Public finance vet Shank stresses communication, empathy in crisis

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As Suzanne Shank sees it, business leaders need to ramp up communication dramatically in times of crisis.

It is a strategy that the municipal bond market veteran is using to great effect as a way to share valuable insights and help calm employees and clients struggling to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic.

From frequent calls that help keep employees of her Wall Street investment banking firm connected while they are working from home to newly launched town halls for issuers and investors trying to make sense of market conditions, she aims to stay visible and share as much information as possible to combat the sense of uncertainty that everyone shares these days.

Shank is, after all, no stranger to dealing with challenges. She is CEO of Siebert Williams Shank & Co. and president and largest equity owner of its parent company, Shank Williams Cisneros & Co.

She has overseen the growth of her business from a startup in 1996 to the largest minority- and women-owned investment banking firm in the country. It earned that status in late 2019, with the merger of Siebert Cisneros Shank and The Williams Capital Group.

“I’ve tried to lead with empathy during the pandemic,” Suzanne Shank says.

Siebert Williams Shank is a top-ranked manager for municipal bond transactions. Combined its two predecessor companies have participated in about 2,000 municipal financings in the last five years and have been lead managers on over 200 financings totaling about $30 billion.

The firm's name pays homage to one of its original co-founders, Muriel Siebert, the first woman to own a seat on the New York Stock Exchange.

It has survived more than one crisis over the past 20 years, and Shank understands that how a business leader responds amid such turmoil is vital to the well-being of employees, clients, and by extension, the firm itself.

“I’ve tried to lead with empathy during the pandemic,” Shank told The Bond Buyer. “Without health and safety, there can be no productivity so I have made clear that employee health is the top priority.”

Accessibility of executives and increased communication also are critical, she said.

“We have held several firmwide, departmental and one-on-one calls to ensure connectivity,” she said. “As a result, most of our employees have expressed that their teams work collaboratively better remotely than when they sat side by side.”

Though the firm began ramping up for remote work prior to the stay-at-home orders, there were some special challenges in keeping things running smoothly once the staff was no longer in the firm's Wall Street office.

“I would never have imagined we could run the business with the whole firm working remotely and be as productive as we have been over the last few months,” she said. “The greatest challenge is how to engage employees and give them connection to one another and to the firm’s mission. That’s where the enhanced communication has played a key role. Without connection, there was the potential to have anxiety and negativity given the tragic pandemic news we were all seeing.”

Shank said the staff has been coping as best as could be expected and that the leadership team has been providing support and guidance.

“The staff appears to be coping well for the most part. Unfortunately, we have a few employees who have had family members succumb during the crisis and this has been tragic for them. In addition, those employees with young children at home are facing new challenges of educating their kids from home and trying to ensure they are still advancing academically,” she said. “We assured staff that with all the worries they may be facing during the pandemic, that we would do everything in our power to protect their employment and livelihoods.”

Suzanne Shank celebrates with staff the 2017 expansion of its offices in NYC.

She said early on in the pandemic there was a lot of market disruption that had to be dealt with quickly.

“Initially, we saw tremendous municipal market dislocation with rates spiking and bond fund outflows in mid-March to early April and numerous transactions postponed as a result. Investors are also taking time to do more extensive credit reviews prior to investing so the process is more protracted than normal,” she said. “In recent weeks, we’ve begun to see rates stabilize and greater investor demand for high-grade credits."

Supporting stressed issuers was another top concern, as well as adjusting to increased demands from the Securities and Exchange Commission, she said.

“Another challenge is connecting with our issuer clients who are facing great adversity as they grapple with budgetary challenges that COVID-19 has created,” Shank said. “The SEC chairman has also placed an increased focus on municipal disclosure during the COVID-19 pandemic so issuers have been asked to provide updated disclosures, including forward looking disclosures, which is difficult for many.”

The firm took steps to address these issues, largely in the form of more communication. Siebert initiated a biweekly town hall led by its public finance head, Gary Hall, to stay connected with both issuer and investor clients and help them better understand the implications of unfolding events.

The town hall series provides insight from thought leaders such as economists, institutional investors and pension experts. Even the head of the American Federation of Teachers — "who is on the front lines of dealing with national K-12 education issues,” said Shank — has been a guest speaker. “We’ve received very positive feedback that these town halls have been helpful to clients as they navigate current market conditions," Shank said.

She added that uncertain market conditions didn’t scare the firm away from doing business.

“Despite the market volatility we have been quite active in the primary market and have a robust forward calendar of issuances. In addition, our secondary trading volumes have increased. We are transacting $500 million to $1 billion in trading par per week since the week of March 9,” she said.

She continues to see opportunities in the municipal bond market.

“Interest rates are still very attractive — the only time we’ve seen lower rates was at the end of February and the beginning of March,” she said. “In addition, we are seeing strong demand for lower coupons so issuers can weigh other couponing options other than the standard 5% coupon we had been seeing for a while.”

Shank said she herself has been focusing on what’s most important, including family and health.

“Personally, I’ve been thankful that my family has had the privilege of sheltering in place and very grateful for those front-line workers who are risking their health to provide essential services to the rest of us,” she said. “Without all the business travel I’ve found more time to focus on wellness — I am eating healthier, taking vitamins, and exercising more. I also have more time to read both industry technical materials and for fun. The pandemic has offered an opportunity for reflection.”

Shank, who grew up in Savanah, Ga., makes her home in Detroit. She is a graduate of the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, with a Master of Business Administration degree in finance, and the Georgia Institute of Technology, with a Bachelor of Science degree in civil engineering.

She is active in industry and civic organizations and serves on the boards of the Skillman Foundation, the Bipartisan Policy Center Executive Council on Infrastructure, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Detroit Regional Chamber, and Global Citizen. Shank is also a member of the International Women’s Forum and serves on the SEC’s Fixed Income Market Structure Advisory Committee.

Shank has won numerous awards, including the Shot Caller Award presented at the BET “Black Girls Rock!” ceremony, the Austin Koenen Career Achievement Award from the Municipal Forum of New York and the Freda Johnson Award for Trailblazing Women in the Private Sector from The Bond Buyer. She also has been in American Banker's rankings of the Most Powerful Women in Finance (which you can read about here and here).

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