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Oct 15, 2021 2021-10

Bertram helping build a bridge for the next generation

When Jeffrey Brown became dean of Gies College of Business in 2015, he shared his passion for education and his vision of the future for the school. But for Jim Bertram, Partner and Managing Director at William Blair and Company, there was one line in his acceptance speech that really stood out. “He talked about using the University of Illinois to build bridges,” said Bertram, “and that really resonated with me.”

It was 1989 when Bertram built his first bridge, turning a Gies finance degree into an exciting, 32-year long career in investment banking working for major firms like Salomon Brothers, Deutsche Bank, Banc of America Securities and William Blair. And now, he’s building another. This summer, Bertram earned his MBA from Gies, just in time to join his middle daughter who was graduating with her undergrad degree. For the newly minted MBA, however, the double graduation event was more than a celebration of family achievements. It was the end of one amazing career, and the start of another, inspired by an old business friend.

Bertram met Rob Metzger at William Blair, a leading global investment bank focused on emerging growth companies, where Bertram has worked for the past 15 years.  “We were both leading industry groups for the firm. I was Head of the Consumer and Retail Group and Rob was running the Technology Group,” said Bertram. “So, when Rob announced, five or six years ago, that he was going to the University of Illinois to take over running the Investment Banking Academy (IBA) and be a professor in finance, I said to him, ‘You got my dream job.’”

It seemed like a natural progression for Bertram. His father had been a community college professor in Springfield, Illinois, when Bertram was growing up, and teaching seemed like a great way to give back to a college that had given so much to him. There was only one problem; he didn’t have a master’s degree. And, as a hard-working investment banker travelling all of the time, he wasn’t quite sure how he could change that. That’s when Metzger suggested Gies’ fully online iMBA program.

“Rob said, ‘It’s online. It’s flexible. It’s designed for people like you.’ So, I started looking at the iMBA.” For Bertram, graduate school was a fascinating experience, but it was also an interesting glimpse at just how much college had changed. In his undergrad years, he had learned in a desk by the chalkboard. Now, he was attending Zoom classes while in flight on his way to client meetings, and discovering what makes Gies one of the country’s leading business programs.  

“I totally feel a new energy and excitement around Gies,” said Bertram, who will be teaching Investment Banking (FIN 463) this fall and replacing Metzger as the director of the IBA in January. Bertram says he hopes to provide his students with the same essential underpinning that was critical to his career, whether that means sharing his perspective on capital markets or helping students learn how companies architect mergers and acquisitions to create shareholder value.

“I’d really like to prepare them to be successful financial analysts, giving them the skills to hit the ground running and a base of knowledge that will be helpful to them, regardless of what they ultimately do in business.” In other words, he plans to give them the girders for the bridge. How they put them together is entirely up to them.

“The U of I was clearly a bridge for me onto Wall Street, and it was again a bridge for me transitioning from a career in investment banking to an academic role,” said Bertram. “In either case, I couldn’t have done it without the University of Illinois. So, I’m very excited to give back, and offer others what I received.”