April 20, 2024

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Women in municipal finance: Don’t be afraid to push boundaries, Shank says

13 min read
Women in municipal finance: Don't be afraid to push boundaries, Shank says

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Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio for the authoritative record.

Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio for the authoritative record.

Mike Scarchilli (00:05):
Hi everyone, and welcome to The Bond Buyer podcast. I’m Mike Scarchilli, Editor-in-Chief of The Bond Buyer. And this week we have a special interview to highlight with a special guest as we celebrate Women’s History Month. We are highlighting some of the most important and influential women in the municipal finance industry throughout the rest of this month over at the bond buyer website for our subscribers. But today we’ll extend that celebration to our podcast as we shine the spotlight on the first female inductee into The Bond Buyer’s Hall of Fame of municipal finance, a member of the inaugural class of 2022, Suzanne Shank. Suzanne is founder, president and CEO of Siebert Williams Shank, one of the largest investment banks and minority- and woman-owned investment banks in the United States. Founded in 1996, along with Muriel Siebert, who was the first woman to have a seat on the New York Stock Exchange.

The firm has grown to become a leading player in the municipal industry and a force in the corporate bond market. Suzanne has a fascinating story to tell from formative childhood memories with her parents that inspired career choices she would later make to how her background in civil engineering led her first to a career in municipal finance and how all that experience has acted as a north star to guide her and her firm to new heights and tremendous growth. So with that, let’s listen in on the recent conversation between Suzanne Shank and our reporters Chip Barnett, who covers the East Coast, and Jennifer Shea, who covers the Midwest.

Jennifer Shea (01:34):
So Suzanne, to start, can you say a bit about the lessons you learned from your parents growing up and how they may be prepared you to be a trailblazer in your own career?

Suzanne Shank (01:44):
Sure, Jennifer, and thanks so much Chip, and thanks to you both for inviting me to speak today.

My parents were each trailblazers in their own right, but never got the full recognition or appropriate compensation for their hard work and accomplishments. My mother entered college at 15 years old, graduated from Spelman College at 19, became a teacher in the public school system and eventually served as assistant superintendent for this Savannah Chatham County Public Schools. I observed her getting two master’s degrees while working full-time, taking care of a household and raising me. My father also had humble beginnings after serving in the U.S. Army. He was honorably discharged when his father died to come home to assist his mother and sisters. He was the only male family member left, and he then worked odd jobs to make ends meet until becoming Georgia’s first black bus driver working his way up to actually become the first African-American director of the Local Transit Authority. So for me, witnessing such a strong work ethic from both of them was inspirational and I observed firsthand the benefits of a strong work ethic and drive to succeed, no matter the obstacles. Their dedication and commitment to their own professions despite facing discrimination in the deep South, taught me the value of perseverance and I would say they taught me to not be afraid to push boundaries and the importance of being a lifelong learner.

Jennifer Shea (03:45):
That’s great. Can you maybe talk a little bit about how you started out in engineering and what prompted you to make the jump from engineering to finance?

Suzanne Shank (03:56):
Well, when I was graduating from high school, I was convinced I should be a social worker. I wanted to help others, and my high school counselor said, Nope, you’re good in math and science. You’re going to engineering school. And I was pretty obedient at that point. So that’s just what I did. I went to Georgia Tech, I became a civil engineer, and I went on to work at General Dynamics. But when I got there, I was working happily along for a couple years. I figured that my path to mobility would be getting a master’s degree, and I originally planned to pursue a management degree, but once I got to Wharton Business School, I was much more drawn to finance. So I ended up majoring in finance and then making the shift to Wall Street really pounding the pavement to get that first job. And I think that I was drawn to finance because my technical training from engineering really had prepped me to want to find answers and be a problem solver. And I really clung to that a bit more than my management classes. Although I must say today as a manager and CEO, I wish I had paid a lot more attention in those management classes.

Jennifer Shea (05:25):
And then once you got into the world of finance, you sort of mentioned in other interviews this concrete ceiling that black women deal with. So how did that shape your perspective as a CEO and as a mentor?

Suzanne Shank (05:39):
I think the challenges I faced have really made me more aware of the systemic inequities and biases that may limit opportunities for persons who may not have the same gender or race as someone who can determine their fate in some way, a decision maker. So that awareness has fueled my determination to breakthrough barriers, challenge stereotypes, and really try to pave the way for future generations of women and black women in particular. I’m extremely proud to serve as CEO of a high performing and capable firm that happens to be majority owned by women. My experiences have taught me about the importance of advocating for diversity, equity, and inclusion within my organization as well as through mentorship and volunteer opportunities. And it’s been really important for me and my partners to have a team. Our employees reflect the communities that we serve around the country. So while our firms ownership is diverse, I think you would find our workforce is extremely diverse, probably among the most diverse on Wall Street.

Jennifer Shea (07:01):
So in keeping with the theme of this podcast, do you have any thoughts on how to close the pay gap for women?

Suzanne Shank (07:08):
Oh, I wish I had the magic answer for that yesterday, I think, or Tuesday was actually equal payday, and unfortunately there is still a gap between what men and women earn for the same work. In 2024, I think the Census Bureau reports the gap is about 16 cents. That means women earn 16 cents less for every dollar a man earns. But I’ve seen numbers as high as 22 cents. And Cheryl Sandberg had a really great quote that I’ve heard. She said we could lift 3 million women out of poverty and cut the child poverty rate in half, and this is just in the United States if we can fix the pay gap. So more important than anything, I think closing the gap benefits everyone. And we know that companies with women in leadership and women on their boards perform better. So I think we need to address the pay gap head on. Certainly having more women decision makers would help, but women in leadership we know remain underrepresented. So I think women as women, we must be self-advocates and demand the rationale for our pay, quite frankly, is not equal. And we do that by garnering relationships and networks and really not being afraid to advocate for ourselves as we see men so often do.

Jennifer Shea (08:53):
Very cool. So speaking of representation, Seabert, William Shank sort of doesn’t have any issues in that regard. So can you talk a little bit about some of the ways that Seabert William Shank has grown or changed since rounding? We

Suzanne Shank (09:13):
Have grown so dramatically since our founding in 1996. At that time, we were 100% municipal bonds. Munis will always be a core business for the firm. It’s where I got my start and built a firm and career, and actually my partner Chris Williams, I also started in Munis before he switched over to corporates. And even Henry Cisneros, as many of your listeners will know, played a huge role in the role of municipal finance, formerly serving as the mayor of San Antonio. We have expanded the firm though so dramatically. In 2015, we began to enter the corporate bond and equities markets and really amplified that growth in 2019 when we merged with Williams Capital. So today we are active in not only municipal bonds in the primary and secondary markets where we’re extremely active, but in taxable fixed income, whether that’s investment grade or high yield.

We do commercial paper, treasuries, agencies, term term debt. And in the equity space we’re active in IPOs and secondary offerings. We do share buybacks, equity research and trading. Our strategic advisory team executes sell side and buy-side m and a mandates as well as providing financial advisory and fairness opinions. And finally, we have an affiliate SWS Capital Management, which provides customized fixed income investment strategies. And we also formed the Clear Vision Impact Fund. That’s been really exciting because as a minority owned firm, we understand the pressures and the obstacles startup diverse firm space. And so we decided in 2021 to launch with the support of many of our corporate clients as limited partners and a vehicle by which we could extend capital to sustainable minority owned businesses. Those that are serving underserved communities are fostering inclusive growth. And we raised 145 million and to do so. And we’ve deployed nearly 70 million to date. And 90% of the businesses to whom we’ve provided capital are minority owned businesses and they have created many jobs. So we really are today a full service firm and not only the top ranked MWBE firm for municipals, but we can also tout that for corporate investment grade debt and equities and just really excited at the transformation of the firm over the years.

Jennifer Shea (12:23):
Okay. So stepping back a little bit, can you talk about how the world of finance has changed for women and minorities since you started out?

Suzanne Shank (12:33):
I would say today there are some real signs of hope. I see many more women and people of color in decision-making roles, and the world of finance in the end is one of relationships. And so I think having more decision makers who are diverse helps companies understand that they need to have diverse workforces and the like. And I have seen data that the number of women in the C-suite has increased over the last 10 or so years from 17% to 28%. And we do have greater representation at the VP and SVP levels. Now that doesn’t mean we have enough representation, certainly the numbers are not what they should be, but I think we are, if we all are very intentional, moving in the right direction.

Chip Barnett (13:42):
Okay, we’ll be right back after this important message. And we’re back talking with Suzanne Shank.

Suzanne, let’s focus in a bit on your own firm, specifically Siebert Williams Shank, where women occupy the roles of CEO, Chief Operating and Compliance Officer, Co-head of Corporate Finance, Co-head of M&A, Head of the Transportation Group, Head of the Higher Education Group, Head of the West Region, and Head of Equity Sales and Trading, among other high profile positions. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Suzanne Shank (14:18):
I would say we have some of the best talent on Wall Street, and it just happens that a lot of that talent is comprised of star women producers who really make me feel very proud about our work every day. Given our desire to have a firm that represents the fabric of America, we strive to have the very best talent and our recruiting processes. We’ve tried to get rid of any bias and make sure that we’re for the best people for each role. And I’m pleased to say for each of the roles you mentioned and several others, those people happen to be women. And I rely upon each of them in their senior leadership roles to help us grow our firm and to make sure that we’re also mentoring the next generation of women who will be taking on leadership positions on Wall Street. So the talent is there as we’ve heard, but the opportunity is not always there. And Mickey taught me to take a really hard look at making sure that we’re doing everything we can and I can personally to advance women in our industry and in our firm in particular.

Chip Barnett (15:43):
Can you talk a bit about your firm’s dedication to the municipal bond business? While some firms have retrenched, like city and UBS, you’ve been expanding and if you made a bunch of new hires, what drives you forward in M?

Suzanne Shank (15:58):
Well, Chip, during the financial crisis, we bucked the trends that we were seeing at the big shops and hired aggressively, and that hiring really propelled the firm’s growth. We are doing the same at this time. We hate to see some of the big players pull out of the business. It makes us all a little uncomfortable. But when you have a firm run by someone who started their career in Munis, it’s no secret to anyone. My personal commitment to the municipal space, I’m a former civil engineer, so my entire work life has been associated with infrastructure in some form or another. And I’m passionate about providing this core service of financing major infrastructure projects in the most cost effective way for taxpayers and rate payers across the country. I always say what we do in the municipal bond world impacts every citizen in our country in a major, major way.


And so it just gives me great pride to be deeply committed to this sector. That’s just so important. And I just love the business and working on bond deals, and I’m just really happy that we’re able to pick up key talent to really bolster our firm and hopefully grow. And hopefully you’ll see that in the rankings later this year. I think with so many firms in the business, the way to differentiate yourself is relationships and talent. I always say the hardest deal for us is the first one. Once we get our footed in the door, if we do our job the right way, we’re going to get hired over and over. So I’m really excited that talent is available and we can sort of pick and choose and fill in our already strong team, and we’ll see how it works out later in the year. But it is just a really exciting time for the firm.

Chip Barnett (18:11):
Exactly. And you’ve been chosen to chair the Mackinac Policy Conference at the end of May. Can you give us some details about that?

Suzanne Shank (18:20):
Sure. Well, we are not at liberty to announce all the key speakers, but I will say this is the premier business conference in Michigan. I am chairing it, and then we’ll chair the regional chamber board and it brings together key decision makers, whether it’s Fortune 500 CEOs, elected officials such as the Governor of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer, the mayor of Detroit, the Michigan Congressional Delegation. We have announced that we’ll have Chuck Todd there as a speaker. We plan to have a national political panel, given that it is an election year and a big year, we’re going to talk about AI and the impact on businesses. And we have some other big ask out. We will also have a Higher Ed panel where we have our large Higher Ed institutions, their presidents will each speak. So I’m very excited to be chairing the conference to ensure that women are on the main stage in a big way this year, and also that the content is rich and informative for the entire business community. So it is the last week of May, and it’s a lot of work, but I’m looking forward to having one of the best conferences ever.

Chip Barnett (20:00):
Thanks so much, Suzanne, and good luck.

Suzanne Shank(20:03):
Thank you.

Mike Scarchilli (20:04):
We hope you enjoyed this special Women’s History Month conversation with Suzanne Shank. A big thank you to Suzanne for joining us and to our own Chip Barnett and Jennifer Shea for conducting the interview. Let’s review some takeaways from this conversation. One, while firms such as UBS and Citi have retrenched Siebert Williams Shank has expanded its presence in the muni business, bucking the trends of the big shops by hiring aggressively just as they did during the financial crisis 15 years ago, a strategy that helped propel the firm’s significant growth at that time with lots of great municipal finance talent available, leaning into a growth strategy at this time, could bear fruit and fuel more success. Two, with so many firms in the business, the way to differentiate yourself is relationships and talent. As Suzanne Shank noted, the hardest deal is the first one, but once your foot is in the door, if the job is done correctly, repeat business is sure to follow.

And three, the number of women in the C-suite has increased over the last decade from 17% to 28%, along with increased representation at the VP and SVP levels. As Suzanne said, that doesn’t mean victory is achieved, and women are now sufficiently represented in senior leadership, but it does represent some notable movement in the right direction. Thanks again for listening to this Bob Buyer podcast. This episode was produced by the Bomb Buyer. If you enjoyed this episode, please hit like and subscribe on your favorite podcast player. And please rate us, review us and subscribe to our content at www.bombbuyer.com/subscribe. Until next time, I’m Mike Scarelli signing off.