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State investment board member Kaminski retires after 18 years

A Mercer Island resident and the longest serving member of the Washington State Investment Board retired this spring from nearly two decades of service as a non-voting financial advisor on the board, which is responsible for managing pension funds for state employees.

Charles Kaminski began serving on the investment board in 1992, 11 years after it was first established by the state Legislature to manage over $70 billion in public assets for retirement plans for teachers, firefighters, law enforcement officials and other public servants. Under his watch, the board weathered the 2008 financial crisis, became more disciplined and professional and improved its performance to the point that it ranked in the top 25 percent of its peer groups, according to Kaminski and the board’s executive director, Theresa Whitmarsh.

“Charlie was our longest serving board member, so he saw a lot of changes,” said Whitmarsh. “And he really is an investment industry expert; he brought a lot of skill.”

Kaminski, who went to MIT and received an MBA from Harvard, said he was interviewed for a position on the board when one of his colleagues suggested that he be considered. At the time, he was working as Chief Investment Officer for Great Northern Annuity, a part of Weyerhauser that was sold to GE and has since become a company called Genworth.

Whitmarsh said work on the state investment board is unpaid except for a nominal $50 given to members per meeting. Kaminski worked in Olympia about three days per month on top of his other job, he said, but somehow, every three years when his position came up for renewal, he decided to keep at it.

“I chose to stay because investing is something I truly enjoy doing,” said Kaminski. “I was in a position where I could offer my expertise, and I had the time to do it.”

So, for over 17 years, Kaminski alternated between managing $50 billion in assets for a private firm and helping manage $70 billion in public funds for the state. The two jobs, he said, complemented each other but were also very different.

Kaminski said the biggest difference was the way decision-making happened in both places because on the state investment board he served as one of five non-voting advisers along with ten voting members who were appointed to represent the interests of public workers who had a stake in the pension program.

“As Chief Investment Officer, I had the last call, the buck stopped there,” he said of his work for private companies. “At the state, it was indirect influence; it was up to us to build a convincing enough case.”

In doing so, Kaminski said he learned to be sensitive to the interests of unions representing public workers, something that he said he probably would not have encountered working exclusively in the private realm.

Helping make decisions about pension funds could be stressful, he said, especially given the economic turmoil of the last few years.

“It’s not as much fun when the market’s going down as when its going up, but there’s a certain amount of comfort to knowing that structure and discipline drive you in hard times,” he said.

Because he served on the board for so long, Kaminski said he was pleased to see it begin to follow stricter guidelines and improve its overall performance. When he started working there, Kaminski said the Washington board was ranked in the bottom 5 percent of its peer group. Since then its performance has improved dramatically.

“That was an opportunity for someone like me who had just come into the state to say, ‘OK, what can we do here?’” he said. “After 10 years it had migrated from the bottom of the barrel to the top quartile of its peers.”

When the board makes decisions now, Kaminski said, it does so based on multiple planning sessions, the advice of outside experts and computer models that assess the risk of various asset classes such as stocks, bonds, private equity or real estate.

Kaminski said thanks to the improved returns on the pension fund, the state has not had to set aside as much money for it. It also provided a buffer that has helped the state weather the recession over the last few years, he said.

Whitmarsh said Kaminski also contributed to the board by encouraging members to engage in formal education on how to better work on a board through a program he had been involved in at Seattle University, and she said he was a strong advocate of setting aside enough resources to develop a professional staff for the board.

Despite the pressure and the professionalism, Kaminski said over the course of the 800 or so board meetings that he attended, he came to highly value the people that he worked with, and once in a while they even had a little fun.

“There were times of levity, but most of it was inside jokes for the investment industry,” he said. “I don’t know if the jargon would really make sense.”

Now, said Kaminski, he is taking more time to focus on his own investment management company, which he started when the firm he worked for decided to move out of the state, but he wanted to remain on Mercer Island.

He said he got satisfaction out of knowing that he had helped build the investment board into what it is today, and his experience in Olympia would stick with him.

“When you’ve got a great organization firing on all cylinders, there’s a pride in that, which I would say I will never forget,” Kaminksi said.

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