Winter Li

 

Winter LiWinter Li, BCom ’11

Investment Research Associate, MFS Investment Management

From Beijing to Business School

For Winter Li, life is a balance between calculation and intuition. Born in Beijing and raised in Vancouver, he knew early on the importance of a strong practical education. Indeed, his parents moved to Canada from China in order to help foster his education. “It’s very competitive over there,” says Winter. “You don’t really have a childhood—everything goes towards that one exam that you take between high school and university. And my parents wanted me to have a more well-rounded education, as opposed to a purely academic one.”

As he had spent his formative years in Vancouver, it would be natural to assume he would choose another business school, one closer to home. However, once again his parents had the foresight to encourage him to matriculate elsewhere. “My parents probably thought I had too many friends from high school and they didn’t want me to be distracted,” he laughs. “But Rotman Commerce has a very good brand, and it’s in Toronto, which is an advantage.”

His choice of program may have been quite different, had he followed in his father’s footsteps. “My dad was an engineer, so I debated between engineering and commerce,” recalls Winter. “But I’ve always been interested in the stock market, so I felt like commerce was probably a good way to break in.”

“I feel like I got really lucky with selecting my major,” he continues, “Because Commerce is one of the few areas where you don’t really need a degree after your undergrad to find a good job.” That decision was informed by his analytical mind. “Commerce is very quant [quantitative analysis] focused, similar to engineering,” Winter explains. “I was better at quant than the verbal aspects of things.” But why not engineering? “I’m not sure,” he laughs. “I was just interested in the stock market.”

The Wondering Years

While in his initial years at Rotman Commerce, Winter was faced with choosing a specialization during a particularly volatile time. “I actually picked accounting, but I knew I wanted to go into finance,” he says. “It was an interesting time when I made my choice: this was the end of my second year, and that was the middle of the financial crisis, summer of 09. One of my friends, who was in fourth year in commerce at the time, had a 4.0 GPA and got into the Harvard Business 2+2 program, and she couldn’t find a job in finance. So I thought ‘if she can’t find a job…’”

For him the choice was ultimately about trying to preserve career options. “I was pretty open-minded,” says Winter. “I got an internship through one of the Big Four on-campus recruiters. I thought I could always go from accounting to finance, but you can’t go the other way, just because of how technical accounting is relative to finance.”

He further explains that he saw the accounting specialization as “basically the foundation to everything in business. I was a bit risk-averse, so I decided to do the sure thing. I thought there was a good chance that the market would recover in two years when I’d be looking for full-time work, but things looked pretty grim back then and I ultimately didn’t take the chance.”

Beyond a strategic choice of specializations, he credits much of his success to his involvement in Rotman Commerce outside the classroom. He often frames his decision-making process in the language of financial analysis. “Compared to most of my peers, I think I had relatively over-indexed toward the extracurricular side of things,” he says. “I thought that it was pretty important to be involved in those things. It’s something that employers look for.”

“On the side I also did a part time job with the Varsity sports teams, marketing for their games,” remembers Winter. “Then toward third and fourth year, I had a part time jobs as a teaching assistant for a few commerce classes and as a lab assistant at the Rotman Financial Research and Trading Lab. In addition, I had senior responsibilities with the Rotman Commerce Finance Association (RCFA)—in fourth year, I was the president. I think I learned a lot through those experiences, a lot of things that aren’t so tangible, in terms of the social skills and leading a group.“

Building a Career

Winter’s involvement with the RCFA would prove to be highly valuable in his career. “I got this job at MFS as an investment associate from one of those RCFA events, a contact I had made through the association.” he says. “Someone had reached out to the president, which was me at the time, to help organize an event. Two years after the event, she sent out a posting about a position in Toronto with MFS. It was a direct connection. The only way I could have heard about this position was through that contact.”

“Sometimes you don’t see the results right away, but even years later you can get something from a connection you made,” Winter continues. “So I really owe my job to being involved as a student.”

He stresses that this type of student engagement can make the difference in a person’s career. “But ultimately it’s up to the student themselves,” he says. “They have to go out and network, try to figure out what’s important down the road, and then work towards that. You have to be proactive to get the most out of it.”

Winter sees his academic and career path as a process of constantly setting and evaluating goals. “Looking back, I think if I know what I’m working towards, as long as there’s a goal, then I’m pretty driven,” he further explains. “But I think it’s really important to find out what that goal is. And once you achieve that, find that next goal.”

It’s also a matter of preserving the flexibility to adjust those plans as required. “For decision making, when it’s very close between two options, I try to think about optionality—such as when I chose accounting, knowing that I could move into finance later,” says Winter. “A lot of my decisions are based around giving me optionality. And that’s very important for the long term. You could have a direction that you’re working toward, but it might not pan out.”

This ability to extrapolate various alternatives led Winter to his current role in investment management. “When you’re in school, you hear a lot about investment banking—that’s the big career,” he says. “I had never heard of investment management when I was in school, or I never thought that was an option as an undergrad. Even when I started my accounting job, I thought I’d do three years, get my CPA, and then leave to go into investment banking. That goal pushed me to keep up with the stock markets and the financial modeling side of things. Little did I know that two years later I would get a job, not in investment banking, but in investment management. By having optionality and not being so focused on one particular route, it opened up a lot of doors.”

Investing in Rotman Commerce Students

Now firmly established as an investment research associate at MFS Investment Management, Winter feels it is vitally important to remain connected to the Rotman Commerce community and the alumni mentorship programs. “I was involved as a student in the mentorship program—I got a lot of help from alumni, and that helped to keep me focused,” he recalls. “Transitioning now to being involved as an alum—I feel like it doesn’t take a large investment on my part to make a big difference for other people. Especially in commerce, it’s such a small world, chances are you’ll come across a lot these people down the road. You can potentially make a big difference in their career, and you never know when you may cross paths again.”

Once more, he frames his thinking in the language of finance. “I always think about things in terms of return on investment,” he says. “It doesn’t take much for a lot of reward, not only for yourself but for other people. And at the end of the day you’re helping your program, so you’re making sure that the school that you went to stays relevant and on top of what’s happening on Bay Street. And I think we’re continuously getting better.”

As Co-Chair of the Rotman Commerce Alumni Steering Committee, Winter remains highly involved with the community, putting his notions about engagement into practice and advocating for other alumni involvement. “The steering committee is a more direct way of being involved and having your voice heard by the commerce office,” he explains in further detail. “David [Goldreich, Director of Rotman Commerce] comes to our meetings, and these kinds of decision makers at Rotman Commerce come and listen to our input. So I think it’s a good direct way of being involved if you’re serious about making an impact as alumni.”

Assessing the Present and Predicting the Future

When asked to elucidate what he loves about his current role, he asserts the level of engagement is key. “Our job is to invest in the stock market, so as a result of that, any piece of news might affect the companies you analyze,” he says, highlighting the comprehensive nature of his role. “Whether it’s macro economy, or the US elections, or just company-specific news. You’re constantly trying to process information and parse out what’s relevant versus what’s not. It forces you to stay up-to-date with current events. I don’t treat it so much as work.”

When speaking about his long-term goals for his own future, Winter employs a practical mindset drawn from a combination of knowledge and experience. “Whenever I think that far ahead, I try not to, because I know chances are, it’s not going to happen,” he laughs. “As I learned, things don’t always move in a straight line. I do have three to five year goals, and I feel like if I move in that direction other things might appear. That’s what I try to live by. I just think about what I need to do in the next three to five years and then let the rest play out themselves.”