Pandemic casts a pall on Stifel banker James Cervantes' retirement fanfare
When public finance banker James Cervantes decided to pull the trigger on retirement, he had to let go of his plan for a big retirement party to say goodbye to long-time colleagues.
Cervantes was a Stifel California managing director and ran Stone & Youngberg, acquired by Stifel in 2011, for a time. He also chaired the board for the now-defunct California Public Securities Association, a public finance group that lobbied Sacramento for legislative changes benefitting the industry.
At the luncheon held to celebrate his Oct. 1 retirement, Cervantes enjoyed a smaller send-off with soon-to-be former colleagues.
“The last thing you want for your retirement party is a super spreader event,” he said.
He postponed making plans for his retirement party after the COVID-19 pandemic struck forcing the closure of many public gathering spots, eventually deciding on a San Francisco restaurant with outdoor dining where attendees could safely meet for a socially distanced party with a shrunken guest list.
“He had anticipated retiring earlier in the year with more fanfare, but given the situation with COVID, he extended it, so he would have some ability to go see people and call clients and make the transition, he was looking to do,” said Sara Brown Oberlies, co-head of Stifel California.
He also missed being able to meet with clients in person as he transitioned their business to other Stifel bankers.
“I always enjoyed meeting with people face-to-face, communicating with people in my last year on Zoom hasn’t been the same experience,” said Cervantes.
After spending 30-plus years essentially working for the same firm, Cervantes said he began to think maybe it was time to find something else to do, while he is still capable and healthy enough to explore other interests. While his next chapter isn't yet set, public policy certainly will be a part of it. He is exploring serving on government-based boards or running for elected office.
“He has been a formidable competitor for 30-plus years and also a friend,” said Mark Adler, a managing director at Piper Sandler. “He is very intelligent, a person of integrity and an excellent banker. This is not just a large loss for Stifel, but for the industry.”
Cervantes, 63, started as an intern at Stone & Youngberg in 1986, after earning his master of business administration at Stanford University. That led to a full-time position with the firm.
“He was a mentor to a lot of people,” said Stephen Heaney, who retired as co-head of Stifel’s municipal securities and public finance group last year. “He always wanted to make sure that the firm had capable people coming up behind him; and that everyone had the same opportunity to be as successful as he had been.”
Scott Sollers, managing vice president in Build America Mutual’s west region, hired Cervantes for that internship, and the full-time position, when Sollers worked for Stone & Youngberg.
“He is a very humble man, very focused, and a great listener — even though Jim is often the brightest man in the room,” Sollers said. “He had a knack for putting clients at ease.”
While some senior bankers chase the $300 million deals and might pass off a $3 million one to a younger banker, he put his all into every transaction, no matter the size, Heaney said.
“A lot of people say they have great client relationships skills, but he had a way of always treating the client as No. 1,” he added. “Everyone says they do that, but Jim really did.”
Though he maintained a focus on land-based, local government and special district transactions in California, Cervantes said the state is so diverse, you get a window on many different types of communities.
“It has been a great career, and I feel proud that we as public finance bankers get to serve those communities,” Cervantes said. “The old BMA [Bond Market Association, which merged with SIFMA in 2006] had the slogan, 'built by bonds,' and that really is the case. There are a lot of good things that public finance does that people don’t realize, whether it’s financing infrastructure for new schools, public libraries or roads.”
He will be missed, Brown said, especially by all the young bankers and analysts he took the time to mentor.
"He is a testament to the many people in the industry that are in it for the right reasons," Brown said. "His ethical compass was always pointed in the right direction."