September 28, 2022
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Forecast crew quits UCSB for Cal Lutheran

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With economic forecasting guru Bill Watkins and his team leaving the University of California, Santa Barbara, to join California Lutheran University’s business school, the Thousand Oaks campus gets instant name recognition and a potentially powerful magnet for fundraising.

And Ventura County business leaders will face a tough choice – keep their sponsorship dollars flowing toward Isla Vista or support CLU and the Tri-Counties’ most prominent economic forecaster.

Tim Gallagher, a member of the UCSB Economic Forecast Project’s Ventura County board of directors, thinks some money will go with Watkins and his team.

“CLU just vaults ahead of its competitors by bringing these guys in,” said Gallagher, the former publisher of the Ventura County Star and now head of his own consulting firm. “To be frank about it, the UC System is a research system, but it’s based around scientific research. I don’t think they understood the jewel they had. I think Bill and his team do.”

“In my world, I thought [Watkins] was going to be here forever,” said Craig Zimmerman, president of the Towbes Group and chair of the UCSB-EFP’s Santa Barbara County board. “Clearly that’s not the reality. We need to take this as an opportunity to do some strategic thinking.”

Ventura County UCSB-EFP board members such as Nancy Lindholm, executive director of the Oxnard Chamber of Commerce, don’t expect a big shift in sponsorship dollars.

Jason Spievak, a venture capital investor and project board member, agreed. “So far we’re pleased with our results for sponsorship renewal and acquisition this year” in Ventura County, he added.

Santa Barbara-based Pacific Capital Bancorp., the parent of Santa Barbara Bank & Trust and the project’s lead sponsor in both Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, plans to boost its support to bolster the project’s statewide economic forecast. “This information is very, very critical in this economic environment,” said Debbie Whiteley, the company’s executive vice president of investor relations.

As reported earlier in the online edition of the Business Times, on Feb. 24 Watkins, Dan Hamilton and Kirk Lesh – the core of the Economic Forecast Project – unveiled plans to leave UCSB for CLU.

Watkins’ move comes less than a year after California State University, Channel Islands, raised the profile of its Martin V. Smith School of Business, hiring Sung Won Sohn, former chief economist at Wells Fargo, to anchor an economics program.

Watkins said his trio will expand its forecasts to other states and propose an academic program that Watkins hopes will be a “world-class” master’s degree in economics.

Watkins and Hamilton have headed the UCSB-EFP since 2000. Lesh joined as a real estate economist in 2007, and all three will join the Cal Lutheran faculty.

“I did my dissertation here [at UCSB] and spent nine years here,” Watkins said. “I have no complaints. It’s just been a wonderful place to work.”

But the opportunity to propose a master’s program that would focus on economic forecasting and a research center that would compete for paid research projects all over the United States swayed Watkins and his team, he said. “I think we’re planning on expanding the geographical reach aggressively and starting as soon as possible,” Watkins said.

For its part, CLU is looking to build on its graduate business programs. Charles Maxey, dean of CLU’s business school where Watkins will work, said he plans to encourage the forecasters to take on projects from outside the state, expanding the school’s visibility.

Maxey said the proposed new master’s program – which will need approval from the school’s faculty – would offer the chance for students to do hands-on work in close coordination with Watkins’ team.

The program would be full time and take on only 10 to 15 students, Maxey said. “We don’t want to have a big program, but we want to have a good program,” Maxey said. “Visibility and reputation go together for us. There’s no point in being visible if you’re not seen as being good.”

Watkins said he has nothing but good feelings for UCSB and won’t compete with its forecast in Santa Barbara. “If they choose to have another economist here [in Santa Barbara] and want to have an event, I don’t see any reason to come on their turf.”

For its part, UCSB and the forecast project’s board members stress that they’re committed to keeping the project strong.

“Bill Watkins has done an outstanding job as director of the UC Santa Barbara Economic Forecast Project, but it is important to note that this is a program of the university that existed before Bill came here nine years ago and will continue after he departs,” UCSB spokesman Paul Desruisseaux told the Business Times via e-mail. “UCSB regards it as an extremely important and valuable public service and is committed to maintaining it.”

Watkins, Hamilton and Lesh are expected to move to CLU this spring, and both institutions said the Watkins team will fulfill its obligations to the Forecast until then.

In interviews, Santa Barbara board members aren’t yet revealing the short list of who might replace Watkins.

But they say his departure marks an opportunity to make the forecast stronger and position it for the future. With banks in merger mode and Wall Street firms facing the biggest cutbacks in decades, there are plenty of economist’s resumes in circulation.

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