Barbara and Tom Byrne

Navigating the sometimes troubled, always exciting waters of family, finance, and politics. 

By Donald Gilpin 

Portrait by Andrew Wilkinson

To say that Tom and Barbara Byrne thrive on difficult challenges would be an understatement. With all four children launched—this is the first year since 2006 they haven’t had a son or daughter at Princeton University—the 62-year-old Hun Road couple, whose groundbreaking resumes place them at the top of their professions, might be expected to be looking forward to retirement.

But no. They have other plans.

Having just plunged into the film industry as co-producer and consultant for the popular recent indie film Equity, Barbara has concerns that go far beyond her banking career. In addition to supporting women in the arts, she says, “I care a lot about the next generation. I care tremendously about using the platform I have to advance diversity in thinking. I care about women on boards of major corporations.”

And Tom, founder and CEO of Byrne Asset Management LLC, would love to teach and travel, but first he wants to help tackle New Jersey’s financial problems. At this point he’s not looking to follow in the footsteps of his father, Brendan Byrne, who was New Jersey governor from 1974 to 1982, but he is likely to remain an outspoken, conspicuous presence on the state political scene.

Tom, who was on the short list of Democrats expected to run in next June’s gubernatorial primary, has recently reconsidered his prospects for mounting a campaign. “Given that Democratic county chairmen have united around Phil Murphy,” he says, “it is unlikely that I will run unless there is some late change in circumstances before the filing deadline; but New Jersey politics is full of surprises, so no reason to say absolutely not.”

An authority on finance and policy, respected on both sides of the aisle, Tom is realistic about the challenges of an election campaign. He’s also realistic about the severity and complexity of New Jersey’s financial woes. “I joke around that I have one bad gene,” he says. “And I do have this deep interest in policy and politics and I just feel that New Jersey is at a turning point and somebody’s got to try to fix it.”

Barbara, recently ranked third on American Banker’s annual list of Most Powerful Women in Finance, is vice chairman in the banking division at Barclays Bank, responsible for leading the firm’s global relationships with multinational corporate clients. She is a member of Barclay’s Senior Leadership Group and chairman of Barclay’s Social Innovation Facility, which is dedicated to the development of global commercial solutions to social challenges. She speaks frequently on behalf of women in business, finance and leadership. In 28 years at Lehman Brothers, before moving to Barclays, she was the only woman in the company’s history to rise to the position of vice chairman.

Tom and Barbara Byrne have a long history, individually and together, of focus, perseverance and hard work in achieving success; of gaining power; and of using that power to tackle the toughest, most important challenges.

Tom sees none of the current candidates for governor willing to confront seriously and in depth the state’s budget problems. “I’ve been in the weeds on this issue,” he says, in explaining his plan to address the $45 billion public employees’ pension fund shortfall. “None of this is politically easy, but a lot of this could be done and I don’t see anybody else talking about or pushing or whatever, so I feel that I can elevate the conversation on a lot of these issues. If people want my approach I’m happy to offer it.”

Ready to be his strongest supporter and biggest cheerleader—without neglecting her mission to bring equity to Wall Street to the banking industry and to the movie business—Barbara argues strongly in her husband’s behalf.

“I’ve always thought he has this gift,” she says. “It’s a unique gift. I’ve encouraged him to explore it because we are a team. My having a career that can support the family and ourselves as a team, allows us flexibility at different times. It’s a unique moment where his skill set and his knowledge of the major issues that face the state are significant.”

She continues, “And the one thing I can say about Tom is that he’s in a very sincere place. It’s not about power. It’s not about collecting merit badges.  On Wall Street there are a lot of badge collectors who say, ‘I got this degree. I got that degree. Look what I got,’ but when you get to the Pearly Gates your badges are not going to get you anything. In Tom’s case it is a very sincere and highly educated view of how I can fix this. As someone who thinks systemically, advising major corporations on how to reflect on how you operate in this world, I think in arcs mathematically about what occurs with the momentum of change, and I see the state of New Jersey at a tipping point. It might even be past the tipping point.”

Though New Jersey and its politics may have changed a bit over the past 40 years, of course the ultimate inside source for advice on the job of governing New Jersey is Tom’s father, the 92-year-old ex-governor, after whom his eldest son, Brendan T. “Tom” Byrne Jr. was named. Tom, who worked on both of his father’s gubernatorial campaigns as a Princeton University sophomore in 1973, then a recent graduate in 1977, reflects, “I talk to so many people who say your father and Tom Kean were the last two really good governors, and New Jersey has been going through a rough patch ever since. My father was certainly willing to take on tough questions, where the answers weren’t in soundbites, and I think I have a little bit of that quality.”

His father “feels wary about my position,” Tom says. “He looks at me and says, ‘Politics is dirtier today.’ He’s wary. He thinks the problems are tougher. But my attitude is, I think I’m more of a risk taker than he was. When I buy a stock for someone, I don’t have a guarantee that it will go up. I’m judging probabilities, and I’ve done well for people over time.”

30+ Years of Teamwork

Tom and Barbara first met in 1979 in New York City at a party, “a monthly mixer” sponsored by the Williams College Club.  They were both 24. They’d both graduated from college in 1976, he from Princeton, she from Mount Holyoke. They both lived in the city. She was working for Mobil Oil Corporation. After graduating with a degree in public policy from the Woodrow Wilson School, Tom had taken a job in finance at Salomon Brothers and worked on his father’s reelection campaign, then, with a push from his father, decided to go to Fordham Law School.

They describe the night of their first meeting. “He was a law student trying to avoid studying for his exams,” she says.

Tom explains, “The way we met was, I thought if I take anything seriously in my life, it should be first year law school exams, so I told my buddy, ‘I’m going underground for six weeks, so let’s go to one last party before I disappear. So, it’s the one night I had no intention of meeting a girl because I’m not going to do anything but study for the next six weeks. And there she was.”

Barbara, at Mobil during the day and working on her MBA at NYU at night, went with her roommate to the mixer. “Tom and I met that night, and–classic Tom Byrne story—he said ‘a bunch of us are going out for dinner, why don’t you come with us?’ And as we’re walking off to a fondu place, they’re gradually peeling off and I ended up with Tom and his friend Eric, and after an hour at the fondu place, it was like a bell went off, and Eric stood up and said, ‘I have to go,’ and it was just Tom and I sitting in the restaurant—which was Tom’s plan all along.”

“Random occurrence,” Tom demurs.

Barbara left Mobil in 1980 to join Lehman Brothers. “Tom was pretty influential in helping me make that switch,” she said. “He thought I would enjoy investment banking. I had learned a lot about the energy industry at Mobil, but I wanted to be where capital policy and things were happening at a faster pace.”

After law school Tom received some high-level training. He took a job at the Mudge Rose law firm, where he worked for a man he describes as the best bond lawyer in the country, then moved to the firm of Cadwalader, Wickersham and Taft, ”where I worked for a guy who was probably the top commodities specialist in the country.” Tom worked extensively for the big brokerage houses and the stock exchange. He learned a lot about finance, public and private. Deciding that finance was where his future career lay, he signed on with Commodities Corporation (now a subsidiary of Goldman Sachs) in Princeton.

Meanwhile, Barbara was rapidly rising in the world of investment banking at Lehman Brothers. She and Tom got married in 1985. They were still living in New York when their first child Meaghan was born in 1988, but they knew they didn’t want to raise their children in the city, and when their second child, Erin, was born they decided to move.

Princetonians

Tom and Barbara discuss why they moved to Princeton and how the town has been such an important part of their lives:

Tom: Barbara said, “I’d like to live in Princeton because it’s such an interesting and vibrant community.” I didn’t want to feel I was dragging her here, but I said “great.”  My family had moved here and I went to school here, so Princeton had kind of become my hometown, so here we are. We love living here.

Barbara: Extended family is incredibly helpful when you’re raising children. Your kids can be weaved into the fabric of the adults that form the village for your kids. Also, being on Wall Street, what I particularly liked is that in Princeton there’s no real status about being a finance person. If you haven’t written a book lately, you have no status. I loved that distancing from the very intense market environment in which I worked.

Tom: It’s kept us humble. When we first moved here we used to bike down to the Institute for Advanced Study. They had a bulletin board at the entrance to Fuld Hall with the titles of all the different colloquia. And we used to look at each other: “do you know what any of these words mean?”

Barbara: We didn’t even understand the titles. You have to keep a sense of humor here, and it’s stimulating. It’s fun. There are many different ways of being smart, and energy and creativity come from those touch points, being in that kind of environment.

Tom: It’s also a great town in which to raise kids. There are so many opportunities, so many different things they can do, and so many great kids. And we like our neighborhood. We have some space, but it’s a neighborhood, a neighborhood that hangs together. The neighbors talk. We socialize.

Focus on Family

Their daughter Meaghan, now 29, is in her second year at Yale School of Management. Erin, 26, a graphic artist, is at University of Virginia’s Darden Business School.  Brendan, 24, with the “most political instincts of the four,” according to his father, worked for two years on Capitol Hill and has recently taken a job in San Francisco with Joele Frank, a strategic communications firm. And Kelly, 22, who graduated from Princeton in June, wrote a screenplay for her senior thesis and worked with two movie producers over the summer, may be heading to LA to pursue her interests in storytelling and film.

Barbara and Tom exchange thoughts on the art of raising children:

Barbara: You build networks of people. The girls went to Stuart, where I was on the Board for six years. That helped me to stay involved with what was going on in their lives. Our youngest daughter Kelly went to Hun.

Growing up with siblings was important for them. We would make them share. We could afford for them to each have their own bedroom or their own whatever it might be, but we did not do that. They shared bedrooms. That made them closer. They would talk with each other, and they protected each other from “monsters.”

They would come and watch TV in our bedroom, and they would have to figure out together what they would watch. Some of my fondest memories were the debates, the discussions, even the arguments. The important lesson of compromise is taught when you do that. How do you listen to each other, and “I’ll give you this, if you give me this.” All sorts of deals were struck. Those are really important.

We were fortunate that we didn’t have a cellphone yet when they were growing up. So they would engage with us and talk with us.

They would make fun of each other with their schedules. They made fun of how over-scheduled people were. These four kids are tight. Even now they instagram each other, making fun of mom and dad and what we’re into. We’ve been very fortunate with our children.

The world is changing for this generation. You don’t know what’s going to emerge. The most important skill set is the ability to be flexible, the ability to engage.

Tom: I would always do question time at the dinner table. They would ask for it so I would think of random questions. They would go in age order.

I believe you expose kids to whatever you can. You want them to meet other people who can give them different perspectives on choices, careers, etc. We set a level of expectations for our kids—whatever you do, please try to do it well. But I feel particularly strongly that you don’t tell kids, you should be this or you should do that. And part of it is that my father really did try to do that with me, and I just don’t think it’s the right thing to do with kids. They have to find their own way. You can help them. You can expose them. You can make sure they’re aware of things that are out there, but that’s where you draw the line.

You can suggest things to your kids. When Meagan was an undergraduate almost 10 years ago, I said to her, given your personality and interests, Yale School of management might be a really good place for you, and, as soon as she forgot it was my suggestion, she applied. Suggesting is fine, but insisting isn’t.

Making It All Work

After they moved to Princeton in 1990, Barbara made a breakthrough at Lehman to help her juggle family and career. “I was probably one of the first women on Wall Street to be given a flexible work schedule,” she says. “So I worked from home on Fridays.”

She describes her “brilliant, thoughtful” manager at Lehman, whose wife had been a banker who had been treated poorly by her employers after she had her first child, “and he’d always sworn that if he was ever in a position to help a woman he would. So he came to me and said, ‘I know you’re going to do your work wherever you are. I trust you.’ And I’m a client person, so as long as I have the phone. That’s incredibly progressive when you think about somebody having that point of view. And it made a big difference for me. It made me feel that I had some element of control. I could be home on Fridays, meet with people at the children’s school, carve out an hour when necessary, pulling all this together to make it work. Just the sense of being here, because part of my job was that I was traveling as well.”

A live-in nanny and a cleaning lady three days a week also helped. “I gave myself permission,” Barbara says, “when I was doing all this, to give somebody else the responsibility of doing the cleaning and keeping the house under control.”

And working in Princeton helped Tom to stay involved. “I wasn’t manning the washing machine,” he says, “but I’m the entertainment committee. I spent a lot of time with my kids, playing with them. I feel lucky. A lot of dads are absentee, on the road or whatever. So I feel I had an active role in my kids’ lives. They saw their dad a lot.”

Bike rides were a favorite activity for the family, and Tom especially enjoyed coaching the girls’ soccer teams. “I remember one time at the beginning of the season when they were 7-8 years old, I gathered them all-around in a circle and I said, ‘What’s the most important thing in soccer?’ and I could see the mothers thinking, ‘I don’t need Vince Lombardi coaching my girl in soccer,’ but by the third week they would all respond in unison, ‘Pay attention!’”

In pulling it all together on Wall Street and in the home, Barbara emphasizes the importance of teamwork and organization. “I’m pretty organized,” she modestly understates, “so I’d have an idea of where we needed to be—and a schedule. You have to prioritize what you can do and what you can not do, so you have to build teams of people.”

But, despite her demanding career and her dynamic life on Wall Street, Barbara maintains a balanced perspective. “I never divided my life between professional people and people who stayed at home. I have lots of friends who are stay-at-home moms, and I’ve always believed that if you could manage four-year-old boys, you could manage a trading floor on Wall Street. There are some similar behaviors involved and similar skills required.”

One of Barbara’s favorite current initiatives on Wall Street is Project Encore, an internship program which involves 12 people, chosen from 200 applicants, who have achieved at least the level of vice president, but have been out of the work force for five years or more.

“People always said you can’t make your way back into the industry after you’ve left,” Barbara reflects, “so I said why not? Why couldn’t we create a specific program mostly for women—we have women from 38 to 55. They are incredibly talented, so why can’t you create on-ramps for people at various stages of their lives to come back in. I have the status to help make that happen, and it’s fun. They are extraordinary.”

Finance and Politics

Tom, who wrote The Stock Index Futures Market: A Trader’s Insights and Strategies (“This is a book that was written in ’85-’86 that said ‘a market collapse could actually happen,’ and then it did.’) and later served on the Brady Commission that reported to President Reagan on the causes of the 1987 stock market crash, founded Byrne Asset Management LLC, now located on Nassau Street, in 1999.

“I was fascinated with the financial markets and how they work,” Tom says. He recalls one day in 1986 sitting in Firestone Library for an entire day and reading Wall Street Journals from 1929. “I’m fascinated with market history, market psychology and the psychology of prices themselves. I seem to have a head for it after having worked in some bigger institutions.”

He continues, “After we’d lived in Princeton for a while, I had some people come to me and say ‘can you manage money for me?” So when I started the business I had a built-in clientele from day one; Barbara was doing well on Wall Street so if I failed the kids weren’t going to starve; and I had actually made a fair amount of money when the market crashed in 1987.”

But Tom’s interests in finance have always competed with his interests in politics, as he has served as chairman of the New Jersey Democratic State Committee, a member of the New Jersey State Investment Council (currently chairman) and a member of the New Jersey Pension and Health Benefit Study Commission.

“I developed this interest in financial markets, and I still have an interest in politics. My career has gone back and forth and I’m lucky to have had the flexibility to do that,” he states.

Normally a plum job for a loyal Republican, the State Investment Council post is clear evidence of his colleagues’ respect, their acknowledgement of his expertise and their confidence in his ability to work with both sides.

“I’m actually a bridge,” Tom says, “because half the council is government appointees and half is labor representatives. I think both would say that I’ve done a pretty reasonable job of bringing both sides together—where it hasn’t always been easy.”

Their controversial report proposes that putting public employee health care on the same level as Obamacare Gold, recycling the money saved to support the liability on the underfunded pension, and reducing the guaranteed 7.9 percent return on pension fund assets would produce sufficient funds to solve the $45 billion gap.

Concerned that current gubernatorial candidates are advancing proposals that would bankrupt the state, Tom argues, “We’re in a $45 billion shortfall in the fund. We have to find a way to make good on all the promises the state has made and at the same time be fair to taxpayers. I said if I had an hour to talk to every person about this, I would convince them that this is the only way to go, but I don’t have an hour for every person.”

He goes on to emphasize, “There are a lot of things we should be doing to keep this state what it’s been, and I think that politically, financially, policy-wise I have some tools that others could benefit from.”

Tom adds, philosophically, “So you just never know how these things will play out.”

Tom reflects, “There’s tons of stuff we’d like to do.” Pursuing their multi-faceted businesses, traveling, entertaining, observing their children’s budding careers, teaching (for him), developing a promising film career (for her), and, just possibly, diving into politics—Tom and Barbara Byrne are looking forward to an exciting year ahead.