How this year’s stars have risen to meet the challenge of a global pandemic

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The young public finance professionals chosen as this year’s Bond Buyer Rising Stars exemplify the market’s spirit of resilience and community, having risen to the challenge of the coronavirus pandemic to deliver for their clients, customers, and taxpayers.

“It’s strange to think that the market has gone back to normal, when the rest of us don’t feel normal,” said Allison King, a Charleston, South Carolina-based attorney who works on affordable housing and healthcare deals at the firm of Tiber Hudson.

But while this year’s Rising Stars are not unique in having to face the reality of a world altered by a public health crisis, their stories reflect the diversity, inventiveness, earnestness and optimism that public finance professionals routinely cite as their favorite things about working in this market.

King’s journey into public finance began with a career as a real estate developer, which led to her decision to attend law school with the specific goal of becoming a bond lawyer. She credits the National Association of Bond Lawyers for making valuable educational resources available to her, and said she values the fact that her work helps her give back to the community.

“It’s been a really great fit for me,” King said.

Many of the Rising Stars have had to adjust to spending most of 2020 living and working under quarantine conditions while doing many of the things that Americans are often doing in their 30s. They are getting married, buying first houses, and raising small children. Now they’re doing those things at home, in many cases, while trying to balance the demands of clients and customers reeling from the economic shockwave of the enormous slowdown in economic activity caused by the COVID pandemic.

Cameron Mock, chief of staff and senior fiscal advisor to the deputy governor of Illinois, was scheduled to get married, but wound up postponing that milestone for a year because of the coronavirus. He still secured the purchase of his first home, and is now looking to the future at work as well.

Mock prepares daily briefings for the governor, with a focus on data analytics.

“I’ve been able to really shift focus on data analytics for the pandemic,” Mock said. “I am hopeful that in the winter our picture is a lot better,” he added, but said he and his colleagues still “have to plan for the worst.”

Collin Teague knew he wanted to be in finance and gravitated toward investment banking, and ended up taking a shot at a job in munis because it was a chance to get to New York City.

“Everything I read on municipals I was interested in,” he said. “It seemed pretty cool.”

Now a director at BofA Securities, Teague said he really enjoys the sense of community at work and the role he can play in developing the careers of new bankers at the beginning of their journeys.

“One of the best parts of my job is working with the junior bankers and coming up with solutions,” he said. “Seeing them grow, become better bankers.”

Teague said he misses that social aspect during the pandemic.

“I think that’s a big part of our job. A big part of the camaraderie,” he explained.

While the COVID pandemic ground the U.S. economy to halt as state and local leaders issued orders closing businesses and restricting large gatherings of people, the work of state and local governments providing essential services including infrastructure to residents had to go on. And with that reality debt issuance had to go on, as well as the work of professionals working on behalf of investors.

“COVID obviously was a big shock to our market, and it’s far from over,” said Matt Stephan, head of municipal bond research at Columbia Threadneedle Investments.

“Credit selection is absolutely paramount right now,” Stephan said. “We have to pay attention to what sort of cushion sensitive credits have.”

Rachel Chang-Kwei moved to the U.S. from Taiwan at age 16, adapted quickly to her new home country, and now spends her time helping school districts navigate the muni market while juggling the adjustments of life under quarantine as a municipal advisor at Fieldman, Rolapp & Associates.

“We all had to attend to different distractions, per se,” she said. “I think things have really gotten back to normal. We’re not seeing a slowdown in terms of activity.”

Roberto Ruiz, a director at Stifel, also works on K-12 school deals. Like King, he chose to get into public finance after a short time working, so he attended graduate school and earned a public policy degree.

“Definitely strange times that we’re in,” he said. “Very unexpected.”

Ruiz said he didn’t initially account for how long the new more distanced working environment would last, but has been cheered to find work continuing effectively.

“It has gotten a lot better, and turned out better than I would have expected,” he said.

“Back in March, when we first had to shelter in place, I thought we would only have to work at home for two or three weeks.”

“I’m pleasantly surprised at the ability to coordinate,” he added.

Jonathan Azoff, chief of finance and senior counsel at the Ohio Treasurer’s office, got into public finance after being a corporate lawyer because he wanted to be less specialized. Working for a state official has allowed him to do a wide variety of things, he said, many of them real and rewarding.

“The projects we finance are tangible things,” he said. “You see your contribution which is really exciting.”

So as the country and the market hurtle toward an uncertain future, with an economy still threatened and issuers facing enormous financial challenges, the Rising Stars will be among those working to keep states and localities strong.

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