November 29, 2023

The Boss: From a Crisis, Opportunity

My high school guidance counselor steered me toward engineering because I excelled at math and science. Engineering grads were getting six to eight offers each, but by the time I graduated from Georgia Tech in 1983, job prospects had slowed. I turned down a job with a construction company after I got an offer from General Dynamics to work in Atlanta for its electric boat division. I worked on noise mitigation for submarines.

I found I was more interested in management than pure engineering, so after two years I left to attend the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania for an M.B.A. Management courses, however, didn’t captivate me. I was most comfortable in finance, with its mathematical answers that weren’t open to case-study debate.

I started on Wall Street in August 1987. Black Monday occurred two months later, and large financial firms started laying people off. I learned that business is cyclical and that out of crisis comes opportunity. Over the next 10 years, I worked for several companies, including James J. Lowrey Company, a financial advisory firm.

In 1996, Napoleon Brandford III and I were working together when Muriel Siebert, who owns a discount brokerage firm and was the first woman to buy a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, approached us about starting a municipal finance firm together. Muriel and Napoleon asked me to be president and C.E.O. It has turned out to be a perfect role for me, working in tandem with Napoleon, the chairman.

Our company underwrites municipal bonds that cities issue to finance major infrastructure projects. Our industry has had a few great years despite the financial crisis of 2008. While some large firms downsized, we increased our staff by a third. In the first two months of this year, however, industry volume was less than half of what it was a year ago.

Last year, we were among the top 10 municipal finance firms in revenue, a first for a minority- and woman-owned company. Increasing our staff in 2008 helped fuel our growth.

Municipalities are struggling today as they deal with fiscal crises. But they’re engaging in layoffs and cutting services in an attempt to balance their budgets. I believe that reports of possible enormous defaults are overstated. The municipal sector has been known for its safe investments. Lower-rated credit, in the nonrated or junk-bond range, and credit barely investment grade, are vulnerable; that’s why these investments pay a higher yield.

In 2000, when working in Detroit for our company, I was co-founder of an internship program, the Detroit Summer Finance Institute, which exposes inner-city students to finance jobs. People often view the municipal finance sector as less glamorous than the corporate one. Young people, especially, don’t always realize how rewarding work in this field can be. We have offices in 22 cities. I see the impact of our work in many cities — from convention centers to highways to educational projects.

At a recent event, a couple of people who learned I was in finance wanted to sit next to me for personal investment advice. The fiscal crisis facing some municipalities had them worried about their portfolios. I’ve never been so in demand for investment advice. 

As told to Patricia R. Olsen.

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