Adela Cepeda, founder, A.C. Advisory
Adela Cepeda carved her own path to success
Colombia native has become one of Chicago's most prominent Latina businesswomen
Adela Cepeda started A.C. Advisory Inc. in a borrowed office. The firm now has a suite of offices in a Wacker Drive high-rise. (Abel Uribe, Chicago Tribune / November 15, 2012)
Cepeda, an immigrant from Colombia who was raised in New York, moved to Chicago in 1981 to be with her husband, Albert Maule. She met him at Harvard University, and though he grew up in Connecticut, his family's Windy City ties ran deep. His grandfather, Corneal Davis, served as a state legislator from the South Side for 36 years.
In Chicago, Maule became an attorney who once recruited a summer associate named Barack Obama. Cepeda worked as a corporate finance analyst but had an entrepreneurial spirit and burgeoning civic interests. In 1988, she was appointed by Mayor Eugene Sawyer to the Navy Pier Development Corp. Maule often spoke about running for political office and was named head of the Police Board under Mayor Richard M. Daley. The couple had three daughters.
Then Maule became ill. He fought multiple myeloma, a plasma cell cancer, for four years.
Five months before Maule died in 1995, at age 40, he helped his wife draw up papers for A.C. Advisory Inc., a firm focusing on municipal finance.
Leaning on the financial acumen that led her to become a vice president of Smith Barney, supported by civic and political connections, and driven by the need to support her children, Cepeda delved into dealmaking.
She launched the company in a borrowed office, alone except for a phone. That winter, she made her first deal, with the city of Chicago's Department of Water Management.
"When I was concentrating on a deal, that was the one time that I didn't feel like crying," Cepeda said. "And then … it would hit me — 'Oh, my God. Albert died.' But I could at least make it through the calls, the negotiations. And that became so comforting. I latched onto it."
Seventeen years later, A.C. Advisory has a suite of offices in a high-rise on Wacker Drive and a presence in midtown Manhattan in New York. Its clients include the Chicago Board of Education, the Chicago Transit Authority, Cook County, the city of New York and the state of Connecticut. Last summer, the company, still relatively small with eight employees, reached a landmark $100 billion in deals.
As its core business, A.C. Advisory works for government entities seeking to refinance or to raise capital through a bond issue. The firm negotiates for the government with the investment community, or, in a competitive bid, shepherds the process on an electronic site, aiming to secure the best rate for the government entity and, thus, taxpayers.
Cepeda's firm collects fees from the government agencies that hire her, and she said her company brings in $1.5 million to $2 million in annual revenue. In 2010, she said, the Build America Bonds effort, part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, increased revenue to $2 million to $3 million. The privately held company has about 15 clients.
Cepeda, appointed in August to the board of directors of BMO Financial Corp., also serves on numerous civic and nonprofit boards. In 2011, Mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed her to the board of the Chicago Housing Authority, for which she chairs the pension board and audit and finance committees. (Her firm forgoes CHA business, she said, because of her position.)
"What she managed to do," said George Haywood, a former head of bond trading at Lehman Brothers who has known Cepeda for three decades, "is extraordinary."
From a soaring corner office at 150 N. Wacker Drive, Cepeda looks out onto the behemoth limestone of the Merchandise Mart, with three ample branches of the Chicago River merging below.
"I'm into views," she said, standing behind her desk.
After leaving Smith Barney, Cepeda began a money management firm, Abacus Financial Group, in 1991 with two partners. Daley's finance office hired the firm to negotiate bond transactions for the city, and Cepeda found she had an affinity for advisory work. She left Abacus and six months later launched her woman- and minority-owned firm, A.C. Advisory.
"I thought that this had the potential to be a business on its own," she said, "and sure enough, it was a very successful business."
The most gratifying part of her job, Cepeda said, is when she sees results in tangible projects. Bond issues by Chicago Public Schools, for example, bring the transformation of buildings, and in turn, the revival of surrounding blocks.
Working in the realm of public money brings scrutiny at times. A deal in 2009 for the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago drew criticism that perhaps the city could have fared better. Cepeda says the use of Build America Bonds meant a completely different structure and contends that the rate was the best that could be had while maintaining investor interest.
"I always feel like I have to work extra, extra hard to make sure there's never an issue," she said. "I work extra hard to justify my firm's participation going into a transaction. We want to be value-added. We don't just want to be in a deal. We want to prove that by having us in a deal, you've done better."
David Vitale, president of the Chicago Board of Education, has known Cepeda for more than two decades in capacities professional (CPS has been a longtime client of hers) and personal (they're South Side neighbors and share an alma mater in Harvard).
"You can be pretty sure that Adela and her firm are working for you, the client, and that's just her approach to business," Vitale said, calling her analytic and knowledgeable. "That sales side of her, that engagement side of her, is a very strong part of her success. And that has to be coupled with providing a real service."
It wasn't until she was in business for herself, Cepeda said, that she had the sophistication to use the connections she and her husband had formed. She expanded to the East Coast in 2002, for instance, when her long-standing relationship with Connecticut Treasurer Denise Nappier helped prompt a pitch for the state's business. "It's the comfort level of, 'Well, she knows me already,'" Cepeda said. But she still she sees her network as providing no more than an opening.
"You don't stay in business with just political connections," she said. "The advantage was to open the door. But once the door is open, and I can show the skills that we bring and the ability to analyze financial problems and situations, that's something I earn as a firm."
The solicitation of new business remains constant, one Cepeda prefers to do face to face with potential clients, often with a pitch book or presentation. At times, she said, her perseverance can cause "a misperception that I'm not so nice because I keep asking, because this (client) would be really important. And I really don't let go."
Robert Rodriguez, a New York State Assembly member and a vice president at A.C. Advisory (he says he abstains from the firm's state-related business), calls Cepeda's approach to clients "very upfront and direct about what we can do."
"To get to $100 billion, if you're a smaller firm, is quite an accomplishment," Rodriguez said. "… You've got to have some great clients who are a decent size and who issue (bonds) regularly. To keep them over a decade and a half, it's not so easy."
Not everything Cepeda has tried has translated into financial success.
In 2005, she started Alta Capital Group, a broker dealer that sold bonds to retail or institutional investors for specific debt issues in which Cepeda was not acting as the financial adviser. (An individual working as an adviser and a broker is legal with some restrictions, though rules have tightened since 2011.) As the majority partner in Alta, Cepeda opened offices in New York, Boston and California and hired as many as 20 employees.
Despite about $2 million in annual revenue at its height, Alta was not breaking even. Two years after she started it, Cepeda closed the group.
"It wasn't a lesson I had had before, but I'm very reverential about the market, and I was just headed into a bad market," Cepeda said. "When the market is against you, there's just no point."
In the Kenwood neighborhood, Cepeda's home is close enough to President Barack Obama's that she needs to drive past concrete barricades to get to her front door. She recalls being introduced to Obama when Maule, who did the firm's outreach at Harvard, recruited him as a summer associate at Hopkins & Sutter.
"My husband was a big fan of his," Cepeda said, "and I remember him telling me, 'You really ought to get to know him. He's so smart.'"
Later, Cepeda and Michelle Obama participated in the same Fellows Program at Leadership Greater Chicago. During the 2012 presidential campaign, Cepeda served on Obama's Illinois finance committee and donated almost $15,000 to Obama and the Democratic National Committee; her middle daughter, Alicia Maule, also worked on the campaign.
Last week, Cepeda sat in front of the Capitol for the inauguration and hopped from one exclusive Washington party to another.
Cepeda dedicates as much as 20 percent of her time each week to nonprofit causes. She has sat on boards for the Ravinia Festival Association and the Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana.
On the Chicago Housing Authority board, said Chairwoman Zaldwaynaka "Z" Scott, Cepeda manages with "confidence, competence and she's incredibly smart," adding that "she always has an appreciation for the full range of outcomes, including the impact on people."
Recognizing that she wields influence as one of the city's few Latina finance heads, Cepeda co-founded Nuestro Futuro, or Our Future, an affiliate of The Chicago Community Trust, with longtime friend Maria Bechily.
Their goal is to raise $5 million for a donor-advised endowment fund to benefit Latino community programs throughout the Chicago area. They have about $3 million to go.
Terry Mazany, president and CEO of The Chicago Community Trust, where Cepeda served for 10 years on the executive committee, called Cepeda "an exemplar for what great civic leadership means. She represents that transition of leadership from a predominantly white male corporate leadership to a very diverse — in terms of gender and race and ethnicity — business leadership, which is all to the good to Chicago's prospects as a global city."
Coming to America
In 1964, when Cepeda was 6, she moved with her parents from her birth city of Barranquilla, Colombia, to New York. The oldest of five, Cepeda spoke hardly any English — "just a song about how pollo is chicken and cielo is sky."
She adapted quickly. She remembers vaulting from the slowest-learning group to the most advanced. In high school, she joined the school paper and student government. Though athletics were "a real hardship for me," she tagged along with the high school football and lacrosse teams, becoming the teams' statistician.
In 1980, Cepeda graduated from Harvard University with a degree in economics. She had been accepted by Harvard Business School, with the expectation that she would matriculate after two years of work experience.
She recalled a meeting with school staff during which she was told that "women had trouble with quantitative aspects of the program," and to prepare, she should take the most quantitative job opportunity available.
"I wasn't like, 'This is sexist,'" she said. "I just figured that those were the facts. I thought that women had a hard time with the math over there. I wanted to get in."
Upon graduating, Cepeda started as a corporate finance analyst for Smith Barney's New York office, dating Albert Maule all the while.
Cepeda had first run into Maule in Harvard Yard, deciding on first sight she didn't like him.
"His Afro was too big," she remembered. His clothes looked messy. "I said, 'Oh, no.' I remember thinking that I cannot bring him to my parents."
Months later, they attended an event for Harvard's Institute of Politics, and Maule offered Cepeda his seat next to the keynote speaker.
"I thought that was so generous," she said, her brown eyes beaming, "and it kind of disarmed me."
They dated for two years before marrying in 1981.
By then, Maule had begun as a Chicago-based lawyer with Hopkins & Sutter (it merged with Foley & Lardner in 2001) and wanted to stay in the city to be with his maternal grandparents. So Cepeda started at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, rather than Harvard, while continuing with Smith Barney.
She remembers standing out as a Latina, and as a result, works to diversify her firm and her philanthropic boards.
"One time, a client told me that he collected 'colored art' — all the signs that were common in the South that said 'Coloreds only'. And he said, 'You would have been considered colored,' and I said, 'OK.'"
Of the startling reactions to her heritage, she said: "I think they didn't know what to do with it."
After finishing a flurry of cross-country business teleconferences and philanthropic duties on a recent evening, Cepeda strolled through the three-story home where she and Maule anchored their family and where she later raised their girls alone. She hopes that, as adults, they appreciate "the power and privilege of giving."
Her BlackBerry silent for a few moments, she inspected the photos depicting the landscape of her life, some with her husband, others with her grown daughters, and she smiled at each one.
Owner and president of A.C. Advisory Inc.
Lives in: The Kenwood neighborhood, midtown Manhattan, N.Y., and Lakeside, Mich.
Education: Bachelor's in economics from Harvard University; master's of business administration from the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business
Family: Daughters Alexis, 26, Alicia, 24, and Laura, 21. Husband Albert Maule died in 1995.
Favorite music: Cumbia. "It's Colombian. When I hear it, I want to dance."
Management style: "Very hands-off so that my employees can be creative and advance their ideas and methods. However, I'm fairly strict about deadlines and become quite antsy when things fall behind or I'm not sensing momentum. In those instances, I dive in and try to micromanage."
Admires: Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. "And not because of her glamour, but because she was a widow at a young age, like I was, unfortunately, and was devoted to her children. She also sought to have a successful career despite the family and social obligations. I think there was a lot of substance to her that most people do not give her credit for."