Daniel Peris is Senior Vice President and Senior Portfolio Manager at Federated Investors.
When did you first develop an interest in Slavic, East European and Eurasian studies?
I’ve always been interested in politics and history. In high school, I used to excerpt the international news from the New York Times as part of the morning announcements over the public address system. At the time, few of my peers seemed to share my enthusiasm for what was going on in places distant from suburban Philadelphia. Many of those moments had to do with the tail end of the original Cold War—the Reagan Years—and as I went off to college, I decided that studying the Soviet Union in greater depth would be a good idea. Despite a less-than-stellar record in high-school French, I enrolled in Russian 101 my first semester at Williams College. The class met at 8:00 am, five days a week. As I quickly learned, that was not viewed as an ideal time slot by my fellow students. So the class was a very small one, taught by an emissary from 19th century Russia. Nicholas Fersen didn’t just teach great Russian literature; he lived it. It is fair to say that his enthusiasm and intellectual curiosity altered the course of my life. Russia and Russian history became my nearly obsessive focus for about 15 years, including numerous research visits to the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia to work in the archives and libraries, a PhD on the early Soviet period, and marriage to a Russian archivist, Irina (still my wife).
By the time I had completed my studies in the mid 1990s, started teaching, and finished my dissertation book— about the Soviet League of the Militant Godless in the 1920s and 1930s—Russia had undergone a severe retrenchment, and the outlook for research funding and enrollments looked likely to follow suit. At the time, I was teaching at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. My wife commented that she had been born in Siberia, had spent a lot of time trying to get out of Siberia, and that I had brought her back to Siberia. When were we going to New York? So in 1997, we upped and moved back East.
Tell us about your career trajectory that led you to your current profession.
The transition to business is easy in the retelling, but it was quite difficult to go through, and I would recommend that individuals considering a career change like this do a bit more planning than I did. At the time (and to this day), I had a long-standing interest in commercial aviation, and the Russian market was beginning to open up. I thought I could mix that personal interest and my Russian skillset to become an expert on the topic. From my office in Laramie, I gathered what little information I could about commercial aviation in the former Soviet Union (I used Lynx, an early text-based web browser. If you remember it, you are of a certain age.) A friend of a friend working at a financial institution in Moscow commissioned me to write a report on the topic for which I was paid the princely sum of $1,000. I am sure (and hope) that the report went straight into the waste bin. I also put together a “newsletter” that a commercial website “bought,” paying me for the number of hits it received. It generated a handful of checks for a few dollars each. More importantly, both ventures generated new lines on my resume, and with that, I started calling up an air transport consulting firm based in New York and let them know that what they really needed was a 33-year-old Russian historian from Wyoming who had never opened an Excel spreadsheet before and had no meaningful business or air transport experience. They hung up on me, repeatedly. Not lacking in self-confidence, I just took that as an initial bargaining position and kept pounding away at them.
Eventually they relented and offered me a job as a junior consultant. Off we went to New York. The next year amounted to a hellish on-the-job MBA. I wasn’t paid much, but I contributed even less to the firm as I blundered my way through Excel, aviation databases, and business plans. Compared to my peers, however, I was able to write reasonably well, and that did have some value to the firm when I was able to author a report for the World Bank on air transport reform in Francophone Africa. (My high school French was put to the test. I had learned more than I had realized.)
It was a miserable year, but it led to incremental job opportunities, including a much more stable position with Argus Research, a small family-controlled firm that provided data and analysis on US stocks. While Irina returned to the historical fold, working at the Brooklyn Historical Society and the New Jersey Historical Society, I settled in at Argus as a stock analyst.
Irina and I were both in lower Manhattan on 9/11. A few months later, I began searching for similar work outside of New York. Fate brought us to Pittsburgh where we have resided for the past 15 years. With ASEEES’s administrative office having relocated here a few years ago, I have gotten more involved and currently serve on the Investment Committee of the Board.
Tell us about the activities of your current career. How do you utilize your training in SEEES?
While my current position as a portfolio manager has nothing to do with Russia or the former Soviet Union, my training as a historian is very much relevant as I operate in a field—stock investment—with almost no historical sensibility. Knowing the history of the capital markets and where and when our current investment tools developed has certainly helped me in my day job. It is also reflected in two practitioner books that I have published in recent years, and in a full-blown historical critique of modern investment theory that will come out in 2018.
In my renewed engagement with ASEEES, I look forward to helping the organization reach out to individuals such as myself who may have wandered from the field but retain a strong interest in it.