Northern Trust Asset Management President Shundrawn Thomas is being honored by ThinkAdvisor’s new LUMINARIES recognition program.
Thomas spoke with ThinkAdvisor recently about how he got started in his career and what diversity and inclusion mean to both him and to the firm today.
In the interview, the Chicago-based executive — who earlier worked at Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley — also highlights the importance of mentorship, sponsorship and “allyship” on his career path, as well as the latest developments at Northern Trust’s minority brokers program.
When did your work, including Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, at Northern Trust Asset Management start, and what does this effort mean to you and for the industry?
I’m in my 18th year with Northern Trust. Shortly after joining, I went into a senior leadership role, and I’ve had the privilege of leading different businesses for an extended period. In terms of my role in asset management, I’ve been on the executive team for 13 years.
The aim of diversity, equity and inclusion has always been important to me. It’s almost indistinguishable from how I think about my responsibility as a leader. I have a strong conviction and, like others in the marketplace, believe that … when you have diverse perspectives and people who bring diverse backgrounds and skill sets, you get better solutions in business.
People like to talk about “the business case for diversity.” I would just simply say, “It’s just good business.” I would add that we all also benefit from it by becoming not only better professionals, but better people. That’s always been part of it.
Now, the events over the last 18 months have created an atmosphere that has brought more awareness and focus to this dialogue. I have used my position, or my platform, to bring perspectives that I have and that reflect … things I’ve done on a consistent basis in my day-to-day leadership.
How about NTAM’s Minority Brokerage Program? Could you describe your involvement and some details?
It’s a clear example of some things we seek to do from a business standpoint in order to be a good partner in the marketplace and to help advance opportunities among diverse companies and in diversity [overall].
As for minority brokers in our industry, there’s been a minority brokers program in existence for some time at Northern Trust Asset Management. In fact, we started our program in 2007. I’ve had the opportunity to work with our leadership team on this … since I transitioned into the role of president in 2017.
After looking in depth at the program, we decided to allocate or target 10% of our overall trading for certain commingled funds to be executed by minority-owned brokerage firms in 2018. In exceeding that goal over the ensuing two years, we were able to increase the amount of business that we did with those minority brokerage firms by about four-fold.
Earlier this year, we increased that target from 10% to 15%, deepening our commitment.
We looked at this as a business imperative. When you put a goal or target on something, you’re generally going to have a much better, bigger impact and a much greater probability of achieving success. It’s important for firms to take steps like this.
When the program began, we had seven firms. We have 11 firms that are part of our program today. It includes ethnically diverse-owned firms and veteran-owned firms, women-owned firms and firms owned by disabled individuals. All of those categories are represented.
When we do business with these firms, we want it to be meaningful. There’s a process that we have through which every 18 months firms can apply to be in the program. We want to select a group of firms we can partner with in a meaningful way.
How did you get started in financial services?
When I was in high school, I knew I wanted to be in business. I went to a magnet high school where I got exposed to economics and accounting. I was fortunate. I then did my undergraduate studies at Florida A&M University’s School of Business & Industry, which is a tremendous program.
Dr. Sybil Mobley was dean of the business school. She was ahead of her time and gave us a lot of exposure early on to internships and relevant course work in business. To this day, I look fondly on her legacy, because I think the educational development that I got there positioned me well to move into my career. I did my last internship with Morgan Stanley, that’s where and when I got into financial services — formerly as an intern and then full time as an analyst.
I went on to do my MBA at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, at which time I was a fellow of the Robert Toigo Foundation. Receiving the Toigo fellowship meant not only that you received financial support, you also became part of this large supportive network with mentors who are extraordinarily talented, and you met individuals of ethnically diverse backgrounds who were going into financial services. Early on in my career, this gave me an incredible foundation to have success going forward.
I’m a big supporter of all levels of education. For example, I spent eight years serving on the foundation board of Florida A&M and am still very much engaged with it through contact with the senior administration and members of both the trustee board and the foundation board.