Kelly Coffey has always loved learning.
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When she went off to Lafayette College in Easton, Penn., though, she wasn’t exactly sure where she wanted her degree to help her land. What she did know is she wanted to run a business.
Coffey just didn’t anticipate it would be running several different kinds of businesses within American banking giant JPMorgan Chase (JPM).
Now, 25 years after taking her first position within the company, the CEO of JPMorgan’s U.S. Private Bank says it’s an industry she’s come to love because of its ability to always present new learning opportunities.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in international affairs and French, Coffey went on to earn her master of science in foreign service. Her thought process at the time was to study what she loved and figure out after graduation how to translate it into a career she loved equally as much.
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After wrapping up her college career, Coffey set out to figure out what to do with the rest of her life, and found the answer in the most unexpected place.
“I never intended to be a banker,” she said. “I thought instead of doing an MBA, which is more typical, it would be more interesting to go to Wall Street for the hard-core finance skills. And then after that, I thought, I could pick where I’d go next.”
Coffey ended up accepting a job with JPMorgan in mergers and acquisitions in 1989.
“I didn’t even know the Microsoft ticker symbol when I started on the trading floor. That’s how I got myself ramped up and became an expert in converts.”
It just so happened that the Wall Street stepping stone she thought she’d landed on, was actually the threshold of a lifelong career.
But the surprise didn’t end there: That first job with JPMorgan took her to Buenos Aries, Argentina where she would stay for six years working in M&A.
“It was one of my favorite parts of my career,” Coffey said. “It was a little overwhelming to learn another language and to learn the business, but it was really exciting.”
She was the only American in her office, but she found the learning process to be compelling enough to keep her there for so many years…and enough to convince her then-boyfriend, now husband, to stay in Argentina longer. What she loved most was the pace of the action she got to experience while working in South America during Argentina’s “golden time,” as she calls it.
“They had the president, it was [Carlos] Menem at that time, and [Domingo] Cavallo was the finance minister, who in my eyes was just a rock star because he really brought stability to the country. And we [JPMorgan] just did incredible transactions,” she said. “It was like watching international affairs unroll in front of my eyes.”
Though it wasn’t the career she thought she’d keep, it was one that turned into the perfect fit, mirroring the ideas and concepts she’d studied in school.
“I found that my degree was really useful even though I had to learn how to value a company, and model a company in hyperinflation, which is pretty challenging,” she noted, referring to a period in which Argentina experienced rapid price growth.
Toward the end of her time in South America, Coffey faced a decision: Stay in Argentina, or come back to the U.S.
At that point in the company’s history, Coffey said if you worked on the banking side, you did it in the nation you were working in to make deals happen, but if you were on the execution side, more than likely, you worked in New York. At that stage in her career, she could either decide to continue on as a banker for another five years in Buenos Aries, or come back to America.
So Coffey compromised: She moved back to the U.S., but as she put it, practically lived on a plane bouncing between the two nations for meetings.
Widening the Lens from Micro to Macro
Not long after the move back to the States, Coffey vividly recalls sitting on the subway train on her morning commute, reading the Wall Street Journal.
“The story talked about a massive move in the S&P 500, and I thought about how I was building my model to value XYZ Company, but I had no idea what was going on in the real world because I was so involved in my one project,” she said.
It was then she decided to make an a-typical career move: She went to sell-side convertible bonds.
“I had a strong background in math, so instead of going into equity capital markets, this was a way to learn about the market and be there,” she explained.
Though a smart move to help Coffey diversify her career experience, it wasn’t without its challenges.
“I didn’t even know the Microsoft (MSFT) ticker symbol when I started on the trading floor,” she said with a laugh. “That’s how I got myself ramped up and became an expert in converts.”
From there, she moved again to become the head of Equity, FX and Interest Rate Derivatives Marketing at the firm. During her tenure in that position, she said she helped turn what was an about $10 million business into a more than $200 million business for JPMorgan.
If there’s one thing Coffey has learned throughout her 26 years in the industry, it’s that change is inevitable. And it’s a phenomenon she said, to work in this business, you really have to love.
“I like the element of surprise, not knowing what’s going to happen the next day,” she said. “The jobs are hard 24-7 but you build skills as you go.”
She points to that experience on the trading floor when a convert trader balked that she didn’t know individual company ticker symbols, and certain conversions off the cuff. But she refused to take it as intimidation.
“You need a certain amount of self-confidence to say, ‘I don’t know how to do this now, but I can get it,’” she said. “I looked at him and said, ‘Okay, well you don’t speak Spanish and I do.’”
A Woman on the Street
Being a woman in the male-dominated world that is Wall Street has never been a fact Coffey has devoted much time and attention to, or felt disadvantaged by.
“When I came into JPMorgan, I was always learning something,” she said. “I was lucky enough to work for someone who would reward you for learning that skill and be the best at what you were doing. And I think that has continued.”
Armed with her success and the lessons she’s learned through her more than two decades in finance, she said she has a unique opportunity to help women in the industry work through some of the same hurdles she faced.
During her time on the investment bank side of the firm, Coffey chaired the Women’s Network, a grassroots movement involving senior women who would act as sponsors for younger-ranking women in the organization. The idea wasn’t to promote those individuals simply because of their gender, but help push them in the right direction to learn the right skills for the areas they wanted to pursue.
In addition to that movement, Coffey also works alongside Marianne Lake, JPMorgan’s chief financial officer; Mary Erdoes, the head of asset management, and other senior-ranking women at the firm in a group called Women on the Move. The idea is to connect with women in the firm at locations around the world, and ask the simple question, ‘How’s life at JPMorgan as a woman?’
“People look at JPMorgan from the outside and think it’s just a bank. But it’s a bank that does a lot of different things…Some of it was just educating women about how they go about building their connections to think about what they want their career aspirations to be…and I think we were able to help them do that,” Coffey said. “We’re more than half female at JPMorgan, and while that narrows a bit at the top, I think we’re in really good shape compared to other companies I see.”
Coffey continued, explaining when someone is new to an organization, there’s pressure to fit in, conform, and morph into the same mold everyone else fits. But she said it’s the opposite that’s true.
“[The industry] has changed,” she said. “When you started in ’89, you felt like you had to be in a mold, dress a certain way, you never wore pants, you wore stockings and a skirt. One managing director I had wore pants, and that was daring. Now, I think the industry allows you to express yourself much more…you don’t have to fit in. You have to be yourself because that’s where you shine.”
She said once the industry started to evolve, and her with it, that’s when her career really gained traction, and helped her take the path to become the prominent leader she is today.