Most 15-year-old boys who saved $600 from a summer job in the early 1970s would have been content to tuck the money into a savings account and earn 5 percent interest.
Not Andrew Duff. He wanted to invest the proceeds from his business cleaning swimming pools, so he turned to a family friend who was a broker at Piper Jaffray & Hopwood.
“He was willing to sit down and help me invest this rather large sum of money,” Duff recalled. “One of my options was an initial public offering for a new company called Cray Research, which turned out to be hugely successful. Of course, I thought I was a genius!”
Cray went on to develop the world’s fastest “supercomputers,” and Duff was along for the ride for a long time before selling the stock. The experience taught the teenager two lessons.
“The idea of risk investment – something innovative and dynamic like supercomputers – appealed to me,” he said. “I was willing to take a risk. I wanted to see the potential of a larger return more than preserving my capital by just putting the money in a savings account.”
The other lesson: he wanted to work for Piper Jaffray. That aspiration never went away, and after graduation from Tufts University in 1980 he bided his time until the Minneapolis firm came through with an offer. After 34 years, Duff still is at Piper Jaffray, and has served as its chairman and chief executive officer for more than a decade.
“When I graduated from Tufts, I applied in May for a job at Piper Jaffray and came home,” he said. “It was the only place I applied.
In August, my parents asked, ‘Do you think you should apply somewhere else?’ I said, ‘No,’ and a week later, Piper Jaffray offered me a job. I always had it in my mind that I would work here.”
Duff, his two brothers and a sister grew up in Orono, west of Minneapolis. The family has deep roots in Minnesota. His great-great grandfather and uncle started Donaldson’s department store, his father was publisher of Sun Newspapers and his mother owned a home merchandise store. He attended Blake School and Tufts, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in economics.
His first job at Piper Jaffray was selling bonds to small banks in northeastern Minnesota and southern Nebraska. He enjoyed hitting the road and developing relationships with clients.
“You didn’t need to know where the bank was – it was the only three-story building in town,” he said. “You always asked to see the president, and you knew every person you called on was a bond buyer by definition.”
Duff became a bond sales manager and discovered that he enjoyed the role while remaining active in sales, although it took time to find the right balance.
“After six months,” he said, “a couple of guys took me to lunch and asked, ‘What’s the deal? You are still No. 1 in sales and we thought you were going to help us.’ The truth was, I wasn’t helping them enough. I figured out how to let go and help them, and I realized that I liked leadership.”
Piper Jaffray executives valued those traits, too. A series of promotions in the 1990s culminated in Duff’s appointment as president in 1996, and he took on additional duties as vice chair of U.S. Bancorp after its 1998 acquisition of Piper Jaffray. The trend at the time was for commercial and investment banks to join forces and offer a “one-stop shop” to better meet clients’ needs.
“We thought, ‘Why not go early and beat the competition?’ and U.S. Bancorp was a good partner,” he said. “Its headquarters also were in Minneapolis, we knew each other well and we had a lot of cultural similarities. The move made sense at the time.”
U.S. Bank’s market strategy changed after its 2000 merger with Milwaukee-based Firstar Inc., and Piper Jaffray was spun off as an independent investment bank and asset management firm in 2003. It proved to be the right decision, said Duff, who became chairman and CEO. “They set us up for success, and to this day we have an excellent relationship. We’re in the same building, in fact.”
Among Duff’s early moves was to sell Piper Jaffray’s retail brokerage unit in 2006 and focus on investment banking, institutional trading and asset management. The move worked well … and then the recession hit in 2008.
“That was a very challenging time for everybody,” he said. “In September 2008, the entire financial system was within a week or two of collapse, and I had no idea what would happen after that. The government stepped in and did some extraordinary things. Each and every step was not perfect, but it did save the system.”
Tom Schnettler, vice chairman of Piper Jaffray and an employee since 1986, believes Duff deserves his own share of credit for leading the firm through the recession.
“He was a very steady hand at the wheel,” Schnettler said. “There was never any panic around here. He came in every day with the attitude of ‘we’re going to find answers,’ and we did.”
It took years for Piper Jaffray to recover, but the last several quarters have shown strong growth. Net revenues increased to $167 million in the quarter that ended June 30, up 63 percent from a year ago, and assets under management grew to $12.6 billion. Employee ranks have rebounded to 1,000.
Duff believes that one constant through the turmoil has been Piper Jaffray’s guiding principles. The company occasionally reviews them but has changed only a few words during his 34 years, and he finds the emphasis on core values to be a stabilizing factor. They include “always place our clients’ interest first,” “conduct ourselves with integrity and treat others with respect,” and “work in partnership with our clients and each other.”
“Those principles are the foundation for our success,” he said. “The best way to operate a business is to work in partnerships – to get on the phone and call somebody in the London office knowing he will have an answer to your question.”
Debbra Schoneman, chief financial officer at Piper Jaffray and a 1996 St. Thomas
MBA alumna, praises Duff’s “holistic view” and willingness to rely on others.
“He has the ability to listen, have an open mind and change his point of view,” she said. “He’s not afraid to say, ‘I was wrong. Let’s do it your way.’ He doesn’t have any personal ego in it.”
It also helps that Duff “is just a nice guy,” said Sam Kaplan, a Minneapolis lawyer and former lead director on the Piper Jaffray board. “Not all CEOs are nice guys. The key to running an investment bank is to have your senior executives work as a team, and he has been able to do that.”
Duff realizes he is an anomaly these days, having spent his entire career at one company, and he smiles at the “lifer” description. He insists he never has looked seriously at other opportunities, and he can’t see working anywhere else.
“I just have done my job,” he said. “This is everything I ever hoped it could be.”
Andrew Duff and St. Thomas
Joined the Board of Trustees in 2011 and is a member of the Investment Committee.
Has served on the Opus College of Business Strategic Board of Governors since 2004 and received the Dean's Medal of Excellence when he spoke at commencement in 2008.
Received the John F. Cade Award for achievement in entrepreneurship in 2012.
Can see a slice of the Minneapolis campus from his ninth-floor office in the U.S. Bancorp Center on Nicollet Mall: “What used to be parking lots and old buildings is now a beautiful campus. St. Thomas can be very proud of that.”
Believes in the value of a college degree but has concerns about how long tuition increases of 4 to 5 percent can be sustained in an era of 2 percent inflation: “It will take some innovation to
adjust that … but the quality of the university suggests it will succeed in doing so. Like a business, if you are willing to evolve and grow, you will succeed.”
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