By Nancy Moffitt
The bird sits on Al West’s desk as if weathering an arctic blast, its black and gray body hunched, its dark eyes narrowed. “It’s a vulture,” says West, WG’66 and chairman and CEO of SEI Investments, of the life-sized wooden sculpture. “It used to perch over us in the conference room at our old headquarters to remind us not to have long meetings. I don’t like long meetings.”
Aside from the buzzard, West’s minimalist black desk is exactly like every other in the wide-open, cubicle-free room, one of many at SEI’s headquarters in Oaks, PA, its base since 1996. There are no offices, secretaries or private parking spaces, even for the chairman. In SEI, West has stripped away the traditional layers of bureaucracy that often interfere with completing the task. The result is a workplace that is both casual and crackling with energy, far from the mahogany-and-Oriental rug formality of much of the financial services world.
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 floors, made of recycled tires, are quiet and soft underfoot and the massive windows that line every workspace open during the summer so fresh air can circulate. 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-mâché polar bear, his stomach branded with an enormous eye. The collection, chosen by West’s daughter, Paige, and paid for by West, features young or lesser-known artists and includes the “Hot Hall,” where controversial art is hung and employees are invited to comment on its merits, or lack-thereof.
The egalitarian and creative setting is West’s doing, a “visual statement of who we are. Workstations are open and flexible so people don’t get set in their ways. This is what our culture is about – constant change. There are no boxes here. You are empowered – you can move anywhere you want. The setting is a small thing, but it sends a signal. You have to continually not be enraptured with what you are doing.”
West, 60, a down-to-earth native of Brooksville, FL, a town founded by his great-grandfather, was the oldest of three siblings and studied aeronautical engineering at Georgia Tech. Bad eyesight dashed his dream of becoming a fighter pilot, and West co-founded SEI at Wharton in 1968 as a technology-outsourcing partner to bank trust departments. Today, SEI is an asset management and investment technology provider that administers $254 billion in mutual fund and pooled assets, manages almost $90 billion in assets, and processes almost $50 trillion in investments transactions each year from 22 offices in 10 countries.
At Wharton, West donated $10 million to bring 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 Graduate Executive Board 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.”