It’s that March Madness time of year and a team of Southern Illinois University Carbondale students is celebrating a victory that their faculty adviser equates to winning the “Big Dance of equity analysis.”
For the first time SIU has won the St. Louis Regional CFA Institute Research Challenge, a worldwide contest where student teams perform financial analysis on a publicly traded company. Teammates Lucas Boles, Matthew Cagle, Elijah Henson and Steven Merdian are now preparing for the next stop – the sub-regional – which is a step away from the global competition.
“This is a huge accomplishment for our students and our program,” said Tim Marlo, finance clinical associate professor and CFA Challenge faculty adviser.
He said the contest provides students with hands-on mentoring from industry experts and intensive training in financial analysis and professional ethics. Teams are evaluated on their analytical, valuation, report-writing and presentation skills.
Countless hours of preparation
The College of Business and Analytics students began preparing for the competition months ago. The CFA Society of St. Louis assigned the teams a company to research and analyze. The SIU team began work in early September with Olin Corporation, a Clayton, Missouri, company that manufactures Winchester ammunition, chlorine and sodium hydroxide. The students and Marlo, along with their industry mentor, Matt Arnold, an SIU alumnus and senior equity analyst with Edward Jones, met with Olin executives. Then the team launched an in-depth research and analysis effort.
Cagle, a senior accounting major from Herrin, said he skipped weekend fun with friends several times and instead logged more than 20 hours per week working on the project – in addition to time spent in class, studying and at his job. Meanwhile, he said some of the teammates were busy studying for their CPA exam while involved in the intense project.
“I kept track of my hours beginning in September and I logged roughly 115 total hours on the project,” said Merdian, a senior finance major from Chillicothe, Illinois. “Between myself and my three other teammates, as a team we contributed 400 plus hours to this challenge.”
Although a lot of time and hard work went into the in-depth research and forecasting the team undertook, “it helped having great teammates that were enjoyable to be with,” said Elijah Henson, a senior accounting major from Albion, Illinois.
The results of those hundreds of hours of effort were compiled into an in-depth 10+ page written report, just like one a professional financial analyst would prepare in the business world. The report includes the team’s opinion as to whether a person should buy, sell or hold Olin stock. The report was the first phase of the contest.
The second phase was a verbal presentation and defense of the report before a panel of chartered financial analysts. Marlo said these acclaimed experts in their field include lead equity research analysts for some of the nation’s top financial firms. Typically, the competition is held live in St. Louis. This year, the event took place virtually.
Since the Saluki team is still in the thick of the competition, the details of the report and recommendation are embargoed. One thing, however, that is not a secret is how well the team did, Marlo said.
“They did an excellent job and their report was heavily researched and very detailed,” Marlo said. “Their score was great – 10 points higher than we’ve ever scored before in the competition.”
SIU first competed in 2015 and has finished second three times.
“Our students followed up on an excellent written report with an incredible presentation. They just blew the competition out of the water,” Marlo said. “I am so proud of them. They did an amazing job competing against some very prestigious teams.”
The victory was significant to the team for many reasons.
Cagle said the one-on-one time spent with mentor Matt Arnold was a unique learning opportunity and the challenge gave the students “a lot of real-world learning.”
Henson said the challenge “gave me a glimpse of how intense projects will be in the future for my career path and how to manage time efficiently.”
The win was particularly meaningful to Lucas Boles, a senior accounting and finance major from Marion, who is in his fourth year on the team.
“Past competitors emphasized how beneficial the challenge was in developing their skill set as professionals, so I knew it was a great opportunity to take part in,” Boles said.
Four years later, Boles said he’s found that to be quite true.
“The experience I received in business analytics and working in a team on such a complex project will be beneficial to me in my career,” he said. “The challenge definitely refined my business analysis skills, but it also improved my discipline and time-management abilities as well. With a project that takes this much work to complete, being able to budget your time effectively and keep yourself on task is pivotal.”
Saluki pride comes into play
“I think the victory is a statement that SIU has the ability to compete with anyone. SIU has consistently performed well in this challenge but unfortunately, past efforts have only resulted in several runner-up placements. It was rewarding for us to be the group that took SIU’s team to the next level,” Cagle said.
“I think it means a lot to the university because it proves that we can stack up against other universities in our region and hopefully in the upcoming round, we will find out that we stack up well against other schools in our region and hopefully, in this upcoming round we do well against even more,” Henson said. “Besides the victory, I actually learned a lot through practical use of the concepts we learn about in class.”
In addition to gaining real-world professional experience and mentorship, the research challenge gave the Salukis a unique opportunity to get valuable detailed feedback on their work from the judges, who are all CFA charter holders, Merdian said.
“This program is another hidden gem on campus,” he said.
“Personally, it is extremely gratifying to see the time spent in classes and participating in the SSIF pay off in such a tangible way,” Boles added. “Hopefully the victory will bring even more attention to SIU’s fantastic business program and the SSIF.
Internships, jobs await
The experience that team members have received in the classroom and from events such as the CFA Challenge has translated into great career opportunities, including internships and job offers. Cagle has served internships at KEB in Marion and Anders in St. Louis and will be serving an internship at KPMG in St. Louis this summer.
Henson has already accepted a position as an audit associate with Grant Thornton Public
Accounting in St. Louis after graduation, Merdian has secured a position with NISA Investment
Advisors and Boles will be working in accounting at KPMG in St. Louis.
The team continues to hone their presentation in preparation for the next stage of the virtual CFA Challenge, as they are among 116 teams around the world competing in the Sub-Regional. Based on the submission of written reports and recorded presentations submitted by March 19, the top teams will be chosen March 29 to advance to the semifinals.