The Man Running the University of California’s Lean, Mean Endowment Machine

By Michael McDonald

Jagdeep Bachher has turned around the state university system’s $110 billion fund by ruthlessly cutting fat.

First there’s the headwear. Bachher is a practicing Sikh, and the turban he wears, whether orange, red, or baby blue, is always perfectly paired with his business attire, matching his tie, even his socks.

The Man Running the University of California’s Lean, Mean Endowment MachineILLUSTRATION: SAM KERR

Second is his obsession with management fees. While institutional investors have gotten more particular about costs in recent years as high-priced hedge funds have struggled to deliver returns above market indexes, Bachher has taken it to the extreme. Since being hired to lead the University of California Regents’ $110 billion pension and endowment in 2014, he’s fired almost half of the outside money managers formerly on his payroll as he’s sought to cut fat and concentrate market bets.

“I truly believe that less is more,” Bachher says. “Let’s do a few things and do them well.” And so he has: While the funds’ performance when he arrived was middling at best, they gained about 15 percent in the 12 months through June. “A high cost structure kills you in the long run,” says Laurence Siegel, former head of investment research at the Ford Foundation. “The basic goal is to keep your money.” Bachher has thrown the funds’ weight behind promising new managers instead and also backed an advisory group with a few other institutional investors called Aligned Intermediary Inc., which researches investment opportunities in green infrastructure with the potential for high returns.

Among his peers, Bachher is known for his charisma, his intellectualism, and being extremely organized—all traits that serve him well navigating the notoriously prickly politics of a state university system. Born and raised in Nigeria, he was precocious from an early age. When he was just 14, his parents moved the family halfway around the world to Canada so their son and his older sister could attend the University of Waterloo, one of the country’s top engineering schools, located in a sleepy Toronto exurb.

Bachher went on to earn a doctorate in management sciences in 2000 from Waterloo’s school of engineering. For his thesis, he studied how venture capitalists decide which companies to back, interviewing dozens of the famously secretive money managers. His insight made him attractive to the money management arm of the Canadian insurer Manulife Financial Corp., which hired him out of school. He later worked for Alberta Investment Management Corp., a $90 billion nonprofit that invests public funds for the province, where he rose to deputy chief investment officer.

While he’s best known for taking a sharp scalpel to the regents’ portfolio, Bachher says his overriding philosophy is simply to borrow the best ideas wherever he can find them. “We’re starting to see the results,” he says. “There’s no change just for the sake of change.”

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