Financial club Capitant moulds a new generation of investors

Summary

A club in which the members are seriously committed to the educational process of their field, Capitant is different from your average student organisation

Serious students

On a recent chilly weekday evening, a crowd of some 180 people gathered in the heart of Antwerp for a lecture about investment diversification. It wasn’t your typical after-work event. Instead, the chairs were slightly more uncomfortable, the lighting somewhat less flattering and the decoration even duller than in your usual event space.

And except for the two speakers, there were only students in the room.

That’s because this event was organised by Capitant, a Flemish club that aims to introduce university and college students to the world of finance. Established four years ago, the student group distinguishes itself from other Flemish business and economics-focused clubs by way of its singular focus on finance topics.

“I think they are the pre-eminent student club in terms of offering students valuable content,” says Marc De Ceuster, an economics professor at Antwerp University and the Antwerp Management School. “They are given a view of the financial world, presented by people who are active in it.”

With roughly 1,700 members and chapters in four Flemish cities, the club appears to have tapped into a growing interest among younger generations in the financial markets.

 “The people I studied with, and the Capitant students and members, offer a pretty good image of the position students today take vis-à-vis the economy,” says Christophe Van Wichelen, 24, one of three Capitant co-founders. “The financial world has been in the news a lot lately. Students want to know more about it because it’s a hot topic.”

Thinking ahead

It’s a sentiment echoed by Francis Verhoeven, 20, a student in applied economic sciences at Antwerp University. Drawn by their speaker line-up, Verhoeven began attending Capitant events last year. Sitting between two of his friends during the reception after the recent Learn to Invest event, he said that he had come to learn. “I’m interested in this for my own portfolio.”

Money is something you should know about

- Capitant member Francis Verhoeven

Explaining that he hadn’t yet invested in stocks or bonds but was just thinking ahead, he said with a grin: “I think you should invest with money that you won’t need for another 10 years, and I don’t currently have that type of money.”

For Verhoeven, the appeal of Capitant was clear. “Money is something you should know about,” he said. “When you have an event organised at a serious level like this with quality speakers, plus a bunch of your friends are going – I’m there.”

Studentenkringen, or student clubs, in Flanders aren’t typically associated with serious affairs. Instead, they are best-known for their dopen or hazing-like initiation events, the booze-filled song fests known as cantussen and their “TDs”, equally booze-filled theme parties.

They focus on fun first and the occasional network event or lecture second. At Capitant, it’s the other way round.

For instance, they do throw a massive shindig once a year, the BeursTD or Stock Party, but even there, the educational aspect is never far off. At a recent BeursTD, the prices of the drinks, aptly labelled Tequila STOCKrise and Sex on WALLSTREET, for instance, fluctuated in accordance with the beverage demand throughout the night.

“When I hear Capitant, I think: ‘That’s serious’,” says Verhoeven. Pointing to their strong presence at on-campus events, their matching hoodies and button downs and their sleek, black membership cards, he says: “Their image is impeccable; they come across as incredibly professional.”

While it’s hard to pry apart the relationship between the financial crisis and the wave Capitant has ridden to success, it’s clear that there is one. The club was founded in 2010, just a year after the worst recession since the Second World War hit the global economy and as countries like Greece and Ireland were receiving €100-billion bailout packages.

Financial crisis

Meanwhile, Belgium saw its credit rating lowered for the first time in 10 years. Headlines were dominated by the stringent austerity measures national governments across Europe were adopting, but in Antwerp classrooms, it was a complete radio silence.

“With the financial crisis, there were a lot of questions among students,” says Antwerp University student Michaël Wouters, 21. He has been with the club since 2011 and is one of four Capitant Belgium directors.

“How could this happen? What should we do to avoid this happening again in the future? And the academic courses that students were getting at the university or university college weren’t offering answers to all those questions,” he says.

Explaining that the university’s applied economic sciences students received a course on financial markets as part of their curriculum but the business engineering students didn’t, De Ceuster admits: “For a very large group of students in Antwerp, the financial markets were unfamiliar territory.”

He has, in his own words, functioned as both a “sounding board” and a “godfather” to the group since the Capitant founders first came to him to discuss their idea for a finance-focussed student club.

Capitant was rewarded with the 2011 Unizo Laureate Higher Education Award just a couple of months after it was founded, with the jury praising it as “a unique project” and “a specimen of pure entrepreneurship”. Today, its partners include leading institutions and companies like ING, EY (previously Ernst&Young) and the Vlerick Business School, while speakers at past events have included figures like BNP Paribas chief economist Peter De Keyzer, ThromboGenics chief financial officer Chris Buyse and Trends editor Daan Killemaes.

The events the club organises now span everything from Investing 101 kind of lectures and networking events to mock stock games like the Traders Trophy competition, small, more exclusive workshops for the most committed members. The annual high point is a five-day trip to London, the financial capital of the world. Members can also apply both for internships and student jobs through Capitant.

The students Capitant appeals to fall into two groups. There are those who show up to the educational, on-campus events like Start to Invest and Learn to Invest because they’re interested in taking their first steps on the stock market. Then there’s the actual members, typically young strivers who plan to pursue careers in finance and see Capitant as a first stepping stone. They typically also attend the off-campus networking events and take on leadership roles of some sort.

Preparation for the real thing

A quick look at their alumni page reveals that most of the “Capitumni” are still in school, completing advanced studies at institutions like the Solvay Brussels School, Ghent University and the University of Leuven, while others list jobs at companies like BNP Paribas, Deloitte, Cap Gemini and PwC.

Capitant director Wouters says that when finance is broadly defined – from financial consulting to banking positions – all their core members go into some type of finance job after graduation.

You learn to live in the work rhythm and what the corporate world is like

- Capitant co-founder Christophe Van Wichelen

It’s not yet clear whether Capitant has made any significant waves in the professional world yet. Asked if the club’s alumni enter their jobs more prepared, Charles Symons’ answer is simple - “No.” He is the Ishares vice-president of BlackRock, the world’s largest money manager, and he works out of their Brussels office.

For Symons, Capitant pushed the two alumni BlackRock recruited forward in the sense that it helped them obtain internships at the company, which in turn allowed them to become more familiar with the world of finance. “But it’s not Capitant itself that gave them that knowledge,” he says. “We all work very long hours, so you have to enjoy doing that, and I think that Capitant is more of a signal than anything else on that level.”

Capitant members don't finish their four years of university as fully vetted traders or junior bankers ready to hit the ground running. Rather, the alumni seem to have a better understanding of the different fields that make up the world of finance and have started building something of a professional network.

Van Wichelen is one of those two alumni who completed an internship at BlackRock through Capitant. Today he works as an analyst out of the company’s Amsterdam office. “I felt more ready to begin working,” he says. “You learn to live in the work rhythm and what the corporate world is like, and that really helped.”

Although he sees a growing awareness of Capitant among local HR departments, Symons says it’s far too early to make any conclusive statements about the value of the initiative to the financial world based on just two alumni. Instead, he sees the Capitant members as the leading edge of a curve.

“The coming generation will probably be much better trained and will know a lot more about what we do,” he says. “We think this is a really great and worthwhile initiative. It would be good if more people knew about something that touches on their lives daily.”

Established four years ago, the Capitant student group distinguishes itself from other Flemish business and economics-focused clubs by way of its singular focus on finance topics.

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