Nuveen CEO on why corporate awakening on race is no fad

Nuveen CEO on why corporate awakening on race is no fad

May 10, 2021

NEW YORK — Jose Minaya grew up in New York City, the child of immigrants from the Dominican Republic whose biggest involvement with the financial system was a savings account. Now, he’s CEO of Nuveen, the investment arm of TIAA that has more than $1 trillion spread across stocks, real estate and other assets around the world.

As CEO, he’s pushing to bring in a more diverse workforce at Nuveen, and he says the great awakening on race companies have undergone over the last year will only continue. He spoke with The Associated Press recently about what it was like to take the CEO job just as the pandemic swept the world and whether he’s worried about bubbles in the stock market. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Nuveen has a history of investing with an eye toward the environment, social issues and corporate governance. Now that it’s a huge trend sweeping the industry, are you worried some funds may offer “ESG” investments without buying into the ethos?

A: Less and less. The narrative has changed to where people look at climate change and diversity issues, and they see it clearly impacting bottom lines. When you see wildfires and natural disasters, it’s easy to see the long list of companies that lost value because of that, and maybe you could have avoided some of those stocks.

Q: After George Floyd’s murder, companies are expected to voice their opinions on race and other social issues much more than before. Do you see this being just a fad?

A: This is not a fad. This is a real thing. If anything, the voices are going to get louder. CEOs and leaders are going to have to get better at talking about this.

A lot of us, we are not trained on this. I am a person of color and a leader, and these are not things you talked about on your soapbox. These are not things you engaged with your employees.

But what we realized through this past year is that for our employees, for retaining our talent, for engaging our talent, this was extremely important to them. And our clients, as well.

Q: How did you talk about it?

A: One of the most powerful things I’ve seen in my career is when we decided to hold “Courageous Conversations,” (a program in which former TIAA CEO) Roger Ferguson engaged the employee base with issues of his life. I did as well. It encouraged employees to share their own stories. The hairs went up on the back of my neck as I heard the stories. You saw the power of that and the need, that we should be out there, giving our views, because it’s important to every single one of our employees.

Q: What did talking about race do for your employees?

A: The most important thing that we’ve seen: Our employees are more empowered. We saw it with the Asian American community. Our employees spoke out about wanting to hear how their leaders were thinking (as reports of violence against the group soared). That would not have happened two years ago. Once people feel empowered, they’re not ready to go back, and they shouldn’t.

Q: But do you think other CEOs would say the same thing?

A; There’s one thing that all my peers and competitors alike all understand: talent. We understand our business is worth only the talent that we can hire. If your firm is not doing this well, you’re not going to get the talent coming to you.

Our industry understands the war for talent, whether it’s this, whether you give employees access to a gym, whether you can give them opportunities to give back to the community.

This shift wasn’t happening because there was an awakening of CEOs. No, there was an awakening of your everyday employee. There was an awakening of your clients. When that voice gets loud, only the good firms that adjust to that survive.

Q: So what kind of actual changes does that mean?

A: We created a (diversity and inclusion) council and staffed it with the senior-most people at our firm. We engaged in courageous conversations. We changed our policies in how we hire. We are getting talent that’s better than before, we’re getting access to a better pool, and it’s just the beginning.

Q: And you have numbers already to show it’s making a difference to the bottom line?

A: We have hired a lot of people at Nuveen in the last six months. The diversity numbers have gone up. If you look at performance — investments and financial — it has been strong. Turnover for us is very low. Now, it’s a pandemic, and there are also other variables driving this. But as I told my board: Good performance? I’ll take it, even though we measure in five-year increments, not 12 months. Higher productivity, even though it’s a shorter period of time? I’ll take it. Lower turnover? Same.

Q: You took over as CEO in January 2020, just as the pandemic was exploding. What a welcome.

A: For me, I embraced becoming a CEO coming into a pandemic. Many people said, “How unfortunate,” but I said, “What better time for leadership to shine?” And you’re going to be judged by your clients, your stakeholders and your employees. Yes, you held your breath. We made the decision pretty early, especially relative to the industry, that we’re sending everyone to work from home globally. Even though we had contingency plans, audits and simulations, no one really knew.

Q: Many people are worried the stock market has shot too high and that a bubble is about to burst. Are you?

A: I don’t see concerns for bubbles broadly today. You can look at equity markets and say they’re fairly valued. Something behind it is pent-up demand.

I use China as an example. We own about five retail real estate outlets in China, including one in Wuhan. What we saw as that market started opening up — ahead of the Western world — was that sales in some of our outlet malls were up over 70% year over year. There was that concept of a “revenge economy.”

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