The Colgate Scene
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|A woman on the move|
|by John D. Hubbard|
Gwendolyn Smith Iloani manages her own company, cares for three boys and volunteers within her community and for alma mater.
"I'm connected to both," Gwendolyn Smith Iloani '77 says when asked if her
middle name has anything to do with Smith Whiley, the Hartford, Connecticut
investment firm where she is founder and primary owner.
"Smith is my father and Whiley, with an H, is my grandfather." We are off and running on a rainy afternoon that manages to contain both spirited conversation and a sense of serenity.
"I kept the Iloani [from a marriage in the '80s] because it's different, a good ice breaker. Is it Italian? Is it Hawaiian? It's actually Nigerian, and I-loan-I -- I loan money."
The name game continues. "Smith Whiley sounds solid, as if it has been in business a long time and makes lots of money." The moniker wasn't, however, Iloani's first choice.
"I was going to use Onyx -- the black precious stone." But the week before the company was legally formed there was a front page story in the Wall Street Journal about the chairman and CEO of the Onyx Financial Group, who was arrested for fraud.
Even with black furniture ordered and marketing materials already mocked up, onyx didn't seem like such a good idea anymore. Someone suggested to Iloani, who is Jamaican, Montego Investments would be good.
"Are you kidding?" she recalls, the inappropriateness still raising her voice.
"I came up with Brownstone -- rich and abundant in New England." The Smith Whiley idea surfaced while she was jogging with a friend. "It sounds like a bunch of white guys in their 70s who have made a lot of money." The name stuck.
That was in May of 1994. For the past six-and-a-half years Smith Whiley & Company has proved its mettle as an investment advisory firm that specializes in the alternative investment asset class (private equity, venture capital and mezzanine debt investments) nationwide. Aetna Inc. was a founding investor and initially owned one-third of the company. In 1996, the firm bought Aetna out and is now owed primarily by Iloani.
With headquarters in Hartford, Smith Whiley also has an office in Chicago. The firm is currently setting up a west coast office in the Bay Area.
A range of industries
The firm uses a proprietary investment model and blends experience with innovation in structuring, making and managing investments. One of the first deals that the firm invested in was $5 million in financing for a company based in North Dakota that provides genetic breeding and management services to the agribusiness sector. The company is the 17th-largest pig producer in the U.S. and is the exclusive franchisee of a low-fat breed of pigs. The animals are sold under long-term contracts to large corporations that use the pigs to produce high quality pork products.
In August, Smith Whiley invested $7.5 million in a company based in Washington state that provides fiber-optic communications infrastructure and recently invested $10 million in a Pennsylvania manufacturer and bottler of all-natural pasteurized waters, teas and fruit juices.
Iloani's climb to the leadership of her own company was steady, even spectacular.
"I came to this country when I was six," says Iloani. "My father always talked about how the streets were paved with gold. What he meant was opportunity."
There were eight children in the family growing up in Brooklyn. The boys all went to private schools, while Gwen's father felt public education was just fine for the girls.
"I spent a long time proving him wrong," says Iloani, who used scholarships, loans and a job in the library to finance her Colgate education. In her junior year in high school she had been one of six students from New York City to study at Stanford for a semester, but she felt she could still develop independence and be closer to home. Colgate was the answer.
Her Colgate career
Interested in graduate school and accepted at NYU, Iloani looked at her $4,000 student loan debt ("I thought it was a ton of money") and took a job as a math analyst at New York Life instead. After a year she moved to Connecticut Mutual as a management trainee. She completed the three-year program in a year ("I move quickly").
By 1980 Iloani was moving again, this time to Aetna. She was also pursuing the MBA she had deferred.
"I was a straight-A student at the University of Hartford. I like learning. I was telling the teacher, though, `Hey, this doesn't work. That's not how you do it.'"
While studying theory, Iloani was excelling at Aetna, moving rapidly up the real world ladder, from utilities, banking and finance to defense, healthcare and communications.
"I picked up a lot of different exposures. In 15 years I invested $4 billion for Aetna. I made them a lot of money." The company noticed, too. When, in 1994, Iloani decided to strike out on her own, Aetna invested $2.5 million in her firm as a one-third partner. In two years she bought out that interest. She has been married to Smith Whiley and is the driving force that has the firm well on its way to a multibillion-dollar portfolio.
"I like my job. I like to analyze. I like to invest money. I like to look at a company, tear it apart and see what can be done. People view me as a woman dealing with investments -- which many people still consider to be a man's business -- this helps to inspire other women and minorities. Frankly, I don't mind being a role model."
Life and career took a dramatic turn a year ago, however, when Iloani's baby sister Jaleith died of leukemia at age 36.
"She had moved in with me during chemotherapy and the bone marrow transplant and she begged me to raise her three boys."
The twins, Brandon and Bryan, turned three in November and Corey is seven.
"My sister knew what she was doing. She saw I was caught up in the firm and she left me a present," says Iloani, who now makes time for soccer practices, karate lessons and all the other varying joys and demands of motherhood.
Actually, Iloani, remarkably, finds time for volunteer work within the community and sits on a number of boards.
"When the opportunity came to serve on Colgate's Board of Trustees I saw it as a way to give back. I hadn't been back to campus since graduation and I was shocked by the growth and development. I'm looking forward to contributing to maintaining the campus and continuing to build on the traditions."
Gwendolyn Smith Iloani moves about the offices of Smith Whiley, the firm she has created and nurtured, and it is a testament.
"We always knew our parents sacrificed for us so we would have a better life, and when I think of all they did I knew I had to do something. I'm focused and driven, whether it's investing in a company, doing community outreach or helping to raise three boys. It seems natural."
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