An Interview with Rob Sharps, Chief Executive Officer and President, T. Rowe Price
In January 2022, Rob Sharps officially became CEO of T. Rowe Price Group. Growing up in Garrett County and attending Southern Garrett High, Rob’s career has been special and accelerated quickly.
He went to Towson University, majored in accounting, and got his CPA soon after graduating. By Rob’s own admission, he wasn’t “Ivy League material” coming out of high school. Cars, girls, and sports had a higher priority for teenage Rob. It was at Towson, where the lightbulb went off, and Rob graduated at the top of his class.
He has an MBA from Wharton and worked at KPMG and Wellington before joining T. Rowe Price in 1997.
Rob and I sat down recently and covered a wide range of topics. During our interview, Rob’s passion for “everything” came through consistently, starting with his two families, the Sharps and T. Rowe Price.
His authenticity, openness, and candor are three of his greatest leadership qualities that stood out during our hour together. Baltimore is fortunate to have Rob Sharps and T. Rowe Price.
Enjoy the interview and thank you, Rob, for spending quality time with me.
Mike: Rob, you went to Southern Garrett High School and then to Towson. About 30 years later, you become the CEO of T. Rowe Price. What were your mom and dad like?
Rob: Great parents! My mother passed away in 2017 when she was 63. In her 40’s, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. It was one of the most difficult things in my life, watching her struggle and the toll it took on her body and ultimately taking her life. Fortunately, she did get to know many of her grandkids. Until the last year or so, she lived a mostly fulfilling life, even with limited mobility. First came the walker, and eventually, she ended up in a wheelchair. That was pretty much my mom, not only a wonderful woman and a great mother but a dedicated public school teacher.
Mike: Tell me about your dad.
Rob: My dad is still living and still in Garrett County. He went to Bridgewater College and played on the golf team. I always say that the golf genes skipped a generation, with my dad playing golf in college and at 74 still a single-digit golfer and my son Tommy being a very competitive high school golfer at St. Paul’s School.
When my dad graduated from Bridgewater, he worked as a Mathematician for the Atomic Energy Commission. His father and his uncles had a family business in Garrett County, Sharps Chevrolet, and his father asked him to come back and take over the dealership. Then his dad ended up dying in his mid-50s of a massive heart attack on a Saturday morning at the dealership. My dad took over running the business after he left the Atomic Energy Commission. He didn’t love the business, and instead of buying out his uncles, they all decided to sell to a large dealership conglomerate.
Selling the company allowed my dad to remake his career. He was always interested in investing; he got his Series 7 and joined a firm called Butcher & Singer out of Philadelphia with an office in Cumberland, MD. It really caught my interest that he would remake his career at his age and eventually build a book of business that my brother ultimately took over after my dad retired. Wheat First eventually acquired Butcher & Singer. My dad left after the acquisition and established the brokerage at First United in Oakland, Maryland.
Mike: When did the investment bug hit you?
Rob: I remember going to my dad’s office, and he would have piles of stuff everywhere on the floor and his desk, research reports of Donaldson Lufkin Jenrette. I would read some of those reports and thought it could be a cool job to research companies, pick stocks for a living, and get paid to do it.
Mike: You graduated from Southern Garrett and came to Baltimore to go to Towson University. Talk about your decision to become a Tiger.
Rob: In high school, I was more interested in sports, cars, and girls than academics. I didn’t have as many options as you would think. When I look at the undergraduate institutions of most of my peers, Bill Stromberg went to Hopkins, Jim Kennedy to Princeton, and Brian Rodgers to Harvard. I kind of broke the elite university pattern.
I got a wonderful education at Towson and had great professors like Barbara Stewart and Lamont Steel. They had a big impact on me. I was an accounting major, and when I passed the CPA exam, I was ready for the real world. I had a great experience at Towson. I’ve really loved going back, guest lecturing, and being part of the College of Business and Economics Alumni Advisory Board. I have developed a great relationship and respect for Dr. Shohreh Kaynama, the Dean of the College who has recently retired.
Mike: What have you enjoyed most about your engagement with Towson?
Rob: When you’re back on campus, it’s all about reconnecting with people with whom you have shared life experiences. It is so easy when you’re focused in a business like investment management to lose perspective on challenges and priorities and what’s happening in the rest of the world. Whether it’s the economy, government, or being on a campus – to have something else to really sink your teeth into is extremely fun and rewarding.
Mike: You have an incredible wife, Pam, and four sons. Is Pam the CEO of the Sharps Household?
Rob: Without a doubt, Pam is clearly in charge of our house, and I love that. She is the primary parent, always on point, and though they’re all boys, she’s a great model for them. She loves sports, is a great cook, and is willing to roll up her sleeves and do whatever it takes to keep the Sharps men heading in the best direction.
Mike: Pam went to Southern Garrett. Were you high school sweethearts?
Rob: Not really. We went out several times in high school, but she had a serious boyfriend who went to West Point, and after her freshman year at UMBC, they broke up. That’s when I made my move, and the rest is history.
Mike: You graduated from Towson, passed the CPA exam, and joined KPMG. Talk about your first job.
Rob: I was originally supposed to join the audit practice. The summer before I started, a KPMG group called Corporate Transaction Services, led by Marc Sherman, offered me a position with them. I jumped on that opportunity. They did several different things, including litigation support, like economic damage calculation and expert witness testimony. This group had a big project that summer and reached out to the incoming recruits in Washington and Baltimore and asked if anybody would be willing to start early and work on this humongous case that involved fire retardant plywood. They were the expert witness for economic damage calculation in the lawsuit against the plywood manufacturer. It was a huge project, gathering the evidence, collating it, and then calculating the damages.
Long story short, I worked for this group for the summer, and they made me an offer to work full-time in the Washington DC office.
I wasn’t all that enthusiastic about being in auditing, but I went to work for this group in Washington and worked for them for two years. I loved that I got to do many different things, be engaged with many really motivated people, and see other businesses and different industries. After my second year with them, I decided that I was going to get my MBA and put my application into Wharton just kind of as a test exercise, thinking that the following year I would do four or five applications to schools like HBS and Chicago, but then I got accepted to Wharton, and off to Philadelphia we went.
Mike: Were you and Pam married at this point?
Rob: We got married right before I started at Wharton. Pam was a math major at UMBC and decided she wanted to focus on marketing. Towson was a better fit for her, so she transferred to Towson, where she graduated. Pam basically put me through school. She worked for what was US Healthcare at the time, and they got bought by Aetna while she was there. She worked in Blue Bell, and we lived in Center City. We had one car that Pam took to work, and I walked to school or rode my bike. I borrowed the money for the tuition, and she paid for our living expenses. My parents put me through Towson, which was a blessing that not a lot of people have. Business School was different; we were on our own.
Mike: You finished your MBA at Wharton. Did you know then that you wanted to get a job in the investment industry?
Rob: I knew that I definitely wanted to investigate different possibilities. Early on, I talked to some folks at Alex. Brown and other places, but it was hard to get into the business with my background, coming out of Towson and working for KPMG. I remember going to New York and interviewing with Credit Suisse and a high-yield investment banking role, but I really focused on the investment management roles. I interviewed with T. Rowe, Wellington, and Fidelity, and ultimately, I went to Wellington Management Company in Boston, another investment management firm and a quite successful private partnership. I spent the summer there between my first and second years in business school in 1996.
Mike: How did T. Rowe Price hit your radar?
Rob: Rob Gensler came to campus and interviewed me, and I was invited to Baltimore to 100 E Pratt to interview with Jim Kennedy and Bill Stromberg, and a number of different folks. Ultimately, they said, “Look, we’re really interested in you, but we only have a certain number of positions open, and we’ve got a couple of offers out, so you know, stay tuned.” Wellington gave me an offer pretty much immediately after I interviewed, and I accepted it. I really liked the people at Wellington. I liked the firm and didn’t necessarily have my heart set on coming back to Baltimore. The idea of spending time in Boston, New York, and elsewhere was appealing. I had a great summer – I really liked the people there, and they made me a full-time offer.
Bill and I had stayed in touch, and he called and asked how my summer went and if I would be interested in coming back down and spending a day with him. It’s easy from Philadelphia, so I took the train down, and ultimately, they made me an offer to come there full-time. It came down to the people, the culture, and the personalities, Brian, Bill, Jim, Bob Smith, and Greg McCrickard, to name a few. T. Rowe was a better fit for me than Wellington. It felt more collegial and more team-oriented. It also felt like a place that had a little less structure and where if you did a really good job, they’d give you more responsibility, and you could accelerate.
Mike: Less than two years ago, you were leading 1,000 people in the investment group. When did you find out you were getting the CEO position?
Rob: I was named President of T. Rowe in February of 21’. In July of the same year it was announced that Bill was retiring and I would succeed him as CEO on January 1st of 22’.
Mike: It’s the beginning of 2022. You wake up one morning, drive to the office, and 8,000 people are waiting for you. What was the adjustment like?
Rob: There was a learning curve, for sure. I’ve had the benefit of having a great team around me to help me learn the business and all the parts of the organization outside of just investments. I have been a member of our management committee since 2016, but we mainly deal with the broader issues of the firm. I always underestimate how much interest there is among our associates to get a sense of my priorities, my perspective, what I feel good about, and what I think we need to do better. We’ve really tried to put some regular structure and cadence around the CEO-level communication, but it’s a big part of the job, and so is listening. You can’t be the subject matter expert on what all of those 8,000 people do. Ultimately you have to rely on a great team. I’ve tried to learn to read between the lines and ask questions correctly so people will trust you. As the CEO, people don’t always tell you the unvarnished truth until they’re comfortable with you and trust you.
Mike: What’s the “message” you try to leave with T. Rowe associates?
Rob: The first thing I think about every time I engage with any of our associates is that you want them to come away with a sense that what we do as a firm is important and that it has some meaning. Two-thirds of our Assets Under Management (AUM) are retirement-related. At the end of the day, if we do our job well, our clients are able to retire with greater flexibility and more security; whether it’s saving for college or wealth accumulation, it matters. Our work impacts people’s quality of life, and our clients have entrusted us with $1.3 trillion. That’s a tremendous amount of trust, and we’ve got to earn it every day.
Mike: What’s your leadership style?
Rob: I’ve always tried to hold myself to a high standard. The people that report to me have very important positions, and they know I expect the same from them. I think it’s unfair to hold people to a high standard if the expectations aren’t clear, but once you’ve established goals and objectives, I tend to be pretty hands-off. My door is always open, and I want people to come to me to get my perspective or share what’s going well or challenges that need more attention.
Let me share a story. Relatively early in my career, in one of my first roles as an investment division leader, one of my direct reports was making a decision with regard to a promotion. This was a talent-based decision, and this person came to me and asked for my perspective. Of course, I shared it, and they made the decision that was consistent with the perspective I’d offered, but it ended up not being a great decision. Later when I discussed the decision with the person that made it, he told me he did what I told him to do. I realized that I always have to be clear with people that they own their decisions and that they’ll be accountable for the outcome. I’ve always been to the point about transparency, willing to own my mistakes and learn from them. Don’t dwell on your mistakes. You can hate failure but don’t fear it; you have to take risks.
Sometimes, you make a bad decision, and you just have to recognize it quickly and move on. This is a great skill for people to develop. I’ve seen really smart, successful people, whether in leadership or investment decision-makers, who don’t have the self-awareness or the security to own their mistakes. If you are going to get better, you have to be able to say, “Look, I missed that one,” “Nobody’s perfect,” and “Be ready for whatever comes next.” People who are competitive and highly motivated want to win every time. They know they won’t but are always ready for the next opportunity.
Mike: Rob, what do you do to bring your “A” game every day?
Rob: I love our company. I really think it’s a special organization, and in some ways, it makes bringing your “A” game easier. It’s extremely important that people find something they love to do. It’s not a reality everyone can achieve, but where you have flexibility, you try to make things work as best you can. I have a passion for our business. I love markets. I love investing. I love serving our clients and delivering for them. I love working with and developing our associates, so the question becomes, how do you stay disciplined to ensure you have all of the relevant information to stay on top of trends? How do you ensure you’re engaged with and doing all the things you need to do to retain your best talent and attract new talent to the organization? Managing change is hard, so trying to stay ahead and making sure that people feel optimistic, even in difficult times, is part of my role.
I sleep pretty well – I don’t worry about things outside my control, and I try to focus on the things I can influence. A leader has to see reality as it is, understand the challenges, and once we do that, say all right, here is what we are going to do about it. This is our third consecutive difficult year. I had to tell people that I understand what’s impacting both the short and long-term performance, but we have to have a plan to address it and show our people the vision of where we’re going and why I believe we will be successful and win!
Mike: What career advice would you give to anyone starting out?
Rob: I get a lot of young people asking me for career advice. They’re kids coming out of high school or college or new people starting in the industry. The first thing I always tell them is to read Angela Duckworth’s book “GRIT.” It talks about the impact of passion and effort. We’re all given a certain amount of natural ability and talent. The book empirically shows that while talent matters, what matters most is the combination of passion and effort combined with talent. You see it in athletes, business executives, musicians, and people who take their talent and marry it with something they believe passionately about – that’s the recipe for success.
Mike: You have a passion for public education. Recently you joined the board of the Baltimore Curriculum Project (BCP). Tell me more about it.
Rob: A good friend, Mike Niccolini, is the Chair of the Board and invited me to become engaged with BCP. My mother was a teacher and both of my parents were very involved with the PTA when I was growing up. I have always believed that education is extremely important. I’ve been involved in the advisory board for the College of Business and Economics at Towson and was a trustee at Saint Paul’s School, where my four sons went. I’ve also been an informal advisor to Rob Paymer, Executive Director of Bridges Baltimore, which does great work with the Baltimore City students and leverages the resources of a lot of the private school campuses. My board activity at BCP is focused on some of the most difficult areas of the city. They have a curriculum that’s empirically based. It’s a unique pedagogy that focuses on reading skills and greatly supports local principals. They recruit principals that are remarkable as people, educators, and leaders. When you look at these schools’ results, they’re extraordinarily differentiated from other public schools. You see educators from other schools engage with them to really understand their curriculum and learn how to further engage with the teachers and principals. The mission at BCP schools is clear and one of the keys is empowering principals.
Mike: In March 2022, you were part of a groundbreaking for an incredible new headquarters at Harbor Point. Move-in is less than eighteen months away. What’s the impact you hope to see on the company and its people?
Rob: It will be the first time our investment professionals will be in a building specifically designed around the work and needs of T. Rowe Price. Having a space that is designed around collaboration and leverages technology will allow us to thrive. I also hope and expect a vibrancy and energy that comes from having a new global headquarters in Harbor Point, a very exciting part of the city. There’s a lot of growth happening there. Many great restaurants, taverns, and shops have recently sprung up in the area. This is a special place that I intend to use as a talent acquisition tool. I want people to come and see the headquarters and have it make a statement as a place where we are proud to host clients and many other guests. I know we will be “better together,” and having people excited and enthusiastic to come into the office will be an important part of this very special new headquarters.
Mike: What does a great Baltimore look like?
Rob: Baltimore has tremendous advantages that many other cities don’t. We have the Chesapeake Bay, Johns Hopkins, University of Maryland, and all of their professional schools. We have NFL and MLB stadiums right in downtown, you’re 40 minutes from the nation’s capital, we’re part of the Acela corridor, and we have an international airport.
We have to leverage all of these natural advantages, where people don’t have to worry about whether or not it’s safe to go downtown. Public Safety, first and foremost, is critically important. It’s a very complex problem, but we need to make long-term investments and fix it. We have to get to a point where we do the basics right. Those natural advantages will shine through when you do that, and people will want to move here. People will want to base their business here as long as policies and regulations are fair. We need the basic public services done consistently well.
The last point for what a great Baltimore looks like, I talked about the BCP and the great work they’re doing with the charter schools. I believe in public education, and a great Baltimore would have a public school system that is the envy of every major city in America.
Mike: Rob, we are in the home stretch, wheels down. It’s the lightning round. First question: Who have some of the mentors been in your life?
Rob: My dad is still one of the most influential people in my life. There are others I like to think of as my personal board of directors. Larry Culp, the head of General Electric and a longtime great friend, would be one of them.
At T. Rowe, there have been a number of people I could turn to, for example, Bill Stromberg. He helped me significantly build my career in large-cap growth. There were two portfolio managers who helped me tremendously, Bob Smith and Larry Puglia. I’d also like to mention Glenn August, a T. Rowe Price board member who has been a great partner to me.
Mike: What is the best advice you have ever gotten?
Rob: The best personal advice I’ve ever been given was from my aunt during her toast at our wedding. She said one of the secrets to a long and happy marriage is spending time with other couples who are in love. It can be toxic if your best friend is single or divorced or doesn’t show respect and love for their spouse. If you have the flexibility to choose your friends and if you want to invest in your marriage, choose to be friends with other couples who love and respect their spouse. I’ve never forgotten that.
Let me share a piece of wisdom I got from my dad. He was never one of those people to push me too hard or ride herd over me. He taught me early on that at the end of the day if I’m not making the most of the opportunities I’ve been given, it’s only myself I’m hurting. He gave me an appreciation for self-awareness, being self-motivated, being a good person, and doing the right thing even when no one is watching. My dad has lived his whole life by his actions, not his words.
Mike: If you could put together a golf foursome for all of mankind, who would you invite to join you, and what course do you want to play it on?
Rob: I’ve always been fascinated by and in awe of Winston Churchill. He had an amazing sense of humor. His intellect carried England through its darkest times. Churchill defined and created hope for the people of England. Similarly, I think Ronald Regan changed the tenor of America and reinvigorated optimism in the people and the potential of the United States. He was courageous and different because he was willing to go against popularly held beliefs. His public persona was extraordinary, but in private, he was a little detached and didn’t really invest in the relationship with other people around him.
There’s a great quote; I think it was Jim Baker, I don’t remember it exactly, but he said Reagan was the most magnanimous and big person but also the least engaging person. He had the full journey from being a football player, an actor, President of the Actors Guild, Governor of California, then to the White House. Reagan was a registered Democrat for a long time and was a reasonably liberal Democrat for quite some time. He basically started to change his thinking when he felt Americans were beginning to lose their freedoms, and he took that conviction and changed his entire political mindset.
Another World War II figure who would be fascinating to talk to would be Eisenhower. He had great organizational skills; he was a real leader, humble and understated. He was also a reluctant leader who never wanted to be president but stepped up to the call of duty.
You could pick many different people throughout history, but I think Churchill, Regan, and Eisenhower are the people I would most want to spend 4 hours on the golf course with to listen to their incredible stories.
The golf course where I would love to host these great leaders would be Royal Dornoch in Scotland, considered one of the greatest golf courses in the world.
Mike: Growing up in Western Maryland, it’s not surprising that you were a Steelers and Pirates fan growing up. Who’s your all-time favorite Steeler?
Rob: Jack Lambert.
Mike: Favorite Steelers Team?
Rob: That would have to be the period of the “Steel Curtain”. Four Super Bowls in a period of ten years, the era of Chuck Knoll, Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, and Benny Cunningham. Nobody ever talks about the great offense. Many Steeler fans only want to talk about the defense Mean Joe Green, Jack Lambert, Mel Blount, Art Shell, and many more. Baltimore fans wouldn’t like me mentioning this but the 1979 World Series Champs – The Pittsburg Pirates. They hold great memories for me.
Willie Stargell, John Candelaria and his high hat, Dave Parker, and Manny Sanguillen. Bert Blyeven and Candelaria were two of the starters; they had a shortstop named Phil Garner, who had the nickname “Scrap-Iron”, and the manager was Chuck Tanner, known as “Mr. Sunshine”.
I want to be clear; I’m an Orioles fan! I love the enthusiasm of the young players. My fondness for the Pirates really left after the Jim Leyland era. The Sharps’ household is all in on the Orioles.
Mike: Last Question – If you could have one mulligan for your twenty-six years at T. Rowe Price, how would you use it?
Rob: Tough question. My tendency is not to dwell on things in the past, but earlier in my career, when I was transitioning out of investments and into leadership, it took me some time to really trust my instincts. T. Rowe Price has a consensus builder culture, and there were situations where I wish I had been more vocal or more forceful earlier on. In general, I think it was part of my learning process. When I first started at T. Rowe, one of the senior investors said to me, “Rob, you’ve got to just swing the bat.” He told me, “You’re not here just to do research. When you identify a hot space, identify the company, the movers, and just swing the bat.” That’s how I might use the mulligan.