At SEI Investments, CEO and chairman Al West’s minimalist black desk is exactly like every other in the wide-open, cubicle free room at SEI’s headquarters in Oaks, PA. There are no offices, secretaries, or private parking spaces, even for West. In SEI, West has stripped away the traditional layers of bureaucracy, creating a workplace that is both casual and crackling with energy.
Employees work from desks on wheels, their computers and phones connected to red and black coils of cable spiraling from the ceiling, a set up that allows for constant movement as priorities change. The walls everywhere are hung with more than 2,000 pieces of edgy modern art, from giant ceramic mushrooms climbing up a concrete wall to a 15-foot, papier-mache polar bear, his stomach branded with an enormous eye.
The egalitarian and creative setting is West’s doing, a “visual statement of who we are. This is what our culture is about—constant change. There are no boxes here.” West co-founded SEI at Wharton in 1968 as a technology-outsourcing partner to bank trust departments after poor eyesight dashed his dreams of becoming a fighter pilot.
Today, SEI is an asset management and investment technology provider that administers $366.6 billion in mutual fund and pooled assets, manages almost $181.5 billion in assets, and processes almost $50 trillion in investments transactions each year from more than 20 offices in 10 countries.
At Wharton, West brought his passion for the unconventional to the classroom via the Alfred West Jr. Learning Lab, created in 2001 to “rethink the learning paradigm.” West is also a member of the School’s Board of Overseers and chairman of the SEI Center for Advanced Studies in Management, where the idea for the Learning Lab began. “I didn’t like class—it seemed a slow way to learn,” West says, laughing. “People learn things by doing them.”