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.