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Alex Motola, Thornburg

To Alex Motola, who studied to become a professor of medieval history, the life of the mind needs a daily challenge.

Karen Dolan, 06/17/2008

Alex Motola's path to becoming a portfolio manager started in medieval times.

In the early 1990s, Motola was on track for an academic career as an undergraduate at the University of California, Santa Barbara's honors program for history. He was a triple-major in creative writing, history, and medieval studies and thought he'd become a professor. "I had read everything written in England between the birth of Jesus Christ and King Richard's succession," Motola says. "Literally."

Fast-forward to 2008, and Alex Motola is sitting in his cramped office in Santa Fe, N.M., managing $3.7 billion for Thornburg Investment Management using a growth-oriented investment formula.

That's not as big a contrast as it first may seem. Motola has shifted the focus of his considerable research skills from Chaucer to the stock market. He retains an academic's critical eye, and old study habits are hard to break. He still disdains secondary sources, for example. "I would always go back to primary source," he says of his college studies. "I still have a strong sensitivity to going right to source documents, and I'm even suspicious of them. There usually are hidden agendas."

That is true of the stock market and the reams of analysis circling it. Company management and Wall Street analysts tend to be overly optimistic or pessimistic, which is exactly what Motola seeks to look past and exploit.

Investors and advisors appreciate Motola's work. "When you sit down and you talk to Alex, you realize how brilliant he is, what a phenomenal listener he is, and how passionate he is about investing," says advisor Mark Biegel, of Biegel and Waller in Columbia, Md. "You can't see that on a piece of paper."

A Life in Finance Takes Hold
The boundaries of a professor's life drove Motola to switch from academic pursuits to a more pragmatic career as a money manager. He didn't want to be a person who knew the most about one thing. He instead preferred to be on a dynamic learning curve, one that was changing all the time.

"My expertise in British and French history seemed limiting in a way that what I do now isn't," he says. "I learn about new companies and new industries all the time."

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