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Adela Cepeda: The Billion Dollar Woman

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Get ready to toast.  Adela Cepeda is about to make history. As early as this summer, the founder of A.C. Advisory expects to reach the $100 billion mark in bond deals.  That’s right. One. Hundred. Billion. Dollars.

Behind this astonishing figure lies a tale of effort worth several times that amount. The tale of a little girl who emigrated from Colombia to New York with her parents, and who grew up to be a true giant among the movers and the shakers of Wall Street and Chicago finance, commanding respect and inspiring others along the way.

Ms. Cepeda is a woman in finance. What you would call high finance, as in the highest caliber finance you’ll find on Wall Street and in the stock market. Because she deals in transactions ranging from the $100 millions to multi-billions, large figures tend to dance around in her head. Over time, the dance has come to be second-nature for this Colombian-born, Harvard educated professional.

“There comes a point where the numbers are so large that you almost have to cut off the zeros at the end, just to keep them in order,” Ms. Cepeda explains with a smile.

Ms. Cepeda founded A.C. Advisory, Inc., a municipal advisory firm, 17 years ago. Under her leadership, the firm is now ranked among the “Top Ten” financial advisories in the nation, and is expected this summer to reach $100 billion mark in transactions.

However, Ms. Cepeda prefers to point out the “positive impact” of the deals on the communities involved, rather than to focus on any single sum “regardless of how high it may be.”

“The most important thing is the positive impact I am making on the communities, and on individuals within those communities. Usually, the deals we’re structuring go to improve roads, build bridges, airports, aqueducts, re-model schools, or to fund programs in which numerous corporations participate,” explains Ms. Cepeda.

Ms. Cepeda, an economics major with an MBA from the University of Chicago, is an expert at analyzing bond sale structures, a skill she began 32 years ago when she graduated from Harvard and took a position at Smith Barney, one of the nation’s leading financial firms. There she moved up the ranks of the corporate finance department. As vice president of mergers and acquisition, Ms. Cepeda calculated complex corporate valuations, and managed large stock and bond transactions.

With all this experience under her belt, in 1995, Ms .Cepeda decided to take a huge leap forward by opening her own firm, A.C. Advisory Inc. (so named for her initials). “My first clients were City of Chicago and Cook County. The mayor at the time, Richard M. Daley, asked us to help them in funding bonds for the city, and that’s how we started building our experience in this business.”

And that’s how Ms. Cepeda entered into the world of financial advisory, where working up to 13-hour days, seven days a week, sometimes up to six weeks at a time, non-stop is commonplace.

Thanks to the passion and energy she brought to what she describes as “the only thing I know, my professional world” the firm gained some heavyweight clients, among them the City of New York, and the States of New York, Connecticut and Illinois.

Ms. Cepeda’s main role as financial advisor is to help municipalities structure “the most attractive and cost-effective bond financing deals.” She advises on all aspects of the deal, from the maturity date of the bonds, the interest rate, the buyers, and even how the bonds should be marketed so they are well received in the market.  Often, in her zeal to sell and implement the transactions, she becomes the client’s right hand.

Ms. Cepeda is quick to credit the success of her firm, which generates between $1 to $2.5 million in annual sales, to a team of highly skilled professionals. “I have a great team who not only bring ideas, but are able to analyze and evaluate other people’s ideas,” she explains.

Ms. Cepeda’s well known experience has landed her on several mutual funds boards, including UBS, Morgan Stanley and Mercer Global Investments. She feels this reflects her coming full circle in her career, not only as an entrepreneur but also as a corporate director.

The entrepreneur laments that there are so few Latinos in the financial advisory business, and in the finance industry in general.  “Perhaps math can be a bit intimidating to some,” she explains. “It isn’t to me. I feel comfortable telling a client: ‘with this $470 million funding you can save $12 million.’ I feel really good when I quantify what the impact of my recommendations can bring to a project.”

“Latinos need to have a better understanding of capitalism. When we come to this country, we become part of its capitalist society. So it’s essential that we grasp numbers, and what’s being added or subtracted,” Ms. Cepeda added. Ms. Cepeda came to the U.S. at the age of six with her parents, and recalls that in the early days she would cry because she didn’t know enough English to do her homework. That changed quickly, and soon Ms. Cepeda was excelling in school.

Her professional achievements notwithstanding, Ms. Cepeda insists her greatest pride rests in her three daughters: Alexis, also a Harvard grad, who works as an investment banker in New York; Alicia, a graduate of Brown University and currently a digital project manager for President Obama’s re-election campaign; and Laura, the youngest, a student at Duke. Ms. Cepeda’s husband, Albert Maule, died of cancer when Laura was only four, leaving Ms. Cepeda to raise their girls alone.

Everything Ms. Cepeda has achieved in her career stems from the responsibility she feels toward her daughters. “I told myself that I couldn’t fail them. I focused on being there for them, in every sense of the word, just as my parents were for me.”

This article was published in 2012 by Negocios Now. Actually Adela has made over 120,000 million in transactions.

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