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Rob Manning ’84 to Students: ‘Success is Not Normal’

MFS Investment CEO Featured on UMass President’s Bus Tour

Harry Hulme talks with Rob Manning
Rob Manning ’84, right, gives career advice to senior Harry Hulme.

10/14/2014
By Sarah Corbett

If Rob Manning ’84 has one message he’d like to pass on to students it’s that “success is not normal.” 

That sentiment was on a plaque someone sent to Manning, and he passed it on to a group of students recently gathered at University Crossing to hear him speak. 

“Success is not the norm. You have to differentiate yourself – break away from the pack,” said Manning, the chairman and CEO of MFS Investment Management, a $425 billion global asset manager based in Boston. 

Manning – who graduated with a business administration degree 30 years ago – was on campus as part of UMass President Robert Caret’s fourth annual Massachusetts bus tour. Joined by Board of Trustees Chairman Henry Thomas III, Caret made stops around the state highlighting the accomplishments of the commonwealth’s 270,000 UMass graduates. 

Earlier in the bus tour, Caret and Thomas met with another UMass Lowell alumnus, House Ways and Means Chairman Brian Dempsey ’99, who walked the pair through plans for Harbor Place, an upcoming development in Haverhill that will house retail space, restaurants and a satellite center for UMass Lowell. 

The efforts of UMass alumni are felt all over the state, Caret said. “Eighty percent of UMass alumni remain in Massachusetts after graduation,” he said. “We have an impact in the state that is second to nobody’s.” 

Manning’s impact is particularly impressive.“Rob is a great example of what people can do if they work hard,” said Chancellor Marty Meehan, who presided over the roundtable. “But he doesn’t forget where he came from. We’re grateful that he is a true believer in the mission of this institution.” 

Manning, for whom the Manning School of Business is named, told the story of his grandparents – one from Syria, the other form Lebanon – coming to the United States in 1913, “with no English, no money, no education – and two generations later, their grandson is running one of the largest investment firms in the world.” 

Manning said the keys to his success have been unconditional love from family and friends (his wife Donna ’85, ’91 is an oncology nurse at Boston Medical Center; “I wish she could be here because I guarantee you’d be way more impressed with her”) and finding something he takes pride in and is passion about. 

“I’m not the smartest guy in the room – and I’m not saying that because I’m humble, it’s true – but I will work harder than anyone,” he said. “I’m still the hardest worker at MFS.” 

Manning’s work ethic was in evidence in his early days as a junk bond analyst at MFS (a job be accepted for a $16,000 annual salary over a $25,000 offer from Wang Laboratories). Soon after he joined the company, he enrolled in an evening master’s program at Boston College (eventually earning a degree in finance in 1987). 

“I woke up at 4 a.m. every day, drove into Boston and studied for two hours before anyone else showed up,” he said. “I worked all day and then went to BC at night. I did that for two years – never saw a football game, never saw a friend.” 

The dozen students at the roundtable were impressed by Manning’s dedication. 

“It’s fantastic that he would take the time to talk to students,” says Harry Hulme, a senior from Cheshire, England, with a double-major in economics and finance. “He is very inspirational—his story really sends the message that if you work hard, you can go far.” 

During the Q&A portion of the visit, Hulme – who is on the golf team and hopes to find a position in the renewable energy industry after graduation – asked Manning to share secrets for getting a great job as a UMass Lowell grad. 

“The culture here will help,” Manning said, explaining that while many of today’s college students feel entitled to success – “when I joined MFS, I would’ve run through walls, but we bring some people in today and they want my job in 24 hours” – most UMass Lowell students are different. 

“That’s not us,” agreed Tewksbury native Matilda Matovu, a junior biology pre-med major, with a political science minor. “We work hard. I am not slacking at all.” Keep it up, Manning told students. 

“You are the future, but don’t forget where you came from,” he said. “Don’t forget what this place did for you. It took me a while to understand and appreciate it. But UMass Lowell always stays in my and Donna’s hearts."