VOL. 132 | NO. 229 | Friday, November 17, 2017
Collins Leaving as City's Chief Financial Officer
By Bill Dries
City of Memphis chief financial officer Brian Collins is leaving the post he’s held for the last five years across two mayoral administrations to become executive director of the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund, Collins announced Friday, Nov. 17. He is leaving City Hall in January and starts his new job Jan. 8.
The IMRF is the second largest statewide public pension fund in Illinois. Collins was selected by the IMRF board of trustees and succeeds retiring executive director Louis W. Kosiba.
“It’s been interesting, difficult and rewarding thing I have ever done bar none,” Collins told The Daily News Friday morning, about his time at City Hall. “Eventually I knew I was going to move on to something else. I’ve long wanted to take on a position where I would be the leader of an organization. That was a personal goal of mine and the opportunity finally came along.”
City chief operating officer Doug McGowen will assume Collins’ specific duties on an interim basis with no additional pay during the interim period.
Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland said Collins’ departure was a surprise but praised Collins for a financial trajectory in the last five years in which the city’s debt is lower, revenues are up, the city’s bond rating is higher and the city’s financial position is positive.
“I’m happy for Brian and sad for Memphis,” Strickland said. “I really appreciate the work he has done.”
Strickland said the job will be posted and there will be some kind of search, likely not a national search and not a search where the city hires a search firm to come up with a list of finalists.
“Brian epitomizes the mayor’s desire to be brilliant at the basics,” McGowen said. “We are in the position we are in because of Brian Collins. Debts are down, reserves and revenues are up, we’re meeting all of our obligations and we have a strong credit rating. That is firm footing for a city that is on the rise.”
McGowen has worked closely with Collins and said the staffs of the two offices should be able to fill the gap between CFOs.
“To use a Navy term, I am going to keep the ship in the middle of the channel," he said. “Finance and operations are tied at the hip. There is nothing that I do that I didn’t consult with him first. There is nothing he did that he didn't consult me. We are tied together. It’s going to be a loss for our city.”
Collins came to City Hall in September 2012 as finance director for then-mayor A C Wharton months into Wharton’s full four-year term as mayor. It was his first job in government. It was also at the depths of the greatest national recession since the Great Depression.
Collins was the administration’s point person and the public face of city government’s financial crisis that came to a head in late 2013 with a Tennessee Comptroller’s office report critical of how the city was handling its unfunded pension liability. The Tennessee Legislature followed with legislation requiring the city to fully fund the liability over a five-year ramp up period.
“(Wharton) was searching for someone outside that would have a different perspective on how to solve what were then some pretty unexpected problems,” Collins said of the crisis that hit not long after he settled in at City Hall. “I didn’t appreciate how monumental they were. ... My first six months were quite enlightening. ... I think quite honestly, looking back on it, my lack of experience probably was a benefit because I didn’t have any preconceived notions about how we would solve the problems that we had. I think we did a great job of turning things around.”
But the crisis was a searing experience for those new to City Hall and veterans of City Hall. City Council members including Strickland questioned the administration's numbers, financial outlook and past decisions -- even hiring their own actuarial consultants.
In many ways, Collins was still adapting to his first government job after a career in the private sector with time as an attorney and in the financial and banking sector.
Collins came to the finance director’s position from being interim president and CEO of the Postal Employees Credit Union and senior vice president and general manager of bank card services for First Horizon National Corp. before that. Collins resume also includes being vice president of national direct marketing at Citigroup and vice president of bank card operations and marketing segment manager for JP Morgan Chase.
And in the initial transition to City Hall, Collins now admits he took the view that “the rules that apply in the private sector can be brought over and applied to government to make it work the way the private sector works.”
“What I’ve learned since I’ve been here is there are definitely things that you can bring with you from the private sector to help maybe things work a little better technically. But government is definitely not the private sector,” Collins said. “There is a cost to democracy. It can look like inefficiency. But what it really it is is the democratic process. And at first I was very frustrated by that.”
And he says initially he saw all of the discussion and delays for data and renewed discussions followed by more delays to answer more questions as “a waste.”
“In fact it was time and money well spent. But you don’t realize that until you get in and see things from the inside -- that things take longer than you might otherwise think they should,” Collins said. “But it’s only to be sure that every voice that needs to be heard is heard and at the end of the day you get a better buy-in from the whole community. I didn’t appreciate that as much then as I do now.”
With a departure date from City Hall next month, Collins said he recommends those from the private sector spend some time working in or get some exposure to the public sector. He said they would find government is much more complex and does many more things that a corporation or company does.
“I would encourage more people to come in and take their hand at this because it is incredibly rewarding work to do,” he said. “But I think they too will find that government works very differently and there is a very good reason for that. A lot of voices have to be heard. It’s not like a privately-held corporation where there is this very top down sort of structure and plus in the private sector companies tend to do one thing.”
When Strickland took office in January 2016, he changed Collin’s title to chief financial officer and reappointed Collins as part of a realignment of division directors into what is known as a “c-suite” system – a structure that is common in corporations.
It is Collins' combined banking and public sector experience that IMRF board president Sue Stanish cited in the board's decision to hire Collins.
“He has worked at the highest levels of both municipal government and the private sector; he has a background in both finance and the law; he has experience successfully partnering with external stakeholders, including politicians and the media; and he knows public pensions,” she said.