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Alumnus Spotlight: Mustafa Sagun's Career Has Been an Upward Spiral Since Earning a Doctorate at USF 23 Years Ago

By Keith Morelli

Mustafa Sagun

TAMPA (Jan. 25, 2017) -- From those long-ago days of teaching undergraduate business courses at the University of South Florida while he worked toward a doctorate in finance, Mustafa Sagun has proven his worth many times over. He now occupies the position of chief investment officer for Principal Global Equities, an investment company that manages some $74 billion in assets.

He lives in Des Moines, Iowa, with his wife, Lisa Sutton, also a USF business college graduate. They met on campus while Sagun studied for his doctorate, working on a dissertation about the effectiveness of mergers and acquisitions decisions and Sutton was getting her Executive MBA.

"At that time, she was working as the head of business development for an environmental consulting firm in Tampa," Sagun said. "After she passed her class, we started dating and a year later, we got married.

"We had our first child in Pittsburgh right before we moved to Des Moines," he said. "Since then, we've had three kids."

Sagun earned a master's degree in international economics at USF after receiving a bachelor's degree in electronics and engineering from Bogazici University in Istanbul, Turkey, but it was his education at USF that propelled him along in his business career.

"There were a few USF professors that made my American dream come true," he said. "When I came to the states in 1989, I was part of the economics department. I had just enough money to pay for my education for one semester.

"I studied and worked so hard in the first semester that Dr. (Mark) Herander saw my potential and offered me a research assistant position. With that, I was able to stay and pay for my tuition for another few semesters.

"I learned to work as hard as I can and contribute as much as I can, expecting nothing, hoping that somebody will recognize that hard work."

His work ethic paid off. Sagun now oversees portfolio management and research for all international, domestic and global equities of Principal Global Equities. It's a big responsibility, but it's not unfamiliar territory.

He had managed global equity portfolios for Principal since 2002 and has also served as a member of the firm's asset allocation strategy team. He is a Chartered Financial Analyst and is a member of the CFA Institute and CFA Society of Iowa.

He started out as an equity derivatives specialist for Salomon Brothers in New York, his first position after earning his doctorate from USF in 1994. There, he worked with traders, back office and risk management groups in modeling, pricing and booking highly complex, over-the-counter derivatives.

While at Salomon Brothers, Sagun got a call from the chairman of his dissertation committee at USF. Ralph Sanders had just left his teaching position and hooked up with PNC Bank in Pittsburgh. The two chatted and Sanders convinced Sagun to join a special projects team Sanders had formed at PNC.

"I went to Pittsburgh and worked for Ralph for four years," Sagun said. "On this team, I worked on different projects to develop 'value-based management' analytics to enhance executives' decision-making to add shareholder value."

Most, if not all of his work, had one thing in common, he said.

"They were real-life applications of corporate finance and investment classes I took from Ralph at USF," he said, "and we were bringing theory to practice to add shareholder value to the bank.

He worked his way up to vice president and analyst with PNC, but in 2000, Sagun hopped over to Principal and began a new job as a qualitative analyst working for the chief investment officer.

"Within a year, I started managing a quantitative team of eight," he said. "I also started managing U.S. large cap and small cap portfolios."

Based on his success at Principal, he was promoted to chief investment officer, the position he holds today. The job's responsibilities include overseeing a regiment of workers spread out around the globe.

"Currently, my team manages $74 billion in assets with 70 analysts and portfolio managers in Des Moines, New York, Chicago, London, Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan," he said. "Our people are natives of 16 countries with 23 different languages spoken. They have earned 126 degrees from 63 academic institutions with 31 fields of study.

Retired professor Rick Meyer recalls Sagun, saying what he remembers most is Sagun's ever present smile and his congenial nature.

"A consummate people person," Meyer said. "That helps enormously in working with students and the graduate faculty who can be, shall we say, somewhat demanding. I suspect that has surely helped him in the finance industry.

"He embraced his studies.  He was interested, inquisitive and determined - and he was smart," Meyer said. "He was as good as any doctoral student I saw at taking finance theory and applying it in practice. He can bring it to life and make it work and, often, that is not an easy thing to do. Those who can are the ones we see prospering in the profession."

Meyer takes some credit for introducing Sagun to his wife, Lisa.

"She was taking an executive MBA class I was teaching when Mustafa came aboard to tutor and work with the students," he said. "The rest is history."

Herander, still a USF professor of economics, which now is in the College of Arts and Sciences, also recalls Sagun.

"I met Mustafa in 1990 when I was graduate director and Mustafa was an incoming student to our master's program. Our first face-to-face meeting was an advising session to discuss his first semester class schedule.

"I still remember a slightly disheveled student entering my office who spoke very slowly, choosing his words in a workmanlike fashion," Herander said. "I was a little concerned since I had offered Mustafa a teaching assistantship a few weeks prior to our meeting – sight unseen – when another student turned down the offer at the last minute."

But Sagun told Herander that he was groggy from an all-night flight from Turkey the landed in Tampa just hours before the meeting.

"This was my first clue that Mustafa is an unflappable individual with a steady, calm persona," Herander said. "This was true in his course work as well. When other students were stressing out during finals, Mustafa maintained his calm demeanor and generally would obtain the highest grade in the course. I am sure that this characteristic has been an asset in his professional life."

Herander said he lost track of Sagun until about two years ago when Herander began getting together a roster of graduate student alumni.

"When my search found Mustafa's profile at Principal Finance, I was not surprised in the least to discover that he had advanced to the position of chief investment officer," Herander said. "He was one of the best students to come through our graduate program, not to mention one of the nicest persons.

"His professional success is exactly what I would have expected."