While at NatWest he was approached by HSBC to become CEO of HSBC James Capel, their global securities business. Shortly after starting, he was asked to also become CEO of their global equities business. “It was a challenging job, and I was over-stretched” he said candidly. “I was 36, in charge of 5,000 people around the world, and running both U.S. equities and fixed income, and the global equities franchise.”
It was at this point that some of the lingering questions about the direction of his life took center stage. “During dinner and a couple of drinks with friends we would have these great conversations about life and the world, as good Irish people do, and I kept thinking ‘Well, I’m not married, maybe I really should explore whether I should have become a priest?’ One of my friends said, ‘You always talk about it, why don’t you just do it?’ So I decided that if I didn’t try it I would never know if it was my calling.” He left HSBC and applied for a spot in a seminary.
This career change was an uncommon one to say the least and garnered the attention of the media. The New York Times described him as “known for his worldly success in a series of high-power, high-pay jobs in the financial world,” and The Independent pointed out that as a priest in New York he would “take home a salary of less than £6,000 a year, less than 1 per cent of what he was earning on Wall Street.” After transitioning out of HSBC and James Capel, Jim moved back to New York, began studying for the priesthood, and joined the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception on Long Island, which has since merged with other religious institutions in the area.
“It was a greater transition than I ever could have imagined,” he said solemnly. “I probably made a mistake in not insisting I go to a seminary for older vocations. Immaculate Conception had great people – a really caring and loving staff and priests and nuns – but I was 37, a former CEO, and I had lived in the world. All my classmates were 21 and just out of college. So it was a real challenge.”
The hardest part, though, was the instinct he felt to question things, to say “Yes, but what about this?” While he was thrilled to be studying to become a priest in an institution he loved, he realized that he couldn’t see eye to eye with the Church on all of its teachings. “I have tremendous respect and reverence for the Church, and I will always consider myself a Catholic,” he said, “but my social beliefs developed through time and experience and are very different today. My views on celibacy, on women in the priesthood, on birth control, on same sex marriage, on annulments, they’re just different. I respected and continue to respect the Church’s views, but I also realized that there was no way I could be a priest.”
Coming to terms with this was a tremendous personal struggle. “I had always been somebody who had great faith in listening to authority, always agreeing,” Jim explained. “Today I still believe in respecting authority, but you also have a responsibility to be truthful and transparent in your own views and beliefs, and if you don’t do that then you are failing yourself.”
It took time, but rather than seeing the experience as a failure, he came to recognize it as a necessary decision on his part and a sign of the wisdom and forbearance of the Church. “Was there disappointment and anger? Of course there was. But it made me a stronger person, and I now look at it as one of the best things I ever did. People said ‘Well, you failed.’ But one of the reasons why I respect the Church so much is because in the Formation process you’re supposed to reflect on whether this path is right for you. So as opposed to failing, I actually think the Formation process worked incredibly well for me. It was a few years before I could see it this way, but what became clear was that it wouldn’t have been the right decision for me, but it was the right decision to find out. And I have no regrets about that.”
After eighteen months out of the business, O’Donnell returned to finance. “It was like putting on my favorite suit and feeling comfortable again,” he said, smiling. He went back to London, working as a managing director and deputy head of equities in Europe for Salomon Smith Barney, and then as the head of Citigroup’s European equities business.
Jim has been with Citi for close to fifteen years now, and he’s in good company. “It’s by far the best firm I’ve ever worked with,” he enthused. “My boss, Jamie Forese, and I had a conversation a while back about how to describe the culture of Citi, and he said ‘the difference is we allow you to be who you are,’ and that to me says it all.” A number of his colleagues, including Citi’s CAO Don Callahan and head of Equities Americas Dan Keegan are past or current Wall Street 50 honorees. Citi has had a presence in Ireland since 1965 – it was one of the first foreign banks to open an office in Ireland – and today employs 2,200 in Dublin. In Northern Ireland, Citi employs close to 1,000 people in Belfast at the Titanic Quarter campus.