Julie Cays On Her Retirement, Leadership and Investing

After a long career in the pension space, Julie Cays, chief investment officer at the CAAT pension plan, announced her retirement this spring.

We caught up with Julie recently to get her thoughts on what she has learned in the business and how her view of leadership and investing has changed over the years, especially during COVID-19.

CLC: As you approach retirement, can you share the top lesson you think you’ve learned through your career?

Julie Cays: My mind immediately goes to becoming a leader and what that entailed for me, which was to understand what my leadership style was and make sure I surrounded myself with people who knew more than I do. And give them the freedom with accountability to do their jobs. We had a leadership speaker in November who said, “if you’re a leader and you’re the smartest one in the room then you’ve not done your job right.” That’s what I’ve learned.

CLC: For aspiring new leaders in the pension space, what do you want them to know or understand?

JC: It’s the best job in the world. You’re learning every day and you talk to smart people all the time and have access to some of the best minds out there. It’s endlessly fascinating. I think it’s also a role or a job, where you’re very fortunate to know why you’re going to work every day. Not everybody is as close to the reason that they’re at work as we are in the pension world. Because we’re here to pay pensions. While we don’t talk to our members and retirees all the time, we do get to see the impact that we make.

CLC: You’ve seen a few so-called black swans in your career from 2008 to COVID. How have these shaped your perspective on your job?

JC: Because we’re a pension fund, we’re lucky enough to be able to really think long-term – you have to stay liquid and you learn the risk management piece of it, but that’s really it. COVID has made me realize that we do need to meet each other in person. There are very effective ways of working remotely – but the things that we’re missing, I think are going to become more and more apparent over time. In terms of day-to-day interaction with all levels of the organization, if I only see my own group on a Teams call, I think we’re going to gradually learn that we’re missing a ton of stuff and a ton of formats to be innovative, to think outside the box through hallway conversations and that kind of thing.

CLC: I’m hearing plan sponsors asking about what role equities should play in a pension portfolio these days – especially as they came to the rescue for many plans in 2020 as the value of other assets fell. Any thoughts on how their role has changed over the last couple of decades?

JC: They’ve become much narrower, not so much in the context of what’s driven the markets very recently in terms of tech exposure. And post-2008, it became even more difficult to be a publicly-traded company in terms of regulations and reporting and short-term focus as well as supposed constraints on compensation (which doesn’t seem to have got through by the way). As a result, fewer companies have gone from private to public, so that’s brought the expansion of the private markets which are now such a significant part of the capital markets.

CLC: You’re retiring and what’s the first thing you’re going to do?

JC: I haven’t figured that out. The COVID experience has given me more of a taste of what it’s going to be like than I would have had being in the office still. I think that the transition will be easier as a result. I don’t really have a good, exciting answer to this question but there’s a few things I want to pick up again. I was a good piano player; I’d like to try to be a good piano player again. Just bring it back a notch.

I’ve decided that I’ll take the summer because April 30th is kind of a nice time to retire. I think I’ll take the summer and just figure stuff out, not put a lot of pressure on myself to sort of hit the ground running on anything.