Suzanne Shank

Suzanne Shank is building Siebert Brandford Shank & Co. into Wall Street’s next municipal finance powerhouse

By Marie Griffin / Photography by Travis Curry

As CEO of Siebert Brandford Shank & Co. LLC (SBSCO), Suzanne Shank has been one of the most prominent African-American women on Wall Street for many years, although she was not well known outside her playing field of municipal finance. Now that Shank is chairwoman and majority owner of the company, she’s raising her visibility while accelerating the firm’s growth.

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The only SBSCO co-founder who is still active in the firm, Shank brought on four new equity partners, including former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (1993 – 1997) and four-term San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros, and William C. Thompson, comptroller of the City of New York from 2002 to 2009 and president of the New York City Board of Education from 1996 to 2001.

BIGGER DOESN’T MEAN BEST

SBSCO has been a Woman and Minority Business Enterprise (WMBE) since its inception as an African-American- and woman-owned firm. With the addition of two Latinos as equity partners, SBSCO now bills itself as Wall Street’s preeminent black-, Hispanic- and woman-owned firm.

SBSCO was the most successful WMBE in the municipal bond business in 2015, according to Thomson Reuters. That year, the firm participated in 55 corporate finance transactions, managing more than $144 billion in negotiated offerings, and its public finance department managed $64.88 billion in negotiated municipal financings, according to SBSCO’s annual report. The firm also ranked 13th among all managing underwriters of municipal bonds — a $3.7 trillion market that is led by Wall Street powerhouses Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Citibank and J.P. Morgan.

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“We’re very proud of the diverse ownership of the firm, but we’re not competing for the minority-owned-firm piece,” Shank says. “We’re competing head-to-head with the big guys and we have been successful in doing so.”

SBSCO was founded in October 1996 by Shank, along with former chairman Napoleon Brandford III and the late Muriel “Mickie” Siebert, the first woman to own a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, a pioneer in discount brokerage, and the first woman superintendent of banking for New York State. After Siebert’s death in 2013, her estate offered to divest its share of SBSCO, and Brandford decided it was time to retire and sell his stake as well. Still in her early 50s, Shank wanted to continue running and expanding the firm — while maintaining its WMBE status — so she sought out new investors.

Last November, SBSCO’s new ownership structure was announced. Shank had become majority owner of the firm, taking on the title of chairwoman in addition to CEO.

Cisneros had invested in SBSCO in partnership with Victor Miramontes, who has more than 25 years of experience in investment banking and finance, through a jointly owned company, CM Holdings LLC. According to the San Antonio Express-News, CM Holdings acquired a 28-percent stake in SBSCO for “several million dollars.” Cisneros and Miramontes are prominent Latinos.

SmartCEOJuly2016_Travis_Curry_Proof_014Thompson, who is African-American, joined SBSCO in April 2010 and serves as senior managing director and chief administrative officer. He has also become an equity partner.

The fourth new equity owner, Sean Duffy, is a 34-year municipal finance veteran who has been managing director and head of institutional sales and trading at the firm.

“Is our diversity a strength? Absolutely,” Thompson says. “But no matter what the designation, we have to do the job well every single time. Our team, on a number of levels, is as good as, if not better than, any of the big-name financial firms. At every opportunity, in every deal we participate in, and with every presentation we make, we demonstrate that.”

THE ART OF THE DEAL

From Shank’s perspective, the new ownership structure “has changed the trajectory of the firm’s growth prospects” because the expanded team of equity partners can spread out across the country to find new opportunities and develop new relationships for the firm.

“Municipal financing is a deal-oriented business,” Shank says. “You have to be competing all the time, so you have to be out in front of clients and presenting ideas.”

Shank doesn’t expect anyone at SBSCO to put in more effort than she does, though. Whenever she isn’t managing the finances and ensuring that legal and compliance obligations are in order, she tries to be available to support her team in the field.

“When the majority owner is on the road probably more than anyone else, she not only inspires the other partners but everybody else who works at the firm,” Thompson says.

Cisneros is enthusiastic about getting SBSCO in front of the right people and opportunities. “My job is to bring to SBSCO the knowledge that I’ve advanced over a 40-year span of working in cities,” he says. “As Secretary of Housing and Urban Development for President Clinton, I traveled to 200 different American cities in every single one of the 50 states. Part of my job is to make sure that SBSCO is known in as many of those places as possible.”

quote1To avoid any appearance of conflict of interest, former city comptroller Thompson doesn’t involve himself in SBSCO’s New York City efforts. “I always ask, ‘Where can I bring value?’ It’s a big country, and I’ve had opportunities to see much more of it during the past six years,” he says. “Whenever my background and perspective can be helpful, I’m ready to hop on a plane and do what needs to be done, along with other members of the team.”

STRIKING WHILE THE IRON IS HOT

From its inception, SBSCO has been driven by its people more than any other factor, and Shank has built and nurtured that distinction over the years.

Prior to the formation of SBSCO, Shank worked at a WMBE municipal finance company called Grigsby Brandford & Co. In 1996, Grigsby Brandford’s former chairman Calvin Grigsby came under FBI investigation for alleged corruption. Grigsby would eventually be acquitted, but he left the company he co-founded with Napolean Brandford III.

Meanwhile, Brandford, Shank and the experienced municipal finance team at Grigsby Brandford were being courted by multiple would-be partners, Shank recalls. Brandford and Shank sat down with Muriel Siebert for a dinner in October of that year — the first time Shank and Siebert had ever met in person — and SBSCO was essentially formed with a handshake at the table.

At the time, Siebert was busy running her own brokerage firm, so she invested financially in SBSCO but left the day-to-day running of the firm to Brandford and Shank. Shank, who at the time was a 34-year-old mother of a young daughter, says “I had never had a vision of myself being an entrepreneur or a top executive, but both Napoleon and Mickie said, ‘You should be CEO.’”

SBSCO quickly hired more than 30 former Grigsby Brandford bankers and sales/trading professionals and hit the ground running.

“We did our first deal the next week [after SBSCO was formed] and a couple of large senior management deals the following week. For our first full year, 1997, we did two very large transactions as lead manager, one for the state of California and one for the Detroit Water and Sewer System,” Shank says. “Both deals were over $100 million. We were on our way.”

SmartCEOJuly2016_Travis_Curry_Proof_050A decade later, Shank again took advantage of turmoil to shore up the SBSCO team. A spate of layoffs on Wall Street followed in the wake of the financial crisis that started in September 2008 when the country’s fourth-largest investment bank, Lehman Brothers, filed for bankruptcy.

“We hired aggressively during the financial crisis,” says Shank. “Top-tier people were being let go for no fault of their own, and we took advantage of that.” As a direct result, she adds, “We hit the top 10 nationally among all municipal finance firms for the first time in 2010, and we ranked eighth among all firms as a lead manager in public finance transactions.”

SBSCO now has about 80 employees. “Our public finance department is not necessarily much smaller than our competitors,” Shank says, because SBSCO specializes in municipal and corporate financing, while the big banks have more diverse businesses and far more employees. “We’re very strategic. We don’t want to be the biggest firm on the Street, but we do want to have the right people,” she says.

Thompson recalls that the reputation of SBSCO’s people was one of the main things that attracted him to the company in 2010. He had many “good offers” as he was leaving the New York City comptroller’s office, he says, but “I consciously came to SBSCO. I knew the firm was on an upward trajectory. It was growing, doing bigger deals and attracting great talent.”

STRATEGIC GROWTH AND DIVERSIFICATION

In November 2014, SBSCO purchased the Siebert Capital Markets division from Siebert Financial Corp., the discount brokerage and investment advisory business that Muriel Siebert had founded and led. The division focused on corporate debt and equity underwriting, investment banking and execution services. Siebert Capital Markets’ large, negotiated financing deals for corporate clients were similar in many respects to the municipal funding deals SBSCO negotiated in the public sector, making the acquisition a natural fit, Shank says.

While SBSCO is already in a leading position in the mature market of municipal finance, its growth prospects are somewhat limited, Shank says. “Our success is driven by what’s happening in the business and how much [debt] issuers choose to issue, which is impacted by the markets, as well as economic conditions. All those factors are not within our control.” Therefore, a growth rate of 10 percent would be very good for SBSCO’s municipal business and would probably outperform the market as a whole, she says.

In contrast, the former Siebert Capital Markets, which is now integrated into SBSCO as its corporate financing practice rather than as a freestanding division or company, has plenty of room to grow. “We would like to more than double its size in a couple of years,” Shank says.

SBSCO’s corporate financing business currently represents less than 20 percent of the company’s total revenues, “but our goal is to grow that business to the level of our municipal revenues,” Shank adds. “Since we acquired the group, we’ve been investing and hiring people. That group has gotten awards and been ranked very highly, not just among minority-owned firms, but among all firms.”

SmartCEOJuly2016_Travis_Curry_Proof_032Because Shank doesn’t want to take too much of her attention away from SBSCO’s bread-and-butter municipal financing business, she is relying on Cisneros to champion the corporate side. “We think corporate finance will eventually contribute just as much financially as the public finance side,” Cisneros says. “That is very important to SBSCO’s long-term strategy because it enhances our potential for scale and, hence, financial success.”

“Moving into capital markets is the most important thing we’ve done in the last five years,” Thompson says. “We are a great municipal shop, but this is a market that continues to be under stress” because of the reluctance of local governments and taxpayers to fund public projects. “It was a great call on Suzanne’s part to purchase Siebert Capital Markets at a fair price. It had a track record and people with experience,” he says. “Of course, we will constantly try to grow the municipal side, but it is healthier to be more than a one-product firm.”

Chip Barnett is senior markets reporter for the business newspaper and website The Bond Buyer, which exclusively covers the municipal bond and public finance industry. “Over the next five years, I only see [SBSCO] growing and moving ahead,” he says. “A lot of the traders there have been there a long time, and [the firm has] also invested in well-connected new hires. They are definitely not just relying on their minority/women-owned status to get business.”

Shank, who has devoted considerable time and energy to her work, finds it immensely satisfying to witness the impact her firm creates. “I can travel to any major city in the country and point to projects that we helped finance. This is worthwhile work that helps the average citizen, even if they don’t know it,” she says.

“That, in the end, is what I love most — not just sitting at the table and doing the deal, but seeing the impact.” CEO

Marie Griffin is a freelance writer based in the New York City area. Contact us at editorial@smartceo.com.

CLOSE-UP: SUZANNE SHANK

Suzanne Shank’s commitment to hard work and high performance emerged early in life.

“I’m an only child and my parents expected excellence,” she says. “I’m still very close to my parents, but they had a no-nonsense approach to raising me.”

Shank, who grew up in Savannah, GA, credits “great, great teachers” with encouraging her in school, where she usually got straight As. She was accepted into a gifted program during her high school years, and went on to the Georgia Institute of Technology to study civil engineering. She then worked in Atlanta at General Dynamics’ Electric Boat division, which builds submarines.

Shank says she had always planned to go to graduate school after getting some experience in the world of work. In spite of her undergraduate training in engineering, Shank felt a pull to study finance, and she went to the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School for her MBA.

“When I told my mother I was leaving my engineering job and going back to business school, she said, ‘I cannot believe you’re leaving that good-paying job,’” Shank says. Ironically, it was an example her mother set when she pursued a graduate degree as a working mother that inspired Shank to go back to school to advance her career.

“Very few women graduated in engineering from Georgia Tech 25 years ago, particularly African-American women,” says Henry Cisneros, chairman of the executive committee at Siebert Brandford Shank & Co. LLC (SBSCO). “Suzanne excelled in her initial job assignments at places like General Dynamics before going to Wharton to get the best financial MBA in the country. She then brought her engineering and mathematical talents to public finance. There’s very little doubt that Suzanne succeeded because she is very smart and very determined.”

Although Shank didn’t meet Muriel Siebert until the evening SBSCO was formed, she had already been inspired by Siebert. “Mickie Siebert played a key role in women’s empowerment in finance, and her story was a huge motivation for me personally,” Shank says.

As she got to know Siebert as “a business partner and friend,” Shank found the elder woman to be an anchor as she navigated the competitive waters of municipal finance. “The biggest thing that she taught me was to never compromise my ethics,” Shank says. “She never would put a dollar ahead of anything that might compromise her ethics.”

Now that she is in a senior position herself, Shank says, “I have always tried to undertake as many efforts as I can to expose women and minorities to opportunities on Wall Street.” Shank started an organization in her home city of Detroit to expose inner-city youth to finance careers and ran it for about 10 years.

“Equality for women and minorities in business is a big deal for me, and I think I practice what I preach,” Shank says. “I’m pretty aggressive about hiring women and minorities. I have a woman head of our quantitative group, a woman head of transportation, a woman general counsel. I have several women running offices in different cities, like Chicago and LA.”

William Thompson, senior managing director and chief administrative officer of SBSCO, agrees that the company’s designation as a woman- and minority-owned business doesn’t stop at the top. “We are a very diverse firm throughout our ranks as far as the number of women and the number of African-Americans, Latinos and Asian-Americans,” he says.

Shank describes her leadership style as collaborative. “I think I’ve done a great job at hiring top talent. I have great people all over the country,” she says. “Why not take advantage of that experience and collaborate to determine a strategy where we can be successful together? That’s what I’ve always done.”

When it comes to her personal and leisure time, family comes first for Shank, who is married with two daughters; her youngest is a junior in high school and her oldest is a junior in college.

“My faith is also important to me and keeps me sane,” she says. She also enjoys travel for pleasure, reading fiction books, and keeping up her exercise routine.

INNOVATIONS IN INFRASTRUCTURE FINANCING

Siebert Brandford Shank & Co. LLC (SBSCO) executives help find financing solutions for the U.S.’s crumbling infrastructure

The nation’s troubled infrastructure has been getting attention from the media and the public in the wake of situations like the water crisis in Flint, MI. For SBSCO, infrastructure projects have always been a focus because state and local governments traditionally issue tax-free municipal bonds that enable them to pay for infrastructure projects and improvements over time with tax dollars.

Today, however, local governments are struggling to cover their current obligations and citizens are vehemently resisting tax increases, resulting in the delaying, downscaling or cancelling of countless infrastructure projects.

According to the Bipartisan Policy Center, the U.S. requires an investment of $2 trillion in its aging and out-of-date infrastructure — roads and bridges, airports and seaports, drinking and wastewater systems — but only half of that amount is available. So, the Bipartisan Policy Center has been bringing together business leaders to explore ways to fund critical infrastructure projects through a combination of public and private investment. Suzanne Shank, SBSCO chairwoman and CEO, and Henry Cisneros, chairman of the executive committee at SBSCO, have led committees addressing the issues.

“One of the most important issues facing the nation’s cities is infrastructure investment,” Cisneros says. “We must find new ways in which infrastructure can be financed, and that will require innovations at the national level. We want SBSCO to be a positive force in developing those solutions.”

Although the U.S. has been slow to embrace public-private partnerships, known as P3s, they are often used in other countries. “There is plenty of private capital available, but it’s going to countries like India and China,” Shank says.

“Other countries have been more creative in their financing, and they have the legal structures that enable public-private partnerships in more efficient ways,” Cisneros says.

“I’m convinced that we’re now realizing as a country how negligent we have been in maintaining our infrastructure,” Cisneros says. “We just have to develop the political will, the clarity of vision, and the prioritization [of infrastructure issues] to move forward and enact some of the ideas that are coming out of the Bipartisan Policy Center and other organizations.”

Chip Barnett, senior markets reporter for The Bond Buyer, observes that neither the White House nor Congress is likely to do anything related to P3s during this presidential election year. “I think SBSCO and others are hoping that the next president, whoever it is, may be able to help get something done on P3s and other infrastructure issues,” he says.

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