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


A few years after joining Citi in 1999, O’Donnell relocated to New York to serve as head of U.S. equities. In 2007, in the early days of the financial crisis, Forese promoted him to co-head of global investor sales and relationship management. Two months later on December 27, after a few days of chest pains, O’Donnell underwent emergency double bypass surgery to clear two blockages in his arteries. After five months recovering and a new esteem for diet and exercise, he returned to Citi. “They [doctors] encourage you to go back when you’re younger and I’m glad I did because I was able to experience one of the most difficult and interesting moments in U.S. financial history,” he said – Bear Sterns had just gone under and Lehman Brothers was about to.

He soon took over in his current role as head of investor sales and relationship management. Five years later, he has a clean bill of health and continues to be enthusiastic about the work he does with Citi’s sales teams, clients, investors and buying partners, traveling around the world for close to five months out of every year.

He is also well attuned to the shift in attitude and atmosphere that has taken place over the last few years as the new financial regulations are implemented. “Transparency in the way you operate your business is critical; strong risk management is essential. Being truly client-centric and open with customers, making sure you do all you can to deliver for them as opposed to just yourself and the firm is critical,” he said. “As we say, the business has become a job. Nobody wants to see what happened in the past happen again. Today there’s much more attention to detail and we’re much more questioning of things. At the same time, we have to have real respect for the rules.”

Over the past fourteen years, O’Donnell has also come to terms with the conflict that troubled him throughout his early days in the industry: how to reconcile doing good with making money. The idea may induce a few eye rolls, but it’s a classic case of Irish guilt – feeling bad about being successful and wanting to do something to atone.

When he returned to finance from the seminary, he realized that it is possible to make money and do good, and that in fact, one can help out considerably with the other. “Let’s be honest,” he said, “in addition to the people who are out in the field, the world needs people to write checks and make donations, people to get involved, and that’s part of why I respect my colleagues on Wall Street so much – for all the good work that they do.”

Though he described himself as “a small fry” in comparison, Jim’s philanthropy and generosity are very notable. Each year he sponsors a number of scholarships that allow kids from underprivileged areas to attend Catholic schools. “A dear friend of mine, Joanne O’Brien, who has worked with many Catholic schools on Long Island, convinced me it was an important thing to do,” he said. “I give the scholarships anonymously, but you get letters from these kids and their stories are just unbelievable. Many of them come from challenged homes, or have a parent who died or lost their job and the whole family is struggling to get by. Then you see the kids go through high school and some of them get full scholarships to great colleges. I’m okay with them not knowing who I am – it’s a change a life, change the world type of thing.”

Thanks to his friend Buzzy Geduld, CEO of Cougar Trading and former partner in the legendary Wall Street trading house Herzog Heine Geduld, O’Donnell became involved with the Friar’s Club, the fraternal group for comedy and the arts (and host of the hilarious celebrity roasts) in New York. “I love it there!” he said with delight. “It kind of fits with my personality – it’s irreverent, it can be bawdy at times, and they have this phrase: ‘We only roast the ones we love.’ It means we can all make fun of each other, but we’re also totally accepting.”

O’Donnell is on the board of the Friar’s Foundation, the club’s charitable arm, and in 2012 was named Friar of the Year for his work with The Gift of Laughter program, which brings comedy to wounded veterans and their families. When we spoke, he had also recently been elected to the club’s board of governors.

“The Friars strike a good balance,” he reflected, “and I hope I do too. I aim to be both someone who works hard and someone who’s fun. “One of the things I respect so much about my faith, my family history and heritage,” he continued, “is that the Irish diaspora has done so much for the world and particularly the United States and New York. Whether they were politicians or nuns or cops or firemen or on Wall Street [O’Donnell has all of the above in his family] they had to work hard to set up roots in this country. But they did it all with this tremendous exuberance for life that’s been key to everything.”