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Denison CIO Beat Yale in Her First Year. Private Equity Helped

Kathleen Browne manages an Ohio college endowment that returned 8.8%, surpassing some of the biggest university powerhouses.

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Kathleen Browne took on the role of chief investment officer at Denison University near Columbus, Ohio, two years ago and watched the S&P 500 rise to record highs over the next several months. She was happy with the equity risk in the portfolio, but Browne, 53, started to add some exposure that might be less vulnerable to a turn in the market. So far the shift hasn’t been dramatic. ­Denison’s endowment, with a market value of $880 million at the end of June, has its largest allocation in hedge fund strategies, followed by public equities (22%) and private equity (20%).

Browne’s early experience managing money came from working at the pension fund for the company once known as Lucent Technologies, overseeing its alternative investments, including private equity. Before Denison, she worked as managing director of Wellesley College’s endowment for eight years. In Browne’s first full fiscal year at Denison, which ended in June, the endowment returned 8.8%. This beat powerhouses Yale and Harvard, which delivered 5.7% and 6.5%, respectively, over the same period. In an interview, Browne talks about the unusual start to her investment career and how she runs a successful endowment office hundreds of miles from the country’s financial hubs.