent investment consultants in America—has achieved that privacy. Among those who matter within the institutional investing world, however, her profile is not a secret. 

“She’s just one of the great talents out there,” says Jim Kelly, Director of Pension Relations at Citi, who used to work with Needle while she was the acting CIO at the San Diego County Employees Retirement Association (SDCERA). “She’s bright and articulate. She has a way of getting her point across without overpowering.” 

Brian Johnson, Investment Officer at the University of California, who also used to work with Needle while she was at SDCERA, says: “Lisa always tried to look at the world a bit differently—she wasn’t doing the same thing as everyone else. She was always trying to find unique ways to generate value.”

So, with Needle’s promise to allow me to shadow her around for a day, I flew (a very turbulent ride) to San Francisco to learn more about this mysterious and under-the-radar rising star.

In the center of San Francisco, on the 19th floor of 655 Montgomery Avenue, Needle works as a recently-promoted partner at Albourne Partners, an alternatives-focused investment-consulting firm. The office is welcoming and simply decorated, with large windows overlooking Coit Tower on top of Telegraph Hill—a waterfront view filled with the pastel-colored low-rise iconic buildings of the city. 

The effusive accolades of Needle’s performance and her humble public image shed light on her character. On the exterior, Needle is thin in stature, elegant; not the type to wear much jewelry or fuss over clothing. Through our conversations, I get the impression she would rather be in her running shoes and sweatpants than heels and a dress. She has a calm, soft voice, and never interrupts. She gives unwavering attention to whomever she speaks with, yet one senses she expects that same respect of attention to be reciprocated. 

Her career reflects an initially disjointed career path. She pursued pre-med until she realized her aversion to blood, uncontrolled trauma, and disease. After working in a pharmacy—where she met her husband— she entered an MBA program where she was, by chance, pulled by a friend into the public pension space. At the time, without a clear career path in mind, she took the SDCERA job because it was the best available opportunity. “But you also need the passion and commitment of having a goal,” she told me.

Needle’s passion for investing began at SDCERA, where she worked from 2001 to 2011, eventually directing all aspects of the investment function from strategic decision making to policy implementation. She increased the fund’s exposure to hedge funds, drove its expansion into real assets, including commodities and infrastructure, and directed the scheme’s overweight to emerging and frontier market equity. “I’d get into the office at around six in the morning,” she told me. 

Her departure came months after a string of internal emails led to questions and concerns about her role as CIO. The scheme faced issues over conflicts of interest when it hired Lee Partridge to serve as the fund’s portfolio strategist. In March 2011, internal emails showed that having both an internal CIO and a contracted portfolio strategist at the nearly $8 billion public pension scheme raised questions about their independent roles. 

“People often think that second-tier people stay in the public fund space, but that’s not the case. There are amazingly talented people there. But it can be tiring and frustrating, given the lack of resources,” Needle told me, explaining her move to Albourne Partners. The discrepancy over pay and the definition of roles when external staff came into the equation at SDCERA also motivated her move. “I’m perfectly happy being #2 as long as I can have a voice, contribute ideas, and give an opinion—I don’t need or want attention,” she said. “I’m more comfortable being part of a team,” said the sport enthusiast, who played baseball, soccer, tennis, and volleyball growing up, and now participates in half-marathons and triathlons. “SDCERA was a great place to be despite all the recent turmoil,” she added.

Albourne’s culture stresses collaboration and teamwork, reflected by the office’s standard desks and cubicles to eliminate hierarchy. “Senior” and “executive” do not exist in work titles. Family responsibilities are also given weight. “It was in my family’s best interest for me not to work from the San Francisco office daily,” said Needle, who recently gave up her San Francisco crash pad that she used to more easily commute between the office and San Diego, where her husband and children reside. Needle now works at the office twice per week. In between frequent client meetings around the country, she flies to San Diego to be with her husband, a kindergarten teacher, and her six- and eight-year-old children.

Since her decade at SDCERA and now at Albourne, Needle has portrayed a growing interest and skill in the hedge funds and alternatives space, which explains her fit at the world’s largest dedicated alternative investment consulting firm. The firm is unique in other ways, being one of the few truly independent investment consultants left, as most firms have drifted into the discretionary consulting arena. “Albourne will never be discretionary,” Needle stated factually. “We solely provide advice. In our mind, providing both discretionary and non-discretionary advice to clients represents a conflict of interest.”

It is undeniable that discretionary consulting is now where the big money is, yet Albourne’s standard for conflict-free advice is untarnished—in the long run, reputation is more valuable, the firm says. Thus, they are committed to the firm’s fixed-price model to remove a long bias in their advice, free from incentive to put more money into hedge funds. Over a 10-year period, for example, the consulting firm consistently advised clients to avoid Madoff feeder funds and those with significant legacy exposure were encouraged to fully redeem. “With a lot of consulting firms beginning to offer an outsourcing component, you really have a chicken or the egg question. Are firms providing this because clients are asking, or are clients asking because consultants are providing?” Needle questioned. Albourne’s philosophy and ethical standards reflect the principles of the London-based cofounder and CEO Simon Ruddick. “It all starts at the top from a culture perspective and the culture is entirely him,” Needle said. Ruddick is well known throughout the industry for his philanthropic efforts, positions on various industry boards, and stellar reputation. “Money is simply not Simon’s premier motivation,” said John Shearman, a close colleague of Needle’s at Albourne. 

Needle represents the focused career woman, juggling a rewarding and demanding profession alongside the responsibilities of a home life, marred by guilt over a missed phone call to her family before they go to sleep, or saddened from being unable to read with them for 30 minutes due to a delayed flight to her San Diego home. She lives on the same block where she grew up, near her mother. “My mom has helped me rise up the career ladder—I never worry about my kids when she’s looking after them. We’ve never needed a nanny. I couldn’t be at the place I am today without the network I have.”

During my visit with Needle, I took a few pictures of her for our art team.She was clearly uncomfortable with the spotlight. “It will be like ripping off a Band-Aid,” I assured her, snapping quickly. At the end of my visit—her bags in hand as she was heading for the airport—she told me she couldn’t remember the last time she spoke so much, especially about herself. It’s often the people who don’t brag who are most comfortable in their own skin. They don’t need public recognition because they are content and confident in their work. Many, however, would say that Needle should get used to recognition as she’s not going to be #2 for long.