Playing a winning game
Career options for Japanese women in the early 1980s were extremely limited. It was expected that you would marry young, and become a full-time mother. So Aya Hirota Weissman’s plan to dedicate herself to a career was brave, provoking opposition from her own parents. Where did the ambition come from?
“Maybe it sounds like a cliché, but I really wanted to realize my potential. I felt that I could do more than what my parents set out for me to do.”
In one respect, she did follow her family’s expectations: she married young. Her American husband accepted a job offer in Geneva, and Aya searched opportunities for post-graduate study in Switzerland. She initially intended to pursue a career in international relations, but she judged that an MBA could open doors in more than one discipline.
Upon applying to IMEDE, her potential made such an impression that she was accepted despite a lack of managerial experience. Without hesitation, she names Professor Xavier Gilbert’s strategy classes as the most impactful learning experience during her studies. In case study discussions, a significant part of the learning related to confidence and delivery. However, for Professor Gilbert content was king. If you had a slick presentation but lacked substance, you did not have an easy time. “Presentation style was important in other classes, but not in his.”
Her career choice was shaped by chance: the one viable job offer upon graduation was to be a securities analyst at Equitable Capital Management in New York, which she accepted.
The job provided a solid foundation for Aya’s later career as a value investor. She became adept at identifying bubbles, as well as less-fashionable stocks with strong cash flow and potential. She began to relish the opportunities her employer offered:
“This is the great thing about America – if you are up to it, they let you do it.”
Success as an analyst prompted an ambition to become a portfolio manager. In her 12-year career at Smith Barney, which became Salomon Smith Barney, she was highly successful. For Aya, money has always been a byproduct; winning at the game is the motivation.
“If I don’t understand it, I don’t play. I only play when I have a pretty high conviction that I know how to win … That’s why I think female portfolio managers in general do better. Because we know what we don’t know.”
She observes how she has tended to be underestimated in the overwhelmingly white male world of asset management and hedge funds in the United States. But, of course, being underestimated can offer tactical advantages. She relishes the meritocracy in investment: you produce returns, or you don’t. There is therefore less room for politics.
“Maybe it sounds like a cliché, but I really wanted to realize my potential”
Towards the end of her stay at Salomon Smith Barney, company reorganizations prompted a desire for another move, and she transitioned to the world of hedge funds at the peak of the dotcom craze. Aya had also changed her focus from US to Japanese equity markets. “[It was] clear that we had to short the crazy internet sector.”
For the next 11 years, she worked Japanese trading hours from the US, often 13 or 14 hours a day. The year 2005 was pivotal; it was a record year for her, but also featured a health scare. Having proved herself in the world of hedge funds, she was ready for the next challenge. Aya founded her own investment firm, AS Hirota Capital Management LLC. She was well aware of the risks before the global financial crisis of 2008, and her fund avoided a major drawdown of the capital she was managing. However, this was hardly a deceleration in the pace of her career. So she waited until 2010 and wound down the firm, ensuring all employees gained new posts.
Since then, Aya has worked for contrarian investor and entrepreneur Murray Stahl at Horizon Kinetics. He is an original thinker and a fellow value investor focused on long-term absolute return.
Once again she had changed her area of investment from Japan only to the entire Asia Pacific region, including Japan, to broaden her chance of finding winning investment ideas.
In addition, Aya has thrived as a nonexecutive director, serving on the boards of Japanese industrial behemoth Toshiba, SBI Holdings and Nippon Active Value Fund. A central responsibility and point of focus in her roles as independent director involves working towards modernization and rigor in corporate governance in Japan. She believes that her years as a professional investor are serving her well.
Aya offers counter-intuitive advice for investing and for careers: Be the best at what you do – the money comes later. She adds:
“I’m really passionate about investing and winning the game. After all these years, people sometimes ask: Why are you still doing this? My answer: I love it.”
Aya’s energy, commitment and achievements are such that it came as a revelation to her two daughters when she told them that a career in investment had not originally been her ambition. Neither of her daughters is inclined to follow her into the world of investment, but she encourages them with the same motivational point that succeeded for her: fulfill your potential.
It has been a long journey for the woman from a conservative Japanese family whose intended role was to be a full-time mother. She is more than an inspirational role model: Aya is a pioneer who helped create the roles for women in the first place.