Adela Cepeda

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)

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."

Chicago outreach

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."