BRADENTON, Fla. — Gilt-edged Tennessee's long-time debt manager retires Friday, and though Mary-Margaret Collier says it's time for a rest, she is preoccupied by the prospect that municipal bonds could lose their tax exemption under tax reform being considered by Congress.
"I think the thing that concerns me most for state and local governments is the loss of tax-exempt status," Collier said. "I fear that we won't be able to keep up with our infrastructure."
Collier, 65, is capping a 16-year career with the state, and a 30-year career in public finance.
Collier and husband Jack plan a vacation to Aruba in August, and a move to Texas from Nashville to be near their children. But don't expect her to remain absent from the finance industry for long.
"It has been the most wonderful journey. It's time for a new one," she said, reflecting on the past and the future in a recent interview with The Bond Buyer.
When asked what advice she'd give to colleagues in debt management today, she said, "I think as issuers we have to put our best foot forward. We have to take the market seriously, and do a good job on disclosure.
"I think the market has been volatile, and we've had changes because of sequestration, and there's concern about the state of tax-exempt bonds," said Collier. "All of those things go into the pricing of debt today. There's a lot more to consider than we had in the past.
"We need to be vigilant. We need to be good stewards."
By all accounts, Collier, who manages $4 billion in outstanding state and local debt, is describing the principles she has practiced.
Commitment to work is also among her list of values, said mentor Marlin Mosby, who hired Collier straight out of the University of Kentucky where she earned a master's of business administration in 1983.
"She's very hard working, unbelievably hard working," said Mosby, who hired Collier to work with him at United Municipal Investment Corp., a regional investment bank that was later sold to Regions Bank.
In 1984, Mosby and Collier opened the Memphis office of Public Financial Management Inc., which Mosby ran until his retirement two years ago.
The pre-computer days in the early years could be grueling because of frequent travel and work that sometimes lasted until midnight, Mosby said. Collier, then a single mother, would bring her children into the office and put them on sleeping mats to finish her work.
"I had experience that I tried to share with her," he said. "As time went on, we learned from each other."
In search of a more stable home life in 1989, Collier moved to St. Louis, where she served as deputy budget director and chief health fiscal officer. In 1991, she moved to Texas and became deputy director of investment and debt management in Houston.
Collier landed in Tennessee's state bond finance office as assistant director in January 1997, and became director two years later. In 2010, her duties expanded when Tennessee combined the offices of state and local finance.
"It's a career she has loved very much," said Mosby, who was the state's financial advisor while he was at PFM. "It's a political job, and she is apolitical. She cares about public finance, and has stayed involved in GFOA."
Over the years, she's been heavily involved with the Government Finance Officers Association, the Tennessee GFOA, State Debt Management Network, and the National Association of State Auditors, Comptrollers and Treasurers, which is based in Lexington, Ky.
The job remained on Collier's mind even during weekend trips to visit her mother in Kentucky, where she grew up.
On those weekends, munis were the main topic of discussion during frequent breakfasts with Kentucky's former executive director of financial management, Tom Howard, and Kinney Poynter, executive director of the Association of State Auditors, Comptrollers and Treasurers.
"We would sit for a couple of hours and chat about all things muni," Poynter said. "We hate to see her go. Any time we had a question about municipal bond issuance we went to Mary-Margaret. She's well respected.
"One thing Mary-Margaret believes in is strong transparency in all things, and specifically in the municipal bond arena."
Howard, who gave up his job as Kentucky's finance manager at the end of last year, said Collier is a dear friend. They attended the same high school at different times. He went to the University of Kentucky for his undergraduate degree while Collier was getting her MBA.
"I often overheard investment bankers say that she was very tough, but fair," said Howard, who is now a managing director and partner with Commonwealth Economics.
"The citizens of Tennessee were very fortunate to have had such a dedicated public servant as Mary-Margaret," he said. "She truly had the interest of the people at heart. She is a wonderful person."
In a broad sense, it is Collier's dedication that people recall. Much of her work has taken place "below the radar screen," according to Mosby, who has known her 35 years.
"Beyond senior people at the state level, very few people know her name or what she has done," he said. "For the state, she's served as well as anybody I know in the country.
"She and Frank Hoadley in Wisconsin were cut out of the same mold."
Hoadley retired in February after 25 years managing his state's debt issuance. He, too, championed strong issuer disclosure, as well as the use of plain language in financial documents while being outspoken on some burdensome regulations.
When asked to reflect on specific accomplishments, Collier takes a broad and humble view.
"There are so many things that the people who I have worked with have helped us to accomplish," she said. "Over time, we take many of them for granted, but they were hard work."
Developing Tennessee's commercial paper program and earning the Certificate of Excellence for Financial Reporting for the State School Bond Authority are two achievements she mentioned.
"My thanks go to all of those many people throughout state and local government and the capital markets community over the past 30 years who have made this journey exciting, worthwhile on a personal level and a commitment to stewardship of our citizens' dollars," Collier said.
As for the future, Collier says learning something new is never over, and wants to enjoy interests she's put off over the years, such as studying. She may work part-time.
A long-time fan of women's basketball at Vanderbilt University as a booster, and growing up with men's basketball in Kentucky, has helped foster an interest in college sports facility management, she said. She's also interested in teaching junior and high school financial literacy, as well as retirement planning to single women.
For the past few years, Collier has been training her assistant, Sandi Thompson, to succeed her at Tennessee's Office of State and Local Finance.
"I think the state's going to be very fortunate to have Sandi," Collier said.
Thompson, who formerly worked in corporate trust, institutional and investment advisory services at several banks, became assistant director for Tennessee's muni finance office in 2008. She's in the process of working on her first solo transaction for the state, and is meeting with rating agencies.
Thompson said she will also be working to implement several bills passed by the General Assembly during this year's session designed to strengthen municipal bond issuance and the state's budget reserves.
"I've got a big job going forward here," Thompson said. "Every time people introduce themselves, they say, 'Hello, you've got some big shoes to fill.' Mary-Margaret has really carved a way for us here."