Have you met Suzanne Shank? If you haven’t, you should by Carol Cain

Have you met Suzanne Shank? If you haven’t, you should by Carol Cain

Suzanne Shank is a $2-trillion businesswoman whom few Detroiters have heard of.

Shank, cofounder and CEO of Siebert Branford Shank, is one of the most successful African-American women on Wall Street. Under her watch and from her offices in the Buhl Building in Detroit, her firm has grown by arranging billions upon billions in financing for airports, roads, schools and other municipal and corporate projects across the nation.

Her company got another stamp of approval Wednesday when it was selected by the New York City Transitional Finance Authority to serve as lead manager for an $800-million New York City deal coming to market later this month. And it was one of three firms selected to lead transactions for the New York Water Authority.

Though technically headquartered in New York City, Shank has stayed in Detroit to run the company — one of the largest female- and minority-owned privately held finance firms in the country —– from the Motor City.

“I like the address — 100 Wall Street,” she said, because, you know, the Big Apple is the financial hub of the country. She said it made sense to keep the company located there as her employees often deal with Wall Street.

Shank’s story is fascinating and shows how talent, hard work and ability to embrace change can have remarkable outcomes.

Though she prefers to be behind the scenes, I had a chance to talk with her in front of a sold-out audience of nearly 900 people at Inforum’s 54th annual luncheon gala June 21.

Held at the Westin Book Cadillac, the event spilled into a second ballroom on another floor so more folks could hear Shank’s story via a large-screen TV.

And another 75 people in Grand Rapids attended Inforum’s gathering via satellite.

“The meeting quickly sold out due to Suzanne’s stature as a major player on Wall Street and her commitment to remaining deeply involved in Detroit,” said Terry Barclay, president and CEO of Inforum.

Shank grew up in a middle-class family. A gifted child who could read by age 3 and excelled at math and science, Shank was encouraged by her teachers to became an engineer.

“I had no idea what an engineer did,” she said as she explained how her career unfolded.

She joined General Dynamics after graduating from Georgia Tech, working on a nuclear submarine project. She wanted to move her career along and decided the path there wasn’t sure.

So she shifted gears and pursued her MBA at the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School. It was there she first learned about Wall Street.

She was smitten.
Making the grade

Siebert Brandford Shank was started in 1996 by Shank, Muriel Siebert — the first woman to own a seat on the New York Stock Exchange — and Napoleon Brandford.

“There were 1,367 men on the NYSE and Muriel. For years there wasn’t even a ladies’ room. She had to go up the stairs,” said Shank of Siebert, who she considered one of her early mentors.

Brandford and Shank built a successful boutique muni-bond firm and Siebert raised the idea of merging her firm, which did similar work. They did so 20 years ago.

Shank was tapped to serve as president and CEO of the merged company.

The business grew and evolved over the years.

Siebert died two years ago and Brandford recently retired.

Henry Cisneros, former Housing and Urban Development secretary and mayor of San Antonio, Texas, signed on as a principal with the company.

“Henry and I had talked about it for a year or so,” said Shank as the deal was finalized in November 2015.

Today, her company has grown to 80 employees with 12 offices and six satellite locations.

“We have offices where we have clients,” she explained.

Her firm also served as a financial adviser on the new hockey arena being built in Detroit.

“If you drive on roads, fly out of airports, drink water from a faucet, those are the kinds of projects we get involved with to help arrange financing,” she said.
Adding up to a wonderful future

Her life today is a long way from Savannah, Ga., where she grew up the only child of Mary and Roger Shank.

Her mom got a college degree and was a teacher and later school administrator there. Her dad, who grew up helping to support his siblings, couldn’t afford college but became the first black bus driver in Georgia. He later became head of the regional transit authority.

“On my birth certificate, for my dad’s occupation they put ‘Negro Laborer,’ ” she said matter of factly.

Given the paucity of black women or men for that matter running huge financial firms today, the topic of being a minority-owned company helping or hurting prospects arose.

“At best it allows us to get our foot in the door in certain jurisdictions,” she said. “But it doesn’t guarantee work.”

“Getting work is the best way to get more of it,” she said.

A mom of two daughters, one in high school and another in college, she has put them front and center during her career, has included lots of juggling.

“I have always been a mom who made meals (for her kids),” she said.

When she had to be away for more than two days, her parents would come stay with the kids.

“My mom is my daughter’s best friend,” she said of Devin, her eldest who is in college and working as an intern at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan this summer. She was among those sitting in the Inforum audience.

Recalling her college days, Shank told how she took a train from Philadelphia where Wharton is based to New York City and began knocking on doors of financing firms in a bid to get a job.

She eventually landed a position at a smaller firm and started two months before Black Monday in 1987, which rocked Wall Street.

Ironically, she had been offered a job at a major firm, which she turned down

Shank decided smaller firms were more to her liking than behemoths like JP Morgan or Citibank.

Today, JP Morgan and Citibank are among her competitors.

She admits she is more comfortable being behind the scenes. Her parents raised her on the principle of working hard, keeping your foot on the pedal, knowing things will fall into place.

“I do wish I would have asked for more money,” she said, telling young women and the many interns invited via Inforum’s young engagement program not to be afraid to demand equal pay.

“Millennials have it right when it comes to telling people what they want,” she said.

Shank is convinced that with aging infrastructure plaguing Michigan and other states, there will be more focus on getting resources to repair them.

It will have to come from private sources in additional to government funding.

“Why does it have to take loss of life — like roads in Boston or the Flint water crisis — for Americans to wake up and address this issue?” she asked.

And that will mean more jobs, which she encouraged young people in the audience seeking careers to consider.

Helping the community and giving back also have been paramount to Shank.

She is on the board of Spelman College and numerous other organizations around the country.

And she has mentored many young Detroiters about the world of finance.

Shank remains an ardent supporter and is on the board of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.

She visited with young Detroiters who wrote essays and poems about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on his national holiday earlier this year.

They gathered at the museum to read aloud for Shank and others in the audience who came to celebrate King’s legacy.

“It’s all about exposing young people to the wonderful opportunities that are out there,” she said.


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