The hard finality of mathematical calculations. The life-saving ministrations of a medical doctor. The warm and magical embrace of Spanish literature. The exhilaration of musical performance.
These were the considerations that fired the imagination of a young Kristen Bitterly as she completed her high school years and prepared to head to South Bend, Indiana, to enroll at Notre Dame and join the ranks of the Fighting Irish.
It was a suitable choice for the young Ms. Bitterly, the product of an Irish Catholic family with dashes of Germanic and Austrian influences sharing the bloodstream. What wasn’t so congruous was Bitterly’s ice-and-fire decision to double-major in economics and Spanish literature.
“I was always drawn to the Spanish language. I started classes, even though we don’t have any ties or Latin blood in my family,” explains Bitterly, who now trades under the name Kristen Bitterly Michell, head of North America investments at Citi Global Wealth. The practical part of my brain remembered the econ and math classes I loved in high school. I decided that Spanish language and literature were my passion and econ was going to be my practical major, but I actually ended up falling in love with both of them.”
If Spanish lit was to win this contest of passions, Bitterly fancied herself a Spanish literature professor. If economics won the day, a career in some aspect of finance was a foregone conclusion. Her notions of studying pre-med had already been set aside, as were her musical aspirations, simply because her piano playing and songwriting skills were not nearly sufficient for becoming the next Billy Joel or Elton John.
“I’m shooting for the stars here,” she concedes. “You don’t want to do it modestly.”
And yet, Bitterly was nothing if not pragmatic. She did internships at the U.S. embassy in Madrid, where she put her Spanish language skills to work, and a summer service project in Tucson working with the local border community.
As her collegiate years advanced, she headed to the Notre Dame Center for Career Development and applied for various programs focused on her areas of study. One was an opportunity created by First Chicago, and later bought by Bank One and renamed Bank One Scholars, seeking to recruit liberal arts majors into financial services (the notion being that liberal arts majors possessed the communication, writing and critical thinking skills that resulted in strong financial-service outcomes). It was a multiyear program offering participants six-month rotations in different areas of finance, such as M&A, retail banking, sales and trading, and so on. Bitterly decided to pick the most intimidating rotation she could find: derivatives.
“Once I realized derivatives were simply statistics with a different vernacular, I started to make sense of all of the terminology,” she recalls. “It was like learning another language, and once I learned that language, it was actually pretty intuitive and really interesting. These are very creative building blocks, and I became fascinated with the strategies you could create, how you could hold an asset and hedge it, how you could create custom risk/return profiles. I found this a creative part of finance that challenged me.”
A career was born.
WINDY CITY TO THE BIG APPLE
During her early days at Bank One, working under the leadership of CEO Jamie Dimon, a few things dawned on Bitterly. One was that she was good at finance and the career outlook was bright. Two was that she was good at communicating with her fellow staffers and client investors — including the ability to synthesize complex information into simple terms. Three was that she was having a love affair with the city of Chicago.
“First of all, it’s an aesthetically stunning city. The architecture is incredible,” she says. “And it was a formative time in my career and personal life, where I was walking from The Loop to go to classes at Kellogg, just off Michigan Avenue. I have very fond memories, and I am absolutely a deep-dish pizza person. I mean, Chicago is not a place to go on a diet.”
On the deep-dish front, she is quick to cite her partiality to Lou Malnati’s, founded by the son of Rudy Malnati, who was instrumental in developing the recipe for Chicago-style pizza, and has since become one of Chicago’s best-known pizza makers.
Her time at Bank One also sparked a flesh-and-blood love affair when she met Alejandro Michell, an expatriate from Mexico who would eventually become her husband and refashion her name into the compound Kristen Bitterly Michell. They worked on the same floor, though for different teams. The two came to know one another in that classic boy-meets-girl storyline.
Alas, the Windy City experience came to a fairly abrupt end when, during the early days of 2004, Bitterly Michell and the rest of the Bank One staff received news that J.P. Morgan Chase was buying the organization in a $58 billion deal that would eventually close on July 1 of that year. The acquisition meant that select positions would be relocated to New York City.
Her tenure at J.P. Morgan proved brief, as she soon took a role at Credit Suisse selling derivatives and structured products to Latin American banks and broker/dealers, a post that required extensive travel, including to Miami and Mexico.
“I found a way to put my Spanish to work,” she says, “even though it wasn’t via Spanish literature. I would say it was a competitive advantage.”
Bitterly Michell was raised in Danville, Pa., population 4,000. Though her parents were both New Yorkers, they ended up in rural Pennsylvania, in a town that, surprisingly, was home to the nationally renowned Geisinger Medical Center, bringing a bracing level of diversity for a tiny hamlet.
During childhood, sports was one of the means she used to capture the time and attention of her father, who worked long hours. She engaged him in basketball and golf, or even yard work.
“I would do anything to try to hang out with him and get his attention when he was out of work.”
Bitterly Michell competed on the tennis and swim teams throughout her high school years, and still finds ways to exercise daily, even if just for the mental sanity. That being said, tennis has always been her “passion sport.”
One of the prime bits of career advice imparted to Bitterly Michell came, interestingly enough, from her high school tennis coach Mary Rea Pippa, who advised: No one cares more about your career then you do.
“I know that sounds kind of extreme, but the idea is that you can’t outsource your career to someone else, even though you may have mentors and sponsors, ultimately it is up to you to really be an advocate for yourself and to map out what you hope to achieve,” she says. “You have to make time to manage your career and to plan and to advocate and not leave it up to chance or someone else.”
Bitterly Michell embraced that advice, while also being quick to attribute her successes to the many who have supported her through formal and informal mentoring relationships. She is, however, emphatic about the necessity to plan and act assertively on one’s own behalf.
And that wasn’t the only volley she received from her tennis coach. Addressing the coming-of-age stress being experienced by the young women under her tutelage, Pippa offered this cautionary timetable: When you’re in your 20s you’re always worried about what everyone is saying about you; in your 30s you decide you don’t care what anyone is saying about you; and when you reach your 40s and 50s you realize they were not talking about you in the first place.
“She was an amazing woman,” Bitterly Michell says of Pippa, expounding on her coach’s advice by referencing the anxiety of a golf outing: “I love golf, but I don’t play frequently enough to be very good, and sometimes I will think to myself, ‘I am a terrible golfer, this is so embarrassing, everyone is having a miserable time golfing with me.’ Then you realize at the end of the round the only thing everyone was paying attention to their own play. They weren’t even paying attention to what others were doing, and only remembered the two great shots I had. They would say, ‘Wow, Kris, you are a good golfer!’ I realized that as long as I could squeeze out those two shots, the rest of it can be forgotten.”
In 2007 — right on the brink of the global financial crisis — Citi first hired Bitterly Michell into the markets division to focus on investment strategies for wealth management and was subsequently promoted to head of investment counseling for the east region of North America, a role that put her in charge of investment services for the bank’s ultra-high-net-worth customers.
Having succeeded in her maiden role at Citi, she gravitated upward to the newly created position as head of Americas capital markets in March 2018. American Banker summarized her ascension this way: “Overhauling Citi Private Bank’s capital markets business in the Americas required finding someone who not only had expertise in that sector, but also had the ability to lead a team through a difficult change while growing revenue. The natural pick was Kristen Bitterly. At the time she was in charge of investments in the private bank’s U.S. Eastern region, which was producing year-over-year growth approaching 50 percent. She went to work centralizing a business in which every region and product line was operating independently. … Bitterly powered through. She developed a business plan that focused on diversifying revenue and reducing reliance on top clients. She forged strong internal partnerships across both the technology and operations platforms, and she redefined roles on the team and recruited top talent. The results include a satisfying spike in business, particularly among the most sophisticated types of clients.”
Those experiences led to her current role overseeing the investments business for Citi Global Wealth in North America. This full-time engagement in her passion for investing has not come at the expense of her other passions. Bitterly Michell regularly immerses herself in the metaphorical tales of Spanish literature’s many luminaries, such as Federico Garcia Lorca, Miguel de Unamuno, Octavio Paz and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Though her own dreams of musical virtuosity were never fully realized, husband Alejandro is a skilled classical and jazz guitarist and sometimes fills their Brooklyn home — located a short distance from Citi’s headquarters in the Tribeca district of Manhattan — with harmonics.
There is also the travel, for which Bitterly Michell discovered a penchant during her high school years, lobbying her parents for permission to travel to France as part of an exchange program, as well as to play tennis against foreign competitors.
“Ever since I went abroad for that program, I was trying to find ways of traveling and exploring other cultures.”
More recently, she and her family — which includes their 6- and 9-year-old sons Santiago (Santi) and Ignacio (Iggy) — did a summer 2022 trip to Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Tetons, a sojourn she calls “amazing.” No outside disruptions from cell service, and endless time to hike, ride horses, and swim the parks’ lakes and rivers.
“My boys still talk about this trip,” she says, “waking up early and making breakfast, disconnected from everything else. I actually thought, I can do this for a month. It was remarkable.”
At their Citi offices, Bitterly Michell and her colleagues work their way through the “intense macroeconomic conditions” of the day. She and her colleagues have their sights set on several major investment themes, one of which is digitization. That would include cybersecurity, a tech category with a compelling future. Though its shares were down about 25 percent in 2022 (compared with 33 percent for the Nasdaq), cybersecurity is a requirement of good corporate governance, as well as a must-have product and service for protection of data and intellectual property. Currently, she notes, corporations spend about $250 billion annually — more than double what they spent three years ago — but estimated damages from cyberattacks run anywhere from $2 trillion to $6 trillion.
“This is not going away,” she says. “In fact, it is only going to become more complicated as more of the world has expanded access to the internet and devices.”
Another big investment theme is longevity and healthcare. Though Bitterly Michell acknowledges that category might seem obvious, she points to the durability of its demand in a world where populations are aging and needing to spend more on healthcare services. Additionally, with a lot of concerns on the horizon of economic contractions, healthcare has been a resilient sector that has been able to grow earnings on average of 8 percent per annum even in recessionary environments.
Of special interest are pharmaceutical companies whose patents are expiring and are hunting to acquire biotechnology companies in hopes of replenishing their product pipelines and keeping cashflow brisk — in some cases by targeting specific therapeutics in huge healthcare categories such as cancer, diabetes, obesity and Alzheimer’s disease.
Another exciting frontier occupying Bitterly Michell’s attention is the mRNA technology used to develop and deploy COVID vaccines in record time. That same biomedical technology is believed to be capable of vaccine development for the treatment of cancer and other deadly diseases.
Naturally, execution is everything when it comes to capitalizing on investment opportunities, meaning Bitterly Michell’s recruitment of sterling, young talent will have to march apace. But she has already created a track record for doing exactly that, according to American Banker.
Besides, Kristen Bitterly Michell has a great personal story to share with her prospective recruits, which she distills to a couple of succinct phrases: “It’s an amazing career. I would highly recommend it.”
Mike Consol (firstname.lastname@example.org) is senior editor of Real Assets Adviser. Follow him on Twitter (@mikeconsol) and LinkedIn (linkedIn.com/in/mikeconsol) to read his latest postings.