A Great Intellectual Game

by Kennedy Richardson '71

A college yearbook photo of Kennedy Richardson.

Ever since graduation, I have been known as, among other things, a physics major. Frequently with quizzical looks, people  ask, “How did you ever get from physics to managing an equity fund at Fidelity?” When I arrived at Williams, I fully intended to major in mathematics. Receiving advanced placement into sophomore math, I actually had to work for the first time and received a B-plus in the course, my worst performance in math ever. I was devastated. Meanwhile at 8 a.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings, I was taking Physics 103 with “Papa” Stabler, a kind, inquisitive—albeit somewhat absentminded—professor. He would end each class with an experiment, occasionally with catastrophic results. One of my favorites was the demonstration of the bell curve distribution with about 10,000 ball bearings. Dr. Stabler forgot to place the trap in the bottom of a large glass container — no bell curve, but rather 10,000 ball bearings all over the floor.

Classes and assignments were always a wonderful exploration of some puzzle of the physical universe. What makes a rainbow? Why is the sky blue? And the first of Einstein’s famous thought experiments on relativity: Why do two men in two trains traveling at the same speed next to each other appear stationary? One day Dr. Stabler told us in passing that in physics we would solve problems, while in math we would discuss how we might address how to solve a problem. By winter break I was hooked.

I spent four years figuring out a wonderfully complex series of puzzles about the physical universe. What is really going on here? What are the two or three key factors driving the phenomenon we were studying? In the end, there was always Dr. Stabler’s recommendation, “Please conclude with a few simple English words to summarize.” Vintage scientific instruction at a classical liberal arts college.

Outside of class it was four years on the ski team. Fairly consistently on the winter carnival team but a very long way from number one (always John McGill). Plenty of hard work, lots of crashes and always picking myself up for the next race. And all of it measured to 0.1 seconds. 

By senior year, I loved my major but knew a career in engineering or academics was not for me. The summer before, a fellowship at Brookhaven National Laboratory had convinced me. Next came Harvard Business School and, in 1973 after graduation, a career in investment management.

Somewhat surprisingly, picking apart a stock was a lot like doing physics problems. What are the two or three factors really driving the outcome? Get to a conclusion. The few simple English words became two — ”buy” or “sell.” With a diversified fund it was much more multivariable. How do all the pieces fit together? While unlike physics, I could never ignore the human element in security prices. All those humanities courses really did matter. Starting a fund at Fidelity in 1985, I was once again measured quite precisely, in familiar increments of .01% of return, every 24 hours for 23 years. I have often joked that when you are named a diversified portfolio manager at Fidelity, you are given two things, a Bloomberg terminal and a cyanide capsule—with one instruction: if one does not work, try the other.

I found managing a fund, like physics, was a great intellectual game, perhaps the greatest ever invented. I had the opportunity to compete against some of the most aggressive and finest minds anywhere. As an added plus they even paid me. There is always a stumble or fall, just like in ski racing, where I might have to pick myself up, learn from the error and go on.

So that is how I got from A to B. Some things are constant, and some things change. 

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