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Byron Trott vividly recalls the day he became Warren Buffettâs investment banker.
It was February 2002, and heâd recently received a call from Hank Paulson, then CEO of Goldman Sachs and Trottâs predecessor as head of the firmâs Chicago office. Tom Murphy Jr., son of the veteran media executive and longtime Buffett pal, was retiring from Goldman. Paulson had just left Buffettâs office in Omaha after informing him that Trott would now be, in banker parlance, âcoveringâ him. âGo see him,â Paulson barked to Trott.
âNot a lot usually shakes me, but I was scared to death when I walked in,â says Trott, who prepared for the meeting by reading all of Berkshire Hathawayâs annual reports. The two hit it off, and the get-to-know-each-other session, scheduled for an hour, ran to three. Before it was over, Trott had a fee-generating assignment from Buffett, who is notoriously stingy about paying investment bankers. âI did what I do with most clients for the first time,â says Trott. âI say, âGive me your toughest problem. What have you not been able to accomplish?âââ
As it happened, Buffett had a pet project, a task that other bankers had failed to embrace. He wanted to create a security that paid Berkshire to borrow money, the opposite of how a loan typically works, with the catch being that investors also would get the right to buy Berkshire stock in the future at a lower premium than in a standard convertible debt offering. The concept was called a negative coupon convertible, and Trott cajoled a former Harvard finance professor working on the capital markets desk at Goldman to design it.
The sale of $400 million worth of the securityâunglamorously labeled âNegative .75% SQUARZââproved a modest success for Goldman, but it didnât exactly work out for Buffett. âThe risk was that itâd convert,â says Trott, sharing the anecdote publicly for the first time. Buffettâs partner, Charlie Munger, hated the idea of diluting Berkshireâs equity by converting the notes into stock. The notes eventually did convert, as Munger had feared, and Goldman never sold them to another client. âI thought it would be entertaining to put out a deal that would have a negative coupon,â reflects Buffett. âIn retrospect, it was not that smart.â
Smart or not, the arcane transaction transformed Trottâs career. By immediately rising to the challenge of his famous client, Trott earned Buffettâs trust, so much so that in 2004 Buffett mentioned Trott by name in his headline-making annual letter to shareholders. âHe understands Berkshire far better than any investment banker with whom we have talked andâit hurts me to say thisâearns his fee,â he wrote.
Trott (center) in the Chicago headquarters of BDT with three of his key fellow execs (from left): BDT vice
chairman William Bush and coâchief operating officers San Orr III and Dan Jester.Photograph by Robyn Twomey for Fortune
All of a sudden the low-profile Midwestern bankerâs name became linked with Buffettâsâeven as Trott himself largely remained in the background. Over the course of the ensuing decade Trott would work with the Omaha investor on multiple billion-dollar deals, including the $5 billion cash infusion into Goldman Sachs at the height of the financial crisis. Trott rose to become a Goldman vice chairman before leaving in 2009 to set up his own Chicago-based firm, BDT amp; Co.
Today that firm has carved out a lucrative niche by reimagining an old concept, the merchant bankâa financial outfit that advises powerful clients while investing alongside them. BDT works exclusively with what Trott calls âbillionaires with businesses.â The merely rich arenât of interest, and neither are institutionally owned, professionally managed corporations that are well served by bigger firms. Instead, the 56-year-old Trott, who is trim and a perpetual grinner, caters to the unique needs of families with names like Walton, Pritzker, and Wrigley by earning their trust the way he did Buffettâs. âLet us understand you, your company, your long-term objectives, and let us help you by being a true solutions-based adviser on your side of the table, not the kind of idea-of-the-day, dialing-for-dollars banker,â he says, summarizing his approach.
What sets Trott apart, along with his unique clientele, is his ability to sit on every side of the table. By stressing discretion, confidentiality, and patience, Trott and his colleagues repeatedly do what few other bankers can: They advise multiple parties to the same transactionâand then invest capital in some of the deals theyâve just brokered. In this fashion BDT has raised two funds, worth $8 billion, in five years and acquired stakes in companies that include Tory Burch, Peetâs Coffee, and the Pilot Flying J truck stop business. The capital comes largely from BDTâs own employees and the families in its network, who essentially are providing patient investment dollars to one another. Elsewhere on Wall Street such behavior would be called a conflict of interest. For the well-pedigreed club Trott has cultivated, it is considered a privilege of membership.
Trottâs timing so far has been impeccable. He left Goldman immediately after the financial crisis, when valuations were low and good advice was dear. Yet for all his renown as a banker, Trott is new to the role of principal investor, with a need to be known by ever more potential investment partners. It is for this reason that the super-secretive Trott agreed for the first time in his career to participate in an article about himself and his firm, allowing Fortune an inside view of his techniques and entrÃe to his entire network. The man whose name quietly opens so many doors has another challenge as well: to ensure that BDT can grow into something more than âthe Byron showââthe initials on the door notwithstanding. âThere isnât any doubt that at this point Byron is the key man,â says Lee Scott, the former Wal-Mart CEO and one of several high-wattage advisers to BDT. âHis first job is making sure to be a good steward of the investments BDT is making. The next thing on his plate is to develop his team so that it can transcend him.â
The sun is setting on a pristine, subfreezing December day in Chicago, and Hank Paulsonâs head is perfectly framed by the landmark Willis Tower in the background. The former Treasury secretary makes certain to point out that he has no commercial relationship with BDT, though he keeps an office one floor up and works out in the BDT gym.
Paulson is focused on his environmental policy and US-China relations work these days, but he stays close to his protÃgÃ. âWhatâs unique about Byron is that heâs in a class of one,â says Paulson, who plucked Trott from the obscurity of Goldmanâs outpost in St. Louis early in his career. âHeâs sort of the equivalent of a Triple Crown winner because he is a superb relationship banker-adviser, a great investor, and a brilliant salesman.â Trott also displayed an entrepreneurial streak that isnât quite the norm for investment bankers, whose job is to risk other peopleâs money, not their own. âWhen I ran Goldman Sachs,â says Paulson, âI had to break through walls for Byron. Heâs like a guy who plays free safety. You need to let him be effective.â
Trott grew up in Union, Mo., about an hourâs drive from St. Louis, the youngest of four children and the only boy. His father was a telephone-line repairman who fought in the Battle of the Bulge. His mother owned a dress shop in town. As a teenager, Trott decided to start a jeans shop in Union so that young people didnât have to drive to the big city to trade up from their Wranglers. He was a star baseball player and dreamed of the big leagues, but he passed up a scholarship close to home to attend the more academically rigorous University of Chicago. His trip to visit the campus was his first time on an airplane.
Trott, outside in Chicago, grew up in Missouri and spent his years as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs cultivating wealthy Midwestern families.Photograph by Robyn Twomey for Fortune
After college Trott started in the brokerage business at Goldman, managing investment portfolios for wealthy clients. Early on he realized that his clients spent far more time thinking about their businesses than about their investments. So when Paulson tapped him to make the unusual move from pushing stocks to advising clients on financial transactions, he jumped at the opportunity. He had one condition, however. He told Paulson he wanted to keep his existing clients in an effort to convert them to Goldmanâs banking platform. âI think the first list I had was 52 targets, of which none were banking clients of the firm,â remembers Trott. âSo he had nothing to lose, and I had everything to gain.â
Trott steadily progressed by carving out a niche, at first a lucky outgrowth of having started selling securities, by gravitating toward families with businesses. Goldman corporate clients such as Sears and Quaker Oats were spoken for, so Trott cultivated families like the Waltons instead. He worked the Midwestern circuit of cities like St. Louis, Kansas City, and Chicago, assembling additional clients like the Taylors of Enterprise Rent-a-Car and the newspaper Pulitzers.
Trottâs clients tended to be highly private, and the companies were often generations removed from their founders. Having been around a long time themselves, they appreciated that Trottâa master of the soft sellâstuck around for years, with or without generating revenues for Goldman. âHe viewed himself as our general contractor inside Goldman rather than the Goldman guy covering us,â says Tom Pritzker, who retained Trott in 2007 to raise capital for the Hyatt hotel empire. In a move that typified his win-win-win strategy, Trott found Hyatt two investors for that deal: a fund controlled by Wal-Mart heir Rob Walton and Goldman Sachsâs own private equity arm.
The year the financial markets nearly collapsed was one of the best of Trottâs career. At the beginning of 2008, Buffett mentioned Trott again in his annual letter, calling him the ârare investment banker that puts himself in his clientâs shoes.â In the next six months Trott sold the Pritzkerâs Marmon industrial group of companies to Berkshire Hathaway brk.a . He played go-between for Buffettâs investment in Goldman. Then he brokered a deal for the candy company Mars, a client, to buy the Wrigley chewing-gum empire, another client, with a critical investment from Berkshire Hathaway. âHe was basically on every side of the transaction,â says William âBeauâ Wrigley Jr., then the chairman and CEO of Wrigley and today an adviser to BDT. âWe knew he was working with Mars as well, and our board signed off on that. We had a trust factor for 10 years.â
By the spring of 2009, Trott had left Goldman Sachs GS to set up BDT. âAll my life, once I accomplish something, I tend to like to find the next challenge,â he says in an interview in his Chicago office, which features a bookcase devoted to a careerâs worth of deal âtombstones.â That something else was to try his hand at becoming a heavy-hitting investor, just like his most famous client.
The smoky aroma of barbecue wafts from the nearby kitchen at the Weber Grill, a bustling eatery in downtown Chicago. Jim Stephen, one of 12 children of the man who invented the original Weber grill (the iconic kettle-shaped barbecue that birthed an empire, including the restaurant group), revels in the homey ambiance as he tells his family story and how it became entwined with Byron Trottâs investment firm. Stephen was for many years CEO of Weber-Stephen Products, in the Chicago suburbs, and when he and his siblings wanted liquidity he snagged an introduction from another business owner to Trott, who was preparing to leave Goldman Sachs. After initially advising Weber-Stephen on its options, BDT bought a controlling stake in the company, retaining the family as investors but giving Stephen and some of his brothers and sisters control of their beloved restaurants.
The deal for Weber-Stephen was one of BDTâs first, in 2010, and it has all the markings of a BDT transaction. It took place three years after Trott and Stephen started talking, there wasnât an auction to find the highest bidder, and some structural jujitsu resulted in satisfactionâfinancial and emotionalâfor all parties. Trott later added Lee Scott to the companyâs board, a move Stephen says heâd never have dreamed of on his own. In retrospect, Stephen might have been able to get a higher price for his company, but then he would have been less confident about his fatherâs legacy. âWeber was successful because we built a quality product no matter what,â he says. âThis means there were certain price points for grills we wouldnât do. These are the hallmarks of a private business, which requires a certain kind of ownership. I got very comfortable with Byron and BDT being the next owner of Weber-Stephen.â
It isnât the typical investment bank that wins such personal tales of affection from its clients. Last year Daniel Lubetzky, the entrepreneur behind the Kind snack bar, began to be inundated by requests from private equity firms because it had been nearly five years since he took an investment from another firm, VMG Partners. The outreach often was from bounty hunters attempting to line up deals for a client. Trott, in contrast, reached out to Lubetzky, whom heâd never met, to invite him to a conversation he was hosting in Omaha with Buffett. âI couldnât go,â says Lubetzky, âbut I invited him to meet.â Trott shortly found himself in New York City, introducing himself to Lubetzky. âByron and his firm didnât send scouts. Byron reached out to me personally. He did it the old-school way.â BDT became a minority investor in Kind.
The structure of BDT itself differs from other investment banks in two critical ways. First, it doesnât have traditional areas of practice, such as financial services or consumer products. Instead, each of its investment professionals is a generalist, the better to serve many of its family clients, whose needs tend to be broad and deep rather than one-time transactions. Second, BDT bankers work on both advisory and investment deals. At other firms a rigid wall would separate the two activities.
Trott says a BDT banker needs three skills: âYouâve got to be a black belt in investment banking. Youâve got to be a black belt at investing. And youâve got to be part psychologist in dealing with families and business owners.â Those are traits that appeal to clients as well as to younger recruits to BDT. Diana Nelson, the third-generation chair of the Carlson family of companies, which includes Carlson Wagonlit Travel and Radisson hotels, has worked with Trott and his colleagues since their Goldman Sachs days, including on a recent decision to divest her familyâs holdings in the TGI Fridays restaurant chain. âThey are willing to listen to what the problems really are,â she says. âIn a family setting you donât do a deal and then walk away from the people.â
Investment bankers, as a tribe, are master networkers. Byron Trott has institutionalized his schmoozing and taken it to a high art. Those skills are on display in September at one of BDTâs every-other-year summit meetings in Chicago. In the audience are the individuals from the wealthy families in BDTâs network, often parents with their adult children. At lunch the journalist Bethany McLean interviews Amy Chua, the Yale law professor best known as the âTiger Mom,â and Madeline Levine, a prominent psychologist with a specialty in parenting. The lunch is meant to be entertaining, but the subject matter is critically serious for the attendees: how to raise children while facing the special pressures of wealth, entitlement, and familial responsibilities.
âOften very wealthy people do not expect to be met with any sympathy regarding their financial or psychological issues,â says Levine, who in addition to the BDT summit has appeared at numerous smaller roundtables the firm hosts for the families in its extended network. âIt is an enormous relief for them to be able to talk about their issues in a safe and nonjudgmental environment.â
Such nurturing of its network is BDTâs secret sauce. Because the wealthy families, along with BDTâs investment professionals, make up most of the investors in its funds, they are intertwined with one another financially and socially, with BDT as the connective glue. The roundtables in particular are intimate and highly confidential gatherings, where BDT clients can open up about their common concerns. âThese people get naked faster than I ever wouldâve believed,â says Erskine Bowles, the presidential chief of staff and investment bankerâwho is now an adviser to BDT. âThe trust is almost instantaneous.â
BDT senior advisors with Byron Trott (right) in the bankerâs Chicago deal-trophy-festooned conference room, from left: Toby Cosgrove, CEO of the Cleveland Clinic; Andy Taylor, executive chairman, Enterprise Holdings; Dennis Washington, founder, the Washington Companies; Erskine Bowles, president emeritus, University of North Carolina.Photograph by Robyn Twomey for Fortune
If BDT get-togethers sound like group therapy sessions, itâs because essentially they are. âThe most important thing to me is raising good children who are going to have good values,â says Kindâs Lubetzky, who was lured into the BDT orbit by the experience he had while attending his first conference. âThe time I spend talking to these business leaders about educating your children, caring for others, and not creating a culture of excess is invaluable.â Of the people he met, he remarks, âI didnât meet one single jerk.â
Trott has been hosting his conferences since he was at Goldman Sachs. Now heâs layering on top of the advice his billionaires give one another some gold-plated wisdom from the businesspeople heâs met on his journey. Trott asked Lee Scott, for example, to join BDT full-time when he retired from Wal-Mart. Scott refused the offer but agreed instead to sit on a BDT advisory board, primarily to mentor the firmâs younger talent. âThey might come down to my house in Florida to discuss career development or how to develop gravitas,â he says. Over time Trott persuaded Scott to become a director of Weber-Stephen and Pilot Flying J as well as an observer on the Tory Burch board. Says Scott: âHeâs been very successful at having me turn down working for him full-time, only for me to wake up one morning to find out Iâm doing darn near that.â
Thanks to Bowles, who sits on the board of Facebook FB , Trott also is dipping his toes into the unfamiliar waters of Silicon Valley. âLike BDT, we focus on building a network, investing in the people we finance, and advising them too,â says venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, also a Facebook board member, whom Bowles connected to Trott. âSo in fact our firms are almost mirror images of each other. Once we understood that, we had a lot to talk about.â Andreessen and his wife, Laura, a philanthropist, have appeared at BDT summits. So, too, has the tech investor Jim Breyer, who hosted a panel this fall in Chicago with the education entrepreneur Sebastian Thrun and Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of blood-testing innovator Theranos. âWe talked about how to stay on course,â says Breyer, a subject of interest to multigenerational businesspeople. âThese are not one- to two-year challenges they are working on.â
In early December, Trott made a 55-hour trip to Amsterdamââfor a board meeting,â he saysâthen a few days later traveled to the San Francisco Bay Area on a Sunday for a five-hour sit-down with an unnamed client. (Asked who it was, he proudly offers up the clichÃ rejoinder of secret-keepers: âIf I told you, Iâd have to kill you.â) After a hearty meal and a good bottle of Chardonnay, he flew overnight to New York, where, among other things, he attended a Goldman Sachs dinner to unveil Hank Paulsonâs official portrait as the firmâs chairman.
Trottâs whirlwind activity highlights his firmâs single greatest challenge: proving it is about more than him. BDT has three other partners: San Orr, a longtime colleague at Goldman Sachs and the key emissary to the Walton family; Dan Jester, another ex-Goldmanite and a prized Paulson lieutenant at Treasury during the financial crisis; and William Bush (no relation to the political clan), a lawyer and longtime Trott confidant who is nearing retirement. The midlevel ranks are stocked with former members of Trottâs team at Goldman. Not every Goldman Sachs transplant to BDT sticks, though. Two senior colleagues from Goldman, Gerry Cardinale and Kevin Kennedy, briefly joined BDT and then left. Trott acknowledges the need to boost his firmâs senior ranks. âWe need to fill out my age range for the next 10 years to make sure the next generation is truly trained to take over,â he says.
BDTâs challenges extend beyond personnel. Its deal flow has slowed of late: The firm completed just two, low-profile transactions in 2014. BDT has done relatively little business with Berkshire Hathaway in its five years of existence, and to the extent that Berkshire makes minority investments, BDT is something of a competitor now. Trott hints that more deals are coming, including with Buffett. And Toby Cosgrove, another high-powered BDT adviser who is CEO of the Cleveland Clinic, says he has brought the firm a large health care investment that is âin process.â
One of the many reasons Trott has flown under the radar for so long was to avoid drawing the interest of competitors. Thatâs changing too. He has heard anecdotes about the likes of Blackstone and KKR sniffing around his turf. Itâs also possible that BDTâs very strengthâits long-term relationship with ultrapatient, wealthy familiesâcould become a pain point. When you hire a typical Wall Street firm, you know youâre getting a hired gun. But BDT sells a long-duration, mutually beneficial arrangement. The first time one of its investments goes really bad, as it inevitably will, the investor-to-owner conversation may prove particularly awkward for BDT.
Trott says BDT will remain relatively small, and he plans for it to be around long after heâs gone. âThis company is highly unlikely to be sold. Itâs highly unlikely to be taken public,â he says. âItâs highly likely that it will be an employee-controlled or closely held company, just as it is today.â Just like the family businesses he so discreetly serves.
This story is from the January 2015 issue of Fortune.
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VoA - News Monday 29th December, 2014
Russias battered currency fell sharply on Monday after a government report showed the economy shrank in November, and predicted a four percent decline next year.
At one point Monday, the Russian ruble was off six percent, trading around 56 to the dollar.
It is the first time the economy has declined since 2009, and follows sharply falling prices for Russias key crude oil exports. The slide on the oil market accelerated this month after the exporters group OPEC refused to cut output, and prices are down almost 50 percent from a peak in June.
The economy has also been damaged by sanctions related to Moscows actions in Ukraine that deter foreign investment and make it hard for Russian companies to borrow money from Western sources. To date, sanctions have caused an estimated $100 billion to flood out of Russian markets this year.
The economic troubles have prompted many investors to move their money out of the country, and encouraged people who hold rubles to exchange them for more stable currencies. With many people selling rubles and few buyers, the price of the currency dropped.
Overall the rubles weakness will inevitably lead to higher inflation next year by pushing up the cost of imports, threatening President Vladimir Putins reputation for ensuring Russias prosperity.
Government ministries forecast the slump in oil prices will lead to a 4 percent contraction of the economy next year and that inflation could exceed 10 percent.
Russians have kept a wary eye on the exchange rate since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Hyper-inflation wiped out their savings over several years in the early 1990s and the ruble collapsed again in 1998.
On Friday, Russian authorities also significantly scaled up rescue funds for Trust Bank, saying they would provide up to $2.4 billion in loans to bail out the mid-sized lender, the first bank to fall victim to the crisis.
Portions of this report are from Reuters.
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Sault PUC customers will pay more for their water and electricity in 2015.
The Sault Ste. Marie PUC board of directors, at its meeting Wednesday, approved the corporations 2015 budget, which takes effect January 1, 2015.
Customers will pay $2.94 a month more for water, and $2.74 a month more for electricity.
The electrical figure is based on the Ontario Energy Board (OEB) standard for the average 800 kWh (kilowatt hours) home, said Terry Greco, PUC vice president of finance and treasurer.
The PUC board also approved a motion to ask permission to borrow money for upgrades to the communitys water utility and electrical infrastructure.
Were going to city council on Monday to get approval to borrow $15 million (from Infrastructure Ontario) to finance capital expenditures we have made for this year and next year, Greco told SooToday.
The $15 million will go towards replacing poles, switches and substations on the electrical side.
In the longer term, there are 15 distribution stations and we need to rebuild those stations over the next 20 years, and well be rebuilding stations at approximately $3 million per station, said Dominic Parrella, PUC president and CEO, speaking to SooToday.
The PUC will also seek approval from council, later in the new year, to borrow another $8 million from Infrastructure Ontario to help with continuation of the Water Quality Improvement Project and the cost of repairing 171 watermains which froze and broke in the extreme cold of the winter of 2013-2014.
Greco told the board the borrowing will not mean new, unplanned rate increases for water and electricity other than those originally approved by the OEB in 2012.
There will be 10 percent annual rate increases for customers through to 2018, then five percent annual rate increases, to pay for infrastructure upgrades.
We have to replace the infrastructure thats been in place for 50 years, and were going to have to do that over the next several years, Greco told us.
In order to be sustainable in the long term we have to ramp up the amount of capital works we do each year to the point where by 2020 we need to be between $10 million and $12 million in capital works, Parrella said.
Meanwhile, the board was given an update on the new Atlas Notification System.
Beginning December 1, the PUC began using the Atlas system, which gives PUC customers 24 to 48 hours advance notification, through an automated telephone message, of planned power outages or water service interruptions in their area, enabling customers to prepare accordingly.
The PUC has asked customers to provide a Preferred Outage Contact Number by calling the PUC customer service office at 705-759-6522 or by visiting www.ssmpuc.com/atlas
Customers can opt out of providing a number, but will still be notified by the PUC in the event of a major emergency.
Giordan Zin, PUC communications supervisor, told the board it cost $40,000 to purchase and install Atlas technology, and will cost $30,000 to maintain the service annually.
We have ongoing planned outages that are required in order to upgrade the aging infrastructure, Parrella told reporters.
Hopefully moving forward we may get to the point where we utilize it in the case of a water main break to notify the customers affected without notifying the entire city, Parrella said.
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With some graduates carrying six-figure student loan debt, there is one company helping certain borrowers refinance. NY1's Tara Lynn Wagner filed this report.
It is a fact that bears repeating: many people owe a lot of money in student loans.
Student loans are more than $1.2 trillion. They are the single largest source of unsecured debt in this country, says David Klein, co-founder and CEO of CommonBond.
David Klein was one of the graduate students sharing that burden when he met Mike Taormina at Wharton Business School.
We kind of commiserated over the fact that we had a lot of student debt at pretty high rates, Klein says.
And they felt that given their credit scores, they deserved better. Together, they formed CommonBond, a company that helps graduates refinance their students loans or borrow money for grad school.
Most of our customers are refinance customers who are looking to refinance on average about 100 thousand dollars of student debt. Which is a lot," says Klein. And were able to save them about $10,000 over the life of the loan because we are putting them in lower rate products, says Klein.
In many cases, lower than the fixed rates offered by the federal government, if they qualify. CommonBond borrowers have high credit scores. Because they attended graduate school, they are slightly older with an average borrower at 31 years old.
In other words, these are not recent college grads who are struggling to find work and are unable to make their monthly loan payments. For borrowers in that boat, and there are many, author Kal Chany says refinancing in general likely wont help.
Because with refinancing a loan, theyre really having the old loan paid off and getting a new loan. But to refinance those loans if they are not working, if they have a low level job, its going to be the same as before, with the loans they had, says Chany, author of Paying for College Without Going Broke.
CommonBond loans are financed through a pool of money raised from investors who earn a return. To attract those investors, the company only lends to credit-worthy borrowers from select programs.
Theres a strong sense that the borrowers that we lend to have a very high likelihood of paying back their loans, says Klein.
Right now, they are working with graduates from over a hundred of the countrys best MBA, JD, MD and engineering programs. Klein says they plan to expand to at least twice as many programs in the next year.