Minnesota educator goes to Rome to build a global fund for Christian Brothers Investment Services.
Over the past 50 years, Christian Brother Louis DeThomasis has been a successful printing industry entrepreneur, Catholic educator, investment company founder, builder of Minnesota's second-largest private university and a business ethics commentator of national renown.
Time for retirement at age 70 and relaxation at his downtown Minneapolis condo?
Not DeThomasis. The Brooklyn-born son of a bricklayer is launching a European money management firm from Rome for the Christian Brothers, also part of the growing "socially responsible investment" or SRI movement.
DeThomasis, who also retains the honorary title of chancellor of St. Mary's University of Minnesota, was one of the pioneers of SRI when he co-founded in 1981 Christian Brothers Investment Services, the $3.67 billion asset-management firm based in New York.
"I'm no goody two-shoes," said DeThomasis, a champion of "ethical capitalism" who also has been an outspoken critic of flagrant corporate behavior and excessive compensation, whether it was legal or not. "SRI simply says free enterprise looks not just at profit, but how business attains the profit and the quality of the product and the company's relationship with its employees and other stakeholders.
"It's never just black-and-white. It's not just laws, rules and regulations. I am opposed to that view because, as we can see with all the major scandals we've had in the last few years, everyone comes out and defends their unethical behavior with spins that rely on clever interpretations of laws, rules and regulations."
Disclosure: I'm a fan of the DeThomasis School of Business. I helped DeThomasis write his 2006 book, "Doing Right in a Shrinking World: How Corporate America can Balance Ethics and Profit in a Changing Economy."
Capitalism only works as long as the investors and workers trust the bosses. And SRI, which is estimated to have grown to 10 percent of all investing, attempts to give engaged shareholders a voice with corporate boards.
Christian Brothers Investment Services was founded to provide licensed, top-flight investment management services for Catholic institutions and congregations.
With that model in mind, DeThomasis was dispatched to Rome, headquarters of the Christian Brothers and the church, to start four CBIS Global funds. The funds, which include European bond and equity funds, launched this spring.
DeThomasis, who holds advanced degrees in finance and theology, was the logical choice to establish the European business because of his experience at CBIS, his fluency in several languages and his experience as a former board member of what has become the mutual fund complex of Bank of America.
"He's bringing the same energy and enthusiasm to CBIS Global as he brought to the early days of CBIS," said Brother Michael O'Hern, CEO of Christian Brothers Investment Services and an MBA out of the University of Chicago.
The European funds, operated by veteran European fund managers hired by CBIS Global, is also open to individual mutual fund investors.
There are different iterations of SRI, but CBIS, which uses any profits to advance its education and philanthropic missions, generally starts by "screening" to avoid companies involved in weapons production, spirits, gambling and connections to pornography and human trafficking.
For example, CBIS has been engaged in a few dozen discussions and actions over recent months that include:
•A proposal to separate the role of chairman and chief executive at Goldman Sachs, which might get some traction in light of federal civil charges that the Wall Street titan duped some customers to its own financial benefit with mortgage bond investments.
•A successful attempt to give shareholders a voice in the compensation of the CEO at huge Cisco Systems, which eventually was embraced by the board and Chief Executive John Chambers.
•Talks with BP over its environmental practices, seemingly prophetic, in light of the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster.
Although it goes unspoken, CBIS Global also will give some European Catholic institutions an alternative to the huge Vatican Bank, unpopular in some quarters and also a reported target of Italian investigations.
DeThomasis expects to remain in Rome full time for at least another year. His likely successor as president of CBIS Global is Alessandro Lombardi, vice president of CBIS Global, who previously was an executive of BNL BNP Paribas Roma, one of the 10 largest banking groups in the world.
Although CBIS declines to project how big CBIS Global will become, the expectation is that it will eventually rival the several billion in assets held by its U.S. parent.
DeThomasis is unsure what his next assignment will be. He lives a modest life for an investment executive. In Rome, DeThomasis lives in a glorified dormitory room and eats in the cafeteria at Christian Brothers headquarters about 3 miles from the Vatican.
Back in Minneapolis, the expert Italian chef should find more time for cooking. And he likely will spend more time writing and speaking at the intersection of faith and finance.
"I don't think too much about retirement," DeThomasis said. "I enjoy my work."
Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144 • firstname.lastname@example.org