Jim also had another advantage starting out – finance was in his genes. His father, James O’Donnell II, had a long and accomplished Wall Street career. He worked at Equitable Life, then at Merrill Lynch, and then became one of the authors of the first Series 7 exam, formally titled the General Securities Representative Exam, which anyone who wants to become a registered representative on Wall Street has to take. He later became president of a securities training company that prepared people for the Series 7, and after retiring started his own business, Global Training and Development, which focused on emerging markets around the world, such as Bangladesh, Tunisia, and Vietnam, and helped them to develop examination processes for their securities and exchanges.
Jim’s mother, Jeanne, also provided a model for hard work and perseverance. A nurse, she went back to school to earn her master’s in nursing when Jim was young, and then worked for years as an elementary school nurse, only retiring two years ago at 73.
“I respect my dad’s entrepreneurship and work ethic; my mom’s determination in going back to school,” he said. “From them, I only know one speed, which is if you’re going to do something, make sure you do it well.”
And that’s the speed at which O’Donnell has run for his entire career. Making his father proud, he passed the Series 7 with flying colors, missing only one out of 250 questions. Starting out at Merrill Lynch, he worked for Bob McCann, a past Wall Street 50 Keynote and current CEO of UBS Group Americas and Wealth Management Americas, an experience Jim described as “phenomenal.” When the opportunity arose for one of the Merrill Lynch corporate interns to help out with implementing a new CMA (Cash Management Accounts) program for the European market, O’Donnell volunteered and in January of 1984 he went to London for a few months. Instead of returning to New York and the internship program, he accepted a job in the London office’s European equities business as an equity sales trader, doing both US equities and international equities. There he worked under a man named Terry Hurley, who he described as “a big, tough Chicago Irishman. He was incredibly principled, all about doing your work, being honest and taking the time to learn the mechanics and keep a clear record.”
Jim recalled one pivotal moment when a colleague in another office asked him to buy 25,000 shares in a certain stock, but when the price moved $2 against him later that day, he maintained that he had told Jim to sell. “Here I am, this 22-year-old kid, so scared,” he said, “and Terry goes ‘let me see your sheets. So he flips through them and sees that I had a B written down next to the order, just like he taught me, and he says to the guy, ‘There’s no way you told him to sell.’ Terry backed me, and that showed me how incredibly important integrity and ethics are, but also how important it is to make sure you’re on your game.”
O’Donnell loved London, where he would end up spending the formative years of his career and early adulthood. “If you spend your 20s and early 30s in one city, it’s important. It became home,” he reflected. “My first few years there I couldn’t really afford it; I could just go to the pubs and eat meat pies and have a few pints. I played on a rugby team called the Stock Exchange Stags. But it’s such a great stepping-stone to all of Europe.”
Two months after arriving in London, he visited Ireland for the first time, which resulted in the first of many great stories. “I was an Irish American in London in 1984, and I thought to myself, there’s no way I can spend St. Patrick’s Day here. So I got on a plane, flew to Dublin and stayed in the Shelbourne,” he remembered. “The concierge sent me to O’Donoghue’s pub off of St. Stephen’s Green, and I was so excited to have my first Guinness in Ireland. So I sit down at the bar with my pint and there are a bunch of guys about my age and one of them says to me, ‘You think you can drink, you Americans, but we can drink you under the table.’ Back then I was a pretty big beer drinker, so I just said, ‘No, I really don’t think you can, but cheers, happy St. Patrick’s Day.’ And he goes ‘Are you challenging me?’” Fourteen pints later (thirteen to win, one in celebration), O’Donnell left the bar.
In the years since he has been to Dublin over a dozen times, and looks forward (“Especially after this,” he said) to visiting Tralee and Galway to trace his family roots. His paternal grandmother’s family, the Manions, hailed from Roundstone, Co. Galway, while his father’s father had family in Kildare, Co. Naas and Tralee, Co. Kerry.
After rising in the ranks at Merrill Lynch in London, O’Donnell joined Drexel Burnham Lambert to run their international sales and trading operation for equities, and moved back to New York to manage their global sales trading effort. Shortly before the firm filed for bankruptcy in 1990, O’Donnell returned to London with NatWest Bank, to manage their equity business in Europe. “Hindsight being 20/20, I think Tim Ferguson [who was then CEO of NatWest Securities Global] took a huge leap of faith in hiring me,” he reflected. “I was a twenty-eight-year-old kid, an exuberant American with experience managing 50 or so people, suddenly managing 1,000 people at a very traditional British firm. I had some great senior partners who were more senior than I was though they were reporting to me – and who frankly could have buried me – but by being honest and respectful we ended up creating a really strong team.”