"A business person once told me you always make a change at the top of your game," said Caren Franzini, chief executive officer of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority.
With that advice in mind, the EDA's longtime leader will step down after 18 years of running New Jersey's "bank for business."
Franzini announced her resignation, effective Sept. 30, at a special board of directors meeting last month. She said that she is not leaving for another job, but because it's a good time to end her tenure.
"Everything is working really well, and the EDA is poised for new leadership to take it to a new level," she said.
The EDA, which finances small- and mid-sized businesses through tax-exempt and taxable bonds, loans, and business and tax incentives, was New Jersey's largest issuer of municipal bonds during the first half of 2012.
In that period, the agency sold $1.5 billion of debt, ranking ninth among issuers in the Northeast region.
Last year, the EDA finalized over $882 million in financing assistance, state business incentive, and tax credits which supported more than $3.4 billion in total public and private investment in the state's economy and led to the creation of an estimated 13,000 new permanent jobs.
"You feel good about going across the state of New Jersey and seeing the various projects we've been able to support, and how many lives we've touched," Franzini said. "From people that have either constructed a building or who are working in a building because we had an involvement in the financing of that facility."
Known among her colleagues for her integrity and her professionalism, Franzini has been praised by many - inside and outside of the EDA - for her contributions to the business community and to economic development in the state.
"She guided her staff with vision and common sense and served numerous governors with respect," said Debra DiLorenzo, president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce Southern New Jersey.
"It is my understanding that she has overseen the distribution of more than $1 billion for over a thousand projects in South Jersey alone," she said.
DiLorenzo has known Franzini since 1991, when they were both fellows in Leadership in New Jersey, a leadership development program.
"From the moment I met her I knew she was special - smart, honest, confident, accessible and compassionate," DiLorenzo said. "Those traits are her trademarks personally and professionally."
Franzini was a member of the Chamber of Commerce's board of directors for two terms, speaking at many of the events, giving members insight on financing available through the EDA, and offering counsel on how to form effective partnerships. In 2006, she won the Chamber's Pinnacle Award for Public Service.
She has also received the New Jersey Chapter of the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties Industry Service Award, the New Jersey Technology Council's John H. Martinson Technology Supporter Award, and the New Jersey Business & Industry Association's Paul L. Troast Award.
"She has been devoted to creating a bright future for business in New Jersey, and everyone knows it," DiLorenzo said.
The EDA's Chairman, Al Koeppe, called Franzini a very unusual leader who was able to function effectively at the strategic level, as well as on a highly technical operating level. Koeppe worked with Franzini for over 20 years.
"For all of that time, and under her leadership, the EDA has been a source of pride for the State," he said in a statement.
Gov. Chris Christie also praised Franzini for her effective leadership, saying he will miss her.
As CEO, Franzini has been in charge of overseeing the day to day operations of the EDA, and meeting with policy leaders, business leaders, and staff about the projects they are working on.
A recent project, called the Teachers Village in Newark, involved the use of tax-exempt bonds and other incentive programs to transform a neighborhood in downtown Newark.
The EDA worked with Ron Beit, a managing member of the lead developer, RBH Group of Manhattan, to develop an over 400,000-square-foot project involving three charter schools, housing, and retail.
"This is something we're really proud of as an agency," Franzini said. "It's providing educational opportunities for children in Newark, living opportunities for people who want to teach at the school or work in Newark, and retail for people who live in the community."
Work began on the project earlier this year and has been estimated to take about two years to complete.
After working on many of these kinds of projects, Franzini has learned that they take time. She said making the Teachers Village project happen took around three years of discussion.
"You always want them to happen quicker. But the good ones take longer, and you have to have patience and see the light at the end of the tunnel and keep working together as a team to make important projects happen," she said.
Franzini was first exposed to the EDA while working as an assistant state treasurer with the New Jersey Department of the Treasury, which is represented on the EDA board.
She was fascinated by the breadth of activity that the EDA was involved in - from making loans to issuing bonds to real estate development. She joined the authority as deputy director in March of 1991.
Franzini explained that the EDA is different from other government agencies. Its budget is not part of the state's budget, so it doesn't rely on New Jersey for any of its operating dollars.
"It operates like a private business with a public purpose," she said. "We have to think like a business. Can you cover costs doing business every day and are you meeting the needs of your customer? But all that is within a public setting."
She became interested in public finance while working for financial advisory firm Public Financial Management during business school. At the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania Franzini received her master of business administration degree in finance and public management. She received her Bachelor of Arts degree in urban studies from the University of Pennsylvania.
"I feel like I had a great start by getting my MBA and working at PFM. I was fortunate to take that private finance experience and bring it to the public sector," she said.
Working in public finance for more than two decades, Franzini has seen many changes in the industry.
For one, the EDA has seen a major technology transformation since the days when it only had two computers when she first started working. The agency has also developed new financing products to meet the needs of the business community over the years.
She has seen a less positive change in the level of support from the federal government for the public finance industry.
"I think there has been a lack of awareness of the importance of the industry to provide a lower cost of capital for needed infrastructure and the growth of jobs in our country," Franzini said.
She has also seen a lack of appreciation for the people in the public sector.
"I've worked with a group of people at EDA that are the best and brightest and are so dedicated to making a difference in our state," Franzini said. "One thing I'll take away is telling everyone that there are really great people in the public sector that are doing great things."
For anyone seeking a career in public finance, she would advise them to get a great education, a great private sector job, and then join the public sector.
"The public sector is full of smart people," Franzini said. "And we really could use more because enhancing our country is our future."