Wall Street 50 keynote interview: Jim O’Donnell of Citi Group


With his strong foundation in family and faith, Citi’s Head of Investor Sales and Relationship Management inspires confidence and provides a different perspective on Wall Street.

Anyone who thinks banking is a soulless profession has never met Jim O’Donnell.

Raised in Seaford, Long Island, one of four children of a financial services executive and a career nurse, O’Donnell became successful early and quickly. But his rise was by no means linear. In fact, many of his greatest achievements have been determined by a number of unexpected but ultimately important risks that demonstrate a quiet self-knowledge, a thirst for answers and a strong foundation of belief.

He was the first student from his high school to get accepted by Harvard, but chose to go to Princeton instead, impressed by the sense of community. A comparative religion major with thoughts of joining the priesthood, he jumped at a chance to join Merrill Lynch’s corporate internship program straight out of college. After traveling to London on an assignment, instead of returning to New York to complete the internship program, he accepted a position at the London office, beginning a ten-year stint abroad. When, at a mere thirty-six-years of age, he was CEO of HSBC’s securities and global equities businesses, dividing his time between London and New York, he chose to trade in his tie for a clerical collar and resigned to join a seminary. Eighteen months later, certain that, while he was very devout, the priesthood was not for him, O’Donnell left and returned to the world of banking, determined to both do well for himself and do good in the world.

In person, O’Donnell, 51, is so jovial and relaxed you’d never immediately guess his story has quite so many layers. Tall (though not as tall as his 6’7” great-grandfather from Co. Kerry) and ruggedly good looking, O’Donnell is the kind of person who’s just as at ease in the boardroom as he is at the pub with friends. When we sat down to chat in his office on the 4th floor of the Citi headquarters at 390 Greenwich Street, his hearty laugh filled the room as he shared stories about his first trip to Ireland on St. Patrick’s Day 1984, and he was by equal turns solemn and contemplative as he discussed the things that are most important to him: his family, faith and Irish heritage.

He’s also passionate about his profession and the financial industry, and the questions asked by so many about its character and value in the wake of the financial crisis are questions he has also thought long and hard about. “Some people think it’s so insular,” he said, “but what I’ve learned about the markets is that you have to understand what’s happening in the world overall. You have to know what’s going on with the economy, with the employment rate, with the housing market. With how a world event – a natural disaster, a conflict, or something positive – will impact everything else. It’s a tremendous learning curve every day.

“People have also asked me, how could you care about religion and work on Wall Street? But I love this industry and the people who work in it,” he affirmed. “They’re some of the most generous, caring people I have ever met, with a real understanding of the phrase ‘To whomever much is given, of him much will be required.’”

It is partly thanks to his faith that O’Donnell got his start in finance. In 1983, through the church at Princeton, O’Donnell met Bill Schreyer, then the head of Merrill Lynch. One day after mass, with the end of Jim’s senior year approaching, the two spoke about his plans for the future. Schreyer wound up offering O’Donnell, who was president of his class, a spot in Merrill Lynch’s corporate internship program, making him the eleventh intern in what was supposed to be a group of ten.

It was an invaluable opportunity, and Jim had to hit the ground running. “I got there and I realized all of my colleagues were business administration, finance and economic majors,” he recalled, “so the first couple of days in the orientation and training program was a real ‘OSM’ – I didn’t know a lot of the terminology so I had to learn the language, and it was a lot of scrambling and studying. You don’t see too many religion majors on Wall Street.”

Still, Jim’s background in comparative religion provided him with an outlook and broad understanding that served him well when he started out and continues to shape his approach. “Studying religion from a secular perspective (not a theological or doctrinal perspective) was the best thing I ever did, because I learned that it’s a big, wide world,” he said. “Throughout the history of humanity, nothing has affected our history more than religion. Whether in art, in architecture, or world history – and especially conflicts, even to this day, they’re often about religion. Yet when you get to the essence and the heart of what religion is, it’s beauty and sacredness and teachings of love, mercy, goodness and kindness. It gave me tremendous respect, acceptance and understanding,” he added, “so while you definitely can’t bring religion into the workplace, it’s important to have a set of ethics to live by.”