John Geppert: A High School Student Builds Better Solar Panels

A 1981 Westinghouse finalist now builds better investment vehicles—and parses letters from people like Warren Buffett

courtesy John Geppert

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His finalist year: 1981

His finalist project: Designing a cheaper, more powerful solar panel

What led to the project: As a kid growing up in Omaha, Neb., John Geppert had two main interests: engineering, and international economics and development. His high school French teacher's husband, a political scientist, helped him see the connection between both fields: Many problems in developing countries, he noted, require low-cost engineering solutions.

In particular, Geppert became fascinated by how to produce cheap solar power. When he was a teenager in the late 1970s, the world was going through an oil crisis, so the sun was suddenly enjoying a turn as the energy source of the future. (A passing fancy that strikes, he notes, "every time oil prices spike.") Geppert surveyed the current technology and discovered that cheap, fixed solar panels only caught the sun during certain hours. Moveable panels could be made to catch the sun from different angles, but these systems were far more expensive.

So he decided to develop a panel with a shape that could capture rays as the sun made its daily track across the sky. "It was lots of tinkering," he says, to come up with the shape, but eventually he lit upon an elongated C that seemed to do the trick. He entered the project in the 1981 Westinghouse Science Talent Search, alongside projects that were "off-the-charts amazing," he says. "Mine was more of something I did in my backyard." It won him, however, a finalist spot and, that same year, a patent on the design.

The effect on his career: Geppert used his Westinghouse scholarship money to enroll as an engineering student at Washington University in Saint Louis. Because he had taken lots of college courses as a high school student, he was able to enroll as a sophomore. However, by his senior year, he realized that he wanted to study economics and finance rather than engineering. Because his scholarship was for engineering, he had to transfer to a more affordable school, and wound up at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, graduating in 1984.

He then earned his PhD in economics at Purdue University, looking at whether government intervention can stabilize the stock market—a question many people asked when the market crashed in 1987, right in the middle of his PhD program, and a topic that has regained its relevance. As more of a free market guy, Geppert says he doesn't like to admit it, but his research shows that when done right, changes in the money supply (expanded or contracted by the Federal Reserve), in government purchases, and tax revenues (up or down, depending on the situation) can have a stabilizing effect.

Around the time he was finishing in 1989, a faculty position opened up at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln (U.N.L.) in the finance department. He applied and got the spot.

What he's doing now: Twenty years later, Geppert is still working and teaching in Lincoln. His main research looks at developing better hedging strategies—that is, methods of reducing one’s exposure to fluctuations in the price of an asset—particularly for commodities such as petroleum and heating oil. He also studies the changing conditions that make asset price swings either totally unpredictable, follow a trend (continue on their current course), or reverse themselves.

He's also been known to branch out from this finance work. In an article that just appeared in Corporate Reputation Review—brainstormed over lunch with a colleague, Janice Lawrence, a U.N.L. accounting professor—he looked at a rather underexplored area: CEO letters in annual shareholder reports. These often humdrum missives ("pretty dry stuff," Lawrence says) tend to put a glossy spin on company numbers and would seldom be considered must-read literature (unless they're written by that fellow Nebraskan, Warren Buffett).

But Geppert and Lawrence found something interesting in the letters: CEOs at firms independently rated as "high reputation" tend to use a different style of language. They use shorter words and clearer, concrete language, whereas CEOs at firms with less impressive reputations employ muddled prose and buzzwords. For example, a high-reputation firm's CEO wrote (a few years ago), "As a leading provider of low-cost mortgage capital for home buyers to finance their homes, our firm is at the center of the housing industry, one of the strongest growth sectors in America." This is quite easy to understand. A CEO at a less stellar firm, by contrast, stated, "…we remain committed to being good stewards of our asset base and to taking action regarding underperforming assets wherever possible." What assets? What does it mean to be a good steward? It's much more ambiguous.

Even though these letters go through several screens of lawyers and public relations people, "I think [the high-reputation CEOs] are being more straightforward, and it just comes out naturally," Geppert says. (Although Buffett is known for being straightforward, Geppert won't comment on the "Sage of Omaha's" shareholder letter, noting that it's a little long for a quick study).

This research is useful, Lawrence says, because "accounting fraud is everywhere right now." Executives always have the opportunity and the motivation (for example, producing better numbers) to commit fraud. "The big hurdle in stopping fraud is knowing about the attitude" coming from the top, she says. Their results can potentially help auditors analyze CEO shareholder letters for clues as to which companies merit a closer look.

Working on this study with Geppert was fun, Lawrence says, because he has "a very inquisitive mind." He's the kind of guy that, "for a hobby in his spare time, will go take more statistics courses."

Also in his spare time: Weaving, says Geppert, who has had some of his work shown in galleries in the Lincoln area: "I've always thought that the mechanics of looms were interesting, and weaving combines aesthetics with the mathematics of pattern."

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