Keeping the Faith: Jim O’Donnell

Jim O'Donnell, Citi's global head of investor sales and relationship management. Photo by Kit DeFever
Jim O'Donnell, Citi's global head of investor sales and relationship management. Photo by Kit DeFever

By Sheila Langan, Deputy Editor
October / November 2013

WALL STREET 50 KEYNOTE INTERVIEW

With his strong foundation in family and faith, Citi’s Head of Investor Sales and Relationship Management inspires confidence and provides a different perspective on Wall Street.

Anyone who thinks banking is a soulless profession has never met Jim O’Donnell.

Raised in Seaford, Long Island, one of four children of a financial services executive and a career nurse, O’Donnell became successful early and quickly. But his rise was by no means linear. In fact, many of his greatest achievements have been determined by a number of unexpected but ultimately important risks that demonstrate a quiet self-knowledge, a thirst for answers and a strong foundation of belief.

He was the first student from his high school to get accepted by Harvard, but chose to go to Princeton instead, impressed by the sense of community. A comparative religion major with thoughts of joining the priesthood, he jumped at a chance to join Merrill Lynch’s corporate internship program straight out of college. After traveling to London on an assignment, instead of returning to New York to complete the internship program, he accepted a position at the London office, beginning a ten-year stint abroad. When, at a mere thirty-six-years of age, he was CEO of HSBC’s securities and global equities businesses, dividing his time between London and New York, he chose to trade in his tie for a clerical collar and resigned to join a seminary. Eighteen months later, certain that, while he was very devout, the priesthood was not for him, O’Donnell left and returned to the world of banking, determined to both do well for himself and do good in the world.

In person, O’Donnell, 51, is so jovial and relaxed you’d never immediately guess his story has quite so many layers. Tall (though not as tall as his 6’7” great-grandfather from Co. Kerry) and ruggedly good looking, O’Donnell is the kind of person who’s just as at ease in the boardroom as he is at the pub with friends. When we sat down to chat in his office on the 4th floor of the Citi headquarters at 390 Greenwich Street, his hearty laugh filled the room as he shared stories about his first trip to Ireland on St. Patrick’s Day 1984, and he was by equal turns solemn and contemplative as he discussed the things that are most important to him: his family, faith and Irish heritage.

He’s also passionate about his profession and the financial industry, and the questions asked by so many about its character and value in the wake of the financial crisis are questions he has also thought long and hard about. “Some people think it’s so insular,” he said, “but what I’ve learned about the markets is that you have to understand what’s happening in the world overall. You have to know what’s going on with the economy, with the employment rate, with the housing market. With how a world event – a natural disaster, a conflict, or something positive – will impact everything else. It’s a tremendous learning curve every day.

“People have also asked me, how could you care about religion and work on Wall Street? But I love this industry and the people who work in it,” he affirmed. “They’re some of the most generous, caring people I have ever met, with a real understanding of the phrase ‘To whomever much is given, of him much will be required.’”

It is partly thanks to his faith that O’Donnell got his start in finance. In 1983, through the church at Princeton, O’Donnell met Bill Schreyer, then the head of Merrill Lynch. One day after mass, with the end of Jim’s senior year approaching, the two spoke about his plans for the future. Schreyer wound up offering O’Donnell, who was president of his class, a spot in Merrill Lynch’s corporate internship program, making him the eleventh intern in what was supposed to be a group of ten.

It was an invaluable opportunity, and Jim had to hit the ground running. “I got there and I realized all of my colleagues were business administration, finance and economic majors,” he recalled, “so the first couple of days in the orientation and training program was a real ‘OSM’ – I didn’t know a lot of the terminology so I had to learn the language, and it was a lot of scrambling and studying. You don’t see too many religion majors on Wall Street.”

Still, Jim’s background in comparative religion provided him with an outlook and broad understanding that served him well when he started out and continues to shape his approach. “Studying religion from a secular perspective (not a theological or doctrinal perspective) was the best thing I ever did, because I learned that it’s a big, wide world,” he said. “Throughout the history of humanity, nothing has affected our history more than religion. Whether in art, in architecture, or world history – and especially conflicts, even to this day, they’re often about religion. Yet when you get to the essence and the heart of what religion is, it’s beauty and sacredness and teachings of love, mercy, goodness and kindness. It gave me tremendous respect, acceptance and understanding,” he added, “so while you definitely can’t bring religion into the workplace, it’s important to have a set of ethics to live by.”

Jim also had another advantage starting out – finance was in his genes. His father, James O’Donnell II, had a long and accomplished Wall Street career. He worked at Equitable Life, then at Merrill Lynch, and then became one of the authors of the first Series 7 exam, formally titled the General Securities Representative Exam, which anyone who wants to become a registered representative on Wall Street has to take. He later became president of a securities training company that prepared people for the Series 7, and after retiring started his own business, Global Training and Development, which focused on emerging markets around the world, such as Bangladesh, Tunisia, and Vietnam, and helped them to develop examination processes for their securities and exchanges.

Jim’s mother, Jeanne, also provided a model for hard work and perseverance. A nurse, she went back to school to earn her master’s in nursing when Jim was young, and then worked for years as an elementary school nurse, only retiring two years ago at 73.

“I respect my dad’s entrepreneurship and work ethic; my mom’s determination in going back to school,” he said. “From them, I only know one speed, which is if you’re going to do something, make sure you do it well.”

And that’s the speed at which O’Donnell has run for his entire career. Making his father proud, he passed the Series 7 with flying colors, missing only one out of 250 questions. Starting out at Merrill Lynch, he worked for Bob McCann, a past Wall Street 50 Keynote and current CEO of UBS Group Americas and Wealth Management Americas, an experience Jim described as “phenomenal.” When the opportunity arose for one of the Merrill Lynch corporate interns to help out with implementing a new CMA (Cash Management Accounts) program for the European market, O’Donnell volunteered and in January of 1984 he went to London for a few months. Instead of returning to New York and the internship program, he accepted a job in the London office’s European equities business as an equity sales trader, doing both US equities and international equities. There he worked under a man named Terry Hurley, who he described as “a big, tough Chicago Irishman. He was incredibly principled, all about doing your work, being honest and taking the time to learn the mechanics and keep a clear record.”

Jim recalled one pivotal moment when a colleague in another office asked him to buy 25,000 shares in a certain stock, but when the price moved $2 against him later that day, he maintained that he had told Jim to sell. “Here I am, this 22-year-old kid, so scared,” he said, “and Terry goes ‘let me see your sheets. So he flips through them and sees that I had a B written down next to the order, just like he taught me, and he says to the guy, ‘There’s no way you told him to sell.’ Terry backed me, and that showed me how incredibly important integrity and ethics are, but also how important it is to make sure you’re on your game.”

O’Donnell loved London, where he would end up spending the formative years of his career and early adulthood. “If you spend your 20s and early 30s in one city, it’s important. It became home,” he reflected. “My first few years there I couldn’t really afford it; I could just go to the pubs and eat meat pies and have a few pints. I played on a rugby team called the Stock Exchange Stags. But it’s such a great stepping-stone to all of Europe.”

Two months after arriving in London, he visited Ireland for the first time, which resulted in the first of many great stories. “I was an Irish American in London in 1984, and I thought to myself, there’s no way I can spend St. Patrick’s Day here. So I got on a plane, flew to Dublin and stayed in the Shelbourne,” he remembered. “The concierge sent me to O’Donoghue’s pub off of St. Stephen’s Green, and I was so excited to have my first Guinness in Ireland. So I sit down at the bar with my pint and there are a bunch of guys about my age and one of them says to me, ‘You think you can drink, you Americans, but we can drink you under the table.’ Back then I was a pretty big beer drinker, so I just said, ‘No, I really don’t think you can, but cheers, happy St. Patrick’s Day.’ And he goes ‘Are you challenging me?’” Fourteen pints later (thirteen to win, one in celebration), O’Donnell left the bar.

In the years since he has been to Dublin over a dozen times, and looks forward (“Especially after this,” he said) to visiting Tralee and Galway to trace his family roots. His paternal grandmother’s family, the Manions, hailed from Roundstone, Co. Galway, while his father’s father had family in Kildare, Co. Naas and Tralee, Co. Kerry.

After rising in the ranks at Merrill Lynch in London, O’Donnell joined Drexel Burnham Lambert to run their international sales and trading operation for equities, and moved back to New York  to manage their global sales trading effort. Shortly before the firm filed for bankruptcy in 1990, O’Donnell returned to London with NatWest Bank, to manage their equity business in Europe. “Hindsight being 20/20, I think Tim Ferguson [who was then CEO of NatWest Securities Global] took a huge leap of faith in hiring me,” he reflected. “I was a twenty-eight-year-old kid, an exuberant American with experience managing 50 or so people, suddenly managing 1,000 people at a very traditional British firm. I had some great senior partners who were more senior than I was though they were reporting to me – and who frankly could have buried me – but by being honest and respectful we ended up creating a really strong team.”

While at NatWest he was approached by HSBC to become CEO of HSBC James Capel, their global securities business. Shortly after starting, he was asked to also become CEO of their global equities business. “It was a challenging job, and I was over-stretched” he said candidly. “I was 36, in charge of 5,000 people around the world, and running both U.S. equities and fixed income, and the global equities franchise.”

It was at this point that some of the lingering questions about the direction of his life took center stage. “During dinner and a couple of drinks with friends we would have these great conversations about life and the world, as good Irish people do, and I kept thinking ‘Well, I’m not married, maybe I really should explore whether I should have become a priest?’ One of my friends said, ‘You always talk about it, why don’t you just do it?’ So I decided that if I didn’t try it I would never know if it was my calling.” He left HSBC and applied for a spot in a seminary.

This career change was an uncommon one to say the least and garnered the attention of the media. The New York Times described him as “known for his worldly success in a series of high-power, high-pay jobs in the financial world,” and The Independent pointed out that as a priest in New York he would “take home a salary of less than £6,000 a year, less than 1 per cent of what he was earning on Wall Street.” After transitioning out of HSBC and James Capel, Jim moved back to New York, began studying for the priesthood, and joined the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception on Long Island, which has since merged with other religious institutions in the area.

“It was a greater transition than I ever could have imagined,” he said solemnly. “I  probably made a mistake in not insisting I go to a seminary for older vocations. Immaculate Conception had great people – a really caring and loving staff and priests and nuns – but I was 37, a former CEO, and I had lived in the world. All my classmates were 21 and just out of college. So it was a real challenge.”

The hardest part, though, was the instinct he felt to question things, to say “Yes, but what about this?” While he was thrilled to be studying to become a priest in an institution he loved, he realized that he couldn’t see eye to eye with the Church on all of its teachings. “I have tremendous respect and reverence for the Church, and I will always consider myself a Catholic,” he said, “but my social beliefs developed through time and experience and are very different today. My views on celibacy, on women in the priesthood, on birth control, on same sex marriage, on annulments, they’re just different. I respected and continue to respect the Church’s views, but I also realized that there was no way I could be a priest.”

Coming to terms with this was a tremendous personal struggle. “I had always been somebody who had great faith in listening to authority, always agreeing,” Jim explained. “Today I still believe in respecting authority, but you also have a responsibility to be truthful and transparent in your own views and beliefs, and if you don’t do that then you are failing yourself.”

It took time, but rather than seeing the experience as a failure, he came to recognize it as a necessary decision on his part and a sign of the wisdom and forbearance of the Church. “Was there disappointment and anger? Of course there was. But it made me a stronger person, and I now look at it as one of the best things I ever did. People said ‘Well, you failed.’  But one of the reasons why I respect the Church so much is because in the Formation process you’re supposed to reflect on whether this path is right for you. So as opposed to failing, I actually think the Formation process worked incredibly well for me. It was a few years before I could see it this way, but what became clear was that it wouldn’t have been the right decision for me, but it was the right decision to find out. And I have no regrets about that.”

After eighteen months out of the business, O’Donnell returned to finance. “It was like putting on my favorite suit and feeling comfortable again,” he said, smiling. He went back to London, working as a managing director and deputy head of equities in Europe for Salomon Smith Barney, and then as the head of Citigroup’s European equities business.

Jim has been with Citi for close to fifteen years now, and he’s in good company. “It’s by far the best firm I’ve ever worked with,” he enthused. “My boss, Jamie Forese, and I had a conversation a while back about how to describe the culture of Citi, and he said ‘the difference is we allow you to be who you are,’ and that to me says it all.” A number of his colleagues, including Citi’s CAO Don Callahan and head of Equities Americas Dan Keegan are past or current Wall Street 50 honorees. Citi has had a presence in Ireland since 1965 – it was one of the first foreign banks to open an office in Ireland – and today employs 2,200 in Dublin. In Northern Ireland, Citi employs close to 1,000 people in Belfast at the Titanic Quarter campus.

A few years after joining Citi in 1999, O’Donnell relocated to New York to serve as head of U.S. equities. In 2007, in the early days of the financial crisis, Forese promoted him to co-head of global investor sales and relationship management. Two months later on December 27, after a few days of chest pains, O’Donnell underwent emergency double bypass surgery to clear two blockages in his arteries. After five months recovering and a new esteem for diet and exercise, he returned to Citi. “They [doctors] encourage you to go back when you’re younger and I’m glad I did because I was able to experience one of the most difficult and interesting moments in U.S. financial history,” he said – Bear Sterns had just gone under and Lehman Brothers was about to.

He soon took over in his current role as head of investor sales and relationship management. Five years later, he has a clean bill of health and continues to be enthusiastic about the work he does with Citi’s sales teams, clients, investors and buying partners, traveling around the world for close to five months out of every year.

He is also well attuned to the shift in attitude and atmosphere that has taken place over the last few years as the new financial regulations are implemented. “Transparency in the way you operate your business is critical; strong risk management is essential. Being truly client-centric and open with customers, making sure you do all you can to deliver for them as opposed to just yourself and the firm is critical,” he said. “As we say, the business has become a job. Nobody wants to see what happened in the past happen again. Today there’s much more attention to detail and we’re much more questioning of things. At the same time, we have to have real respect for the rules.”

Over the past fourteen years, O’Donnell has also come to terms with the conflict that troubled him throughout his early days in the industry: how to reconcile doing good with making money. The idea may induce a few eye rolls, but it’s a classic case of Irish guilt – feeling bad about being successful and wanting to do something to atone.

When he returned to finance from the seminary, he realized that it is possible to make money and do good, and that in fact, one can help out considerably with the other. “Let’s be honest,” he said, “in addition to the people who are out in the field, the world needs people to write checks and make donations, people to get involved, and that’s part of why I respect my colleagues on Wall Street so much – for all the good work that they do.”

Though he described himself as “a small fry” in comparison, Jim’s philanthropy and generosity are very notable. Each year he sponsors a number of scholarships that allow kids from underprivileged areas to attend Catholic schools. “A dear friend of mine, Joanne O’Brien, who has worked with many Catholic schools on Long Island, convinced me it was an important thing to do,” he said. “I give the scholarships anonymously, but you get letters from these kids and their stories are just unbelievable. Many of them come from challenged homes, or have a parent who died or lost their job and the whole family is struggling to get by. Then you see the kids go through high school and some of them get full scholarships to great colleges. I’m okay with them not knowing who I am – it’s a change a life, change the world type of thing.”

Thanks to his friend Buzzy Geduld, CEO of Cougar Trading and former partner in the legendary Wall Street trading house Herzog Heine Geduld, O’Donnell became involved with the Friar’s Club, the fraternal group for comedy and the arts (and host of the hilarious celebrity roasts) in New York. “I love it there!” he said with delight. “It kind of fits with my personality – it’s irreverent, it can be bawdy at times, and they have this phrase: ‘We only roast the ones we love.’ It means we can all make fun of each other, but we’re also totally accepting.”

O’Donnell is on the board of the Friar’s Foundation, the club’s charitable arm, and in 2012 was named Friar of the Year for his work with The Gift of Laughter program, which brings comedy to wounded veterans and their families. When we spoke, he had also recently been elected to the club’s board of governors.

“The Friars strike a good balance,” he reflected, “and I hope I do too. I aim to be both someone who works hard and someone who’s fun. “One of the things I respect so much about my faith, my family history and heritage,” he continued, “is that the Irish diaspora has done so much for the world and particularly the United States and New York. Whether they were politicians or nuns or cops or firemen or on Wall Street [O’Donnell has all of the above in his family] they had to work hard to set up roots in this country. But they did it all with this tremendous exuberance for life that’s been key to everything.”

With his palpable exuberance for life, his strong moral compass, and great insight into the world of finance and beyond, it’s safe to say that there are many great things still to come from Jim O’Donnell.

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