By Lisa Thiegs
From Minneapolis to Mexico, father and son Don and Kurt Winkelmann have used their U of M economics education to gain global perspective
While Many Father and son duos can say they share a passion for sports or antique cars or the great outdoors, few would say that their common interest lies in applied problem solving. And even fewer can tout two generations of Ph.D.s in economics. Don and Kurt Winkelmann claim this distinction, and they share their alma mater as well. Don spent his graduate school years at the university of Minnesota's Department of Economics in the early 1960s, paving the way for his son, Kurt, to follow with his graduate degree in 1987. Both were drawn to the department's reputation for analytic rigor and the strength of the faculty. "I remember being impressed by the idea that I was being exposed to cutting-edge material practically every day," Kurt says. "Looking back, I have an even deeper appreciation now for the innovative quality of that work."
Though it was a shared interest in applied problem solving that led them both to the University's Department of Economics, their paths diverged when it came to careers. Don, whose thesis focused on agricultural subsidies and labor migration, landed in the academic arena as a professor at Iowa State university before moving to Mexico, where he eventually became director general at CIMMyT (Centro Internacional de Mejoramiento de Maíz y Trigo), an international not-for-profit organization that helps improve corn and wheat technologies for developing-country farmers. Kurt focused on applied econometrics with an emphasis on financial economics and real estate for his dissertation; now he's a managing director for the Investment Management Division at Goldman Sachs in New York.
For both an international perspective played an important role in their future. Don moved his wife and three children to Mexico in 1966 to help build the Iowa State economics department's nascent master's degree program in agricultural economics at Mexico's Colegio de Postgraduados. He expected to return to Ames, Iowa, after 18 months but ended up staying for nearly three decades as he settled into his role at CIMMyT. A significant part of his work involved combining the views of biological sciences with the views of social scientists, in particular economists, to develop improved technology. The broader view made a difference, and the attitudes and tools that emerged took hold in developing- country research programs.
His efforts didn't go unnoticed. For his work with the Colegio de Pos-Graduados and with CIMMyT, he received Mexico's Order of the Aztec Eagle, an award the Mexican government gives to foreigners who have made a significant contribution to the country. He eventually became chair of the technical advisory committee for CGIAR, he Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research.
Retired since 2000 and living in Santa Fe, Don hasn't left economics and his global perspective behind. He is active in Santa Fe's Council on International Relations, follows immigration issues closely and volunteers with Santa Fe's International Folk Art Market. He most enjoys being a Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow, which gives him a chance to talk to students at small colleges. "I'm not there teaching economics; I'm talking about my experiences in combining views from various disciplines in solving production and environmental problems."
Kurt lived in Mexico for eight years before leaving for college when he was 18. "The experience in Mexico had a profound influence on me," he says. "The exposure at an early age to a different culture probably made it easier for me to contemplate a career focusing on global clients and global issues." Spending his youth in a foreign country sparked his interest in travel; whether it's for work or pleasure, he travels to South America, Central America and Spain regularly.
Now, after 13 years at Goldman Sachs, Kurt heads the Asset Management Group's Global Investment Strategy group, working with institutional investors around the world on broad investment policy issues. "There has been a very steady diet of interesting issues to work on at Goldman," he notes. "The issues are, as often as not, raised by clients, with the implication that providing solutions can have important practical consequences."
Don and Kurt see eye to eye on most matters. Both suggest that there are essential skills that came from their economics education that went deeper than theories and mathematics. "In any situation, I try to figure out the core problem," Kurt says. "One of the things that really stuck with me in terms of a lesson was that there are probably discernible economic structures driving what we see empirically."
Don still focuses on basic maxims that went hand in hand with his education: "For me, the little phrases like 'no free lunches,' 'Sooner preferred to later,' 'Think about specialization,' and 'look at division of labor' had lasting importance. They emerged from theory supported by analysis. I've long since forgotten theory's refinements, and I'm no longer competent with the analysis. But the maxims stayed, and they had a large influence on the last 20 years of my working life, and they still do."
The father and son team know, too, to expect the unexpected. "People should be alert to the many opportunities, beyond those that motivated them initially, that are going to open up along the way," Don says. Kurt agrees, referring to an analogy that's often used at his office: "A career is a marathon, not a sprint. People should keep in mind that they're going to be working for a long time. The Economics Department gives its students a solid foundation of tools that should carry them through a career. And you can never really predict what kind of opportunities might show up.