The story of Erwin, a former risk manager for TIAA-CREF, and Colleen, a speech pathologist, begins at UND.
Erwin Martens, ’83, ’85, believes in serendipity – defined by Merriam Webster as “the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.”
Perhaps it’s illustrated in the juxtaposition of his humble beginnings and his later success.
Or perhaps it’s better told in how he met his wife, Colleen (Finnen), ’84, ’85, during his second stint at the University of North Dakota when they realized they came from the same small corner of Canada and had so many common acquaintances.
“Whenever I felt that serendipity was in the neighborhood, I always knew that good things would happen,” Erwin says.
Growing up in Cartwright, Manitoba, in a home without running water and little insulation and attending a one-room schoolhouse, Erwin knew his ticket to the world had two options: work on the telephone lines, or become a hockey player.
A scholar at heart, he decided he would use his hockey prowess as a catalyst for achieving his academic goals – to study computer science at an institute of higher education. So, in 1976, he showed up to a UND hockey practice, looking for a spot as a walk-on. His initiative paid off, and Erwin would go on to co-captain the team, leading it to an NCAA National Championship in 1980.
At that time, his educational pursuits took a detour.
Just 3 credits shy of earning his bachelor’s degree, Erwin hopped a plane to Germany, where he played two seasons in a professional hockey league.
“It became evident that the market wasn’t too deep for 26-year-old ex-hockey players, so I decided that it was a good idea to come back to school to complete my education,” he jokes.
It was then that he met Colleen, an aspiring speech pathologist, and asked her on a date to the Chester Fritz Auditorium, where they took in a performance of the Vienna Boys Choir.
“I guess I felt like I met the whole package. He was smart, fluent in German, he knew a lot about history and music and art. And then of course, he had this business side, but he was an athlete as well,” Colleen says. “And I come to find out that he grew up only 30 miles from where my mom and dad grew up, and all my relatives lived. It was pretty ironic.”
Or, one might say, it was serendipity.
As they bonded over sweets at Wilkerson Dining Center – Erwin admits to having a “weakness for desserts” and Colleen, who never ate hers, gladly let Erwin indulge in her “extras” – they didn’t yet realize what the future had in store.
In 1985, shortly after completing their master’s degrees, Erwin in economics and Colleen in speech pathology, the Martens got married, kicking off a lifelong adventure that would span seven cities, three countries, and two continents.
From a rented studio apartment furnished with lawn chairs and a single mattress in Winnipeg, Colleen found her first job in a hospital in Hamilton, Ontario. Shortly thereafter, software consulting company Coopers & Lybrand hired Erwin in Toronto, where he subsequently founded Analytic Information Management, Inc., a financial software consulting firm.
On a sales trip to Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, his fluency in German paid off when he struck up a friendship with a German professor who was working for Credit Suisse Group.
That chance meeting kicked off a 20-year career in risk management – at the time an unknown term.
“Everyone talks about risk management now, but you know, even 10 years ago, it wasn't on people's radar,” Erwin says.
The Martens, with their 5-week-old son Liam, moved across the world to Switzerland, where Erwin was Head of Global Market Risk Management and Deputy Head of the Global Risk Management Group for Credit Suisse from 1991-97.
By that time, the Martens had added a daughter, Alyssa, to their family, and took a vacation to Florida. Coincidentally – or as Erwin would have it, serendipitously – the trip to the U.S. coincided with a job opportunity in New York.
As Colleen and the kids hung out on the beach, Erwin flew up to New York to be interviewed by Lehman Brothers. Now in his late 30s, Erwin says it was a bit late to start on Wall Street. “But risk management was brand new, and they didn't have anybody else with my skill sets.”
He built and managed the firm’s Global Market Risk Management function before joining Putnam Investments as Managing Director and Chief Risk Officer, where he served until serendipity called again – this time to TIAA-CREF, a top financial services provider in the academic, research, medical, cultural and governmental fields. He joined the company in 2003 as Chief Risk Officer with a mandate to build a robust risk management team and advocate for a risk-aware management culture. He led the Fortune 100 company through the 2008 financial crisis before his retirement in 2011.
During the 25+ years of caring for her children – who she considers her greatest achievement – and supporting her husband during his demanding career, Colleen had one of her own, working as a speech pathologist in hospital settings, an international school, an early intervention program, and as a volunteer with special needs children and stroke victims, an activity she still enjoys today.
“I have gotten so much satisfaction out of my career, and I feel like I’ve been able to make a positive difference in many people’s lives,” Colleen says.
“We both are so grateful for our educations,” she adds, and the gratifying feeling of giving back to help today’s students is what spurs their service and philanthropy at UND.
Erwin has served the UND Alumni Association & Foundation Board of Directors, and the family supports initiatives at UND, ranging from student-athlete scholarships and an annual Communication and Sciences Disorders colloquium to a high-tech telescope and the music department.
“I just think it's really important to give back if you are blessed to have a life like we’ve had,” Colleen says. “And the University North Dakota was always there for us.
“Without North Dakota, there is no Martens family.”
— By Alyssa Konickson, ’06, UND Alumni Magazine Editor