Five Minutes with Heather Brilliant

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Five Minutes with Heather Brilliant, Morningstar

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Heather Brilliant is the vice president of equity analysis and credit research at Morningstar as well as the chairman of the CFA Society of Chicago. Brilliant sat down with MarketsWiki’s Jessica Titlebaum to talk about how she got into the industry, her involvement with the CFA Society and where she sees herself in 10 years.

Q: Did you always see yourself in the financial industry?

A: No, in college I wanted to be a lawyer. After graduating from Northwestern University with a degree in economics and a minor in Spanish, I wanted to try a few things before going to law school. I interviewed at various consulting firms and investment banks, really anywhere that would meet with me.

A friend helped me get an interview at Bank of America. I was accepted and went through a six-week training program to learn the ins and outs of accounting and financial statement analysis. I spent about two years in corporate finance where I was involved with the commercial lending group, focused on the auto OEM and auto parts industry. I had clients like GM and Delphi.

I left the bank in 2000 and went to Driehaus Capital Management. I worked in their international research group focused on European and Canadian equities before my first stretch at Morningstar.

I started here in 2003, but took a break in 2004 to be a senior analyst at the hedge fund, Coghill Capital Management. I came back to Morningstar in 2005, and have been here ever since.

Q: As head of equity and credit research at Morningstar, what is one of the hardest parts of your job?

A: I lead a team of 100 equity and credit analysts located in Chicago, Sydney and Shenzhen, China. One of the biggest challenges we face is related to recruiting and turnover. When someone leaves, it can take a long time to replace him or her. We are very particular about who we hire. We look at who will fit in our company culture and how they will fit into the available roles.

Q: What is the culture like at Morningstar?

A: I believe Morningstar has a very mature way of looking at business and an adult way of treating people. We don’t overly focus on face time for our employees.

For example, when you are managing people, you need to measure their output. It is more important that they get the job done, rather than see them in the office every day. We don’t worry about how they conduct their lives; we just make sure the job gets done.

Also, we have a very flexible vacation policy. As long as it is within reason, it doesn’t matter how much vacation time you take.

Q: Is it true that Morningstar offers paid sabbaticals?

A: Yes, after working at Morningstar for four years, employees can take a six-week sabbatical. Nothing is expected during this time except to recharge your batteries.

Q: What did you do during your sabbatical?

A: I traveled to California with my family. I have two young sons and with my work schedule, I’ve had to maintain a focus. I try not to feel guilty about the decisions I make and if I can’t be with them one week because of work commitments, I try to make it up the following week. Knowing that I will make that time up allows me to focus on what I am presently working on.

I think that stay-at-home moms have the hardest job. I also think taking time off from your career when your kids are young is a very personal decision. It varies for each person but I believe that I am a better mother because I work. After being focused on work, I come home and give my children all of my attention.

Q: Besides working at Morningstar, you are a member of the CFA Society. What did it take to become the chairman?

A: I started pursuing my CFA designation in 2000. It’s essentially a three-year program and you have to pass three exams and have relevant work experience to receive your charter. I finished the program in 2003 and got involved in the local society here in Chicago. The organization has 4000 members and is run by about 200 active volunteers. I started to get involved by chairing one of the advisory groups. I was elected to the executive committee a couple of years ago, became vice-chairman last year and then one month ago I was named chairman of the CFA Society.

Q: What have you learned being a member of the CFA Society?

A: Everything is done on a voluntary basis and I have learned how to motivate people in this type of capacity. When you are motivating people to find the time to dedicate to your cause, it can be very different compared to motivating the people that work for you.

Volunteers need to understand what is in it for them and see the benefits of their activity. If they see that the initiative will lead to career opportunities and building their presence in the industry, they will take on more leadership roles.

Q: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

A: You know, I see myself at Morningstar. A lot of people spend time building their external network, but I have also networked within Morningstar. I have some great contacts internally here. It would be very challenging to rebuild something like that.

The CEO and CFO were very approachable when I first started at Morningstar and I took the time to meet with upper management. I learned the business as a whole and understand how different aspects of the company work. When you know and like the people you work with, why make a change?