Content provided by Robyn Murray, Freelance Writer

Kostya-Russia

Kostya Etus, age 7, pictured in Russia two years before he immigrated to the U.S.

Kostya Etus grew up in Soviet Russia – in Novosibirsk, an industrial city set on the banks of the Ob River. When he was nine, he and his family left for the United States just as Communism was beginning to fall. “We were just kids living there,” he recalls. “But then you hear about all these things – how dangerous it [was].”

Etus has few memories of Communist rule, but he does remember his family’s apartment, one-bedroom and roach-infested, playing soccer with neighborhood kids, and hopping the train to nearby towns – typically, and inexplicably, without any adult supervision. “We were like stray dogs,” he says with a dry laugh. “We’re probably lucky to be alive.”

School was tough, and discipline was strict. The winters in Novosibirsk last nine months, and it snows almost every other day. “You ever hear people say ‘Back in my day, we walked through snow [to get to school]’?” Etus says with a laugh. “I actually did!”

English idioms and sayings are favorites for Etus – it’s the appreciation of a language’s quirks that only a non-native speaker can hold. When he first arrived in Omaha, he didn’t know any English, and it took about five years before he was fluent. By the time he graduated college, he had fully embraced his new Western home and decided he wanted to work in finance, a career far removed from his Communist roots. But he wandered for a few years, enticed by the prestige of Fortune 500 companies that garnered respect unimaginable in the Soviet Union. Today, as a portfolio manager at CLS Investments, Etus has married his American identity and Russian heritage – and finally found his way home.

$50 and 50 pounds of luggage

In 1993, Etus’s family was one of a few granted permission to leave the country through a lottery-like program. “No one ever wants to move to Russia,” Etus says. “They’re always trying to leave.” At the time, Russia was experimenting with its monetary policy as it struggled to emerge from Communism. The new government pumped money into the system, creating hyperinflation. In one year, prices soared over 2,500%. “Overnight,” Etus says, “your money became worthless.”

His family had savings – Russians were taught to save as the only way to distinguish wealth – but those had become worthless under Russia’s new monetary policy.

“There’s a saying,” Etus says. “All the people leaving Russia left with $50 and 50 pounds of luggage.”

Chasing the American Dream

The Etus family arrived in the U.S. with nothing. His father spoke some English, but the rest of the family did not. His father got a janitorial job at Nebraska Furniture Mart (owned by Russian immigrant Rose Blumkin), and Etus went to school and took ESL classes. “Life was pretty tough,” he recalls, “when you don’t know the language and don’t have any money.”

By the time he got to high school, Etus had settled in as a 4.0 student. In his senior year, he immersed himself in business classes, a subject he was drawn to, and went on with a full-ride scholarship to the University of Nebraska at Omaha where he discovered his true passion: portfolio management.

“I loved the class so much I asked the teacher if I could take it again as an elective,” he says. “It really sparked something in me.” Portfolio management combined everything Etus loved in business, finance, and investing. “There was almost no question – that’s exactly what I wanted to do.”

But after graduation, Etus got sidetracked. Lured by large companies that offered money and prestige – everything he needed to chase the American dream – Etus went from an internship at Union Pacific to a call-center job at TD Ameritrade to a sales job at a leasing software company and finally to a cash-management position at ConAgra. “They threw a bunch of money at me,” he says with a laugh. “Lots of opportunities for advancement. Those same buzz words.”

He was miserable. “ConAgra was like the camel that broke the straw’s back,” he says. “I know I have that backwards. But [the impact] was just so big.” Throughout his time there, however, Etus had been trading on his TD Ameritrade account and loving it. “This is my passion,” he told himself. “This is really what I should be doing.”

Etus left ConAgra, enrolled in an MBA program at Creighton University, and started studying for the CFA. Soon after, he was offered a job at CLS Investments and took it.

“What’s the saying? If you’re happy with what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.”

Coming Home

At CLS, Etus worked his way up to a research/portfolio analyst position where his roots serve him well. “Living in Russia has made me incredibly skeptical,” he says. “You really need to dig down on the data – don’t just take the reported word for it.” His investment philosophy can also be attributed to his frugal Russian heritage – a combination of value and quality. “I’m the guy trying to do more with less,” he says. “Value is basically a saver’s way to invest.” But, he adds, a skeptic doesn’t trust sales. “If you want good quality, sometimes you have to pay a premium.”

Etus is entirely at home at CLS. He loves the firm’s focus on global investing and co-manages its international fund, and he’s found a niche streamlining systems and processes. “My saying is ‘If it’s not broken, break it,’” he says. “If everyone’s just doing the same thing they’ve always done, a process can never be fully efficient.”

As for his family, they’re proud of their son and happy he gets to do what he loves.

“My dream finally came true,” Etus says. “I look forward to working every day, and what more can you ask for?”

Kostya & Kassee

Kostya Etus married his wife Kassee, a native Omahan, in 2012. Here they are pictured with their dog, Charlee.

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