Beyond Bulls & Bears: What did you want to be growing up, and what first attracted you to a career in finance?
Jennifer Johnston: I went through several phases as a kid. For a while, I wanted to be a veterinarian. While I love animals, there is no way I would have made it through vet school. I can’t handle blood! There was also a period of time I wanted to be a teacher and a stock broker. I went into college very open-minded. I was a political science major and business minor so I would have flexibility as I tried to find my passion. After college, I planned to go to grad school to pursue a master’s in public administration with the goal of being a city manager. But on the advice of my dad, I decided to work for a few years. I joined the management training program at Franklin Templeton for the opportunity to explore a variety of different departments and get broad experience. During my second rotation in the program, a fellow trainee suggested I try out the muni bond department, because it was a good mix of government and business. Needless to say, I never looked back!
Beyond Bulls & Bears: You’ve been at Franklin Templeton 27 years, do you still remember what your first week was like? What’s the main thing that has changed over the years at the firm, and in the industry?
Jennifer Johnston: I remember my first day so well. I arrived 45 minutes early and sat in my car in the parking lot at nearby shopping center just to make sure I wasn’t late. When I started, my management training class was 50+ people, and so in some ways it felt like starting college again. So much to learn and so many people to meet. That first week was a bit overwhelming, and I remember being so impressed by the speakers who presented to the group.
I think the biggest change since then has been around technology, both at Franklin Templeton as a company and in my part of the business. When I started, we didn’t have voicemail or email! I remember having to call a muni-bond issuer on the phone to request their financial statements and they would have to mail it to me. It could take multiple calls and several weeks. Now, I just hop online and can get it immediately. And reflecting on how technology has helped us work from home during the pandemic is really remarkable.
Beyond Bulls & Bears: What do you like most about your current job?
Jennifer Johnston: I learn something new every day, and I love the challenge of explaining something complex to others. I also like that we don’t just help our shareholders meet their financial goals—we also help fund critical infrastructure for the country. I also genuinely like the people I work with. We make a good team. I’ve also had the opportunity to travel to some interesting locations as part of my job—I’ve been to Guam twice and the Northern Mariana Islands once. I’ve also had the opportunity to get involved in leadership with professional associations, which has been a great way to develop leadership experience, understand more about our industry and network.
Beyond Bulls & Bears: In 2020, COVID-19 changed the way a lot of us work. What has been the biggest change or challenge for you?
Jennifer Johnston: There are so many things. But I think the biggest change is being alone so much. While I think my group has done a great job working from home and keeping communication going, I miss the unscheduled interactions—for example, asking someone to walk to Whole Foods [across from the Franklin Templeton office headquarters] and hearing about an upcoming vacation, or running into someone in the office kitchen and spending time hearing about their kids. That can still happen, but it has to be more deliberate; it doesn’t happen by chance. You have to make it happen.
Beyond Bulls & Bears: Speaking of challenges, you are in a male-dominated field. Has that presented any roadblocks or challenges? How did you navigate them?
Jennifer Johnston: There have definitely been times when I was the only woman in the room. This was far more common when I was younger and also the youngest in a room. I would often feel intimidated, and I know I tend to get quiet and shy when this happens. I would force myself to try to engage on a topic other than work. That way, once we had a connection, I felt more confident getting back to the subject of work. I have definitely noticed a change in the number of female leaders since I first started. Franklin Templeton’s CEO (Jenny Johnson) and our Fixed Income CIO (Sonal Desai) are both female, which is inspiring.
Beyond Bulls & Bears: Is there one piece of advice you’ve received during your career that you still rely on today?
Jennifer Johnston: Definitely. I had an early mentor tell me not to shy away from new opportunities. If someone gives you an opportunity to do something new, try it, especially if they are specifically seeking you out. Trust that they wouldn’t offer it to you unless they believed in you. Often these opportunities unlock more opportunities and help you learn and grow.
Beyond Bulls & Bears: What advice would you give young women today looking for a career in business or finance?
Jennifer Johnston: First, don’t think that being a woman is in any way an impediment to success. There is nothing about this business that you can’t do. Second, I would recommend that women seek out both female AND male mentors. Mentors can offer different things, and I firmly believe that having mentors of both genders can result in a more well-rounded experience. One of my first mentors was male, and I often reflect on how his mentorship influenced my success today. And then of course, don’t forget to help those that come after you.
Beyond Bulls & Bears: Municipal bonds are an area many individuals might not be very familiar with. Can you tell us what excites you about the space?
Jennifer Johnston: I love that municipal bonds aren’t just a way to help our shareholders meet their financial goals. They are also how our country finances critical infrastructure like airports, hospitals, schools and bridges, just to name a few. It makes what we do seem so much more real and tangible. When I was commuting to work [before the pandemic], every day I would pass by airports, hospitals, city government buildings, schools and bridges—all funded with municipal bonds.
Beyond Bulls & Bears: Do you have any passions or hobbies outside work you’d like to share?
Jennifer Johnston: I am very passionate about photography. I most enjoy street or documentary-style photography and often in black and white. I love trying to capture the real world and find things that others don’t see. I also love travel, so these two passions go well together. It is a nice change from the numbers and analytics of my day job, and I can’t help but think that the attention to detail required for my job is why I can find such unique things to photograph. Given I’m not traveling much these days, I haven’t spent much time on street or travel photography. But I did get a pandemic puppy, so I’m trying my hand at pet photography—which is much harder than you would think!
Beyond Bulls & Bears: Lastly, has anyone confused you with our CEO, Jennifer Johnson?
Jennifer Johnston: Yes, it definitely happens! Honestly, I am very used to it. There was a Jenny Johnson in my high school class, a Jennifer Johnston at my university, and at one point, in addition to our CEO Jenny Johnson, there was another woman named Jenny Johnson in my department! I have never gone by “Jenny,” so that is helpful to avoid some confusion, although in high school, I was excluded from my high school graduation ceremony amid the confusion with my name. Of course, it all worked out and I did graduate, so the confusion with our CEO Jenny isn’t a big deal. These days, if an email or meeting invite comes to “Jenny” or seems out of the blue, I simply respond back, “did you mean to contact Jenny Johnson?” I’ve definitely communicated with people at Franklin Templeton I wouldn’t have otherwise!
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What Are the Risks?
All investments involve risks, including possible loss of principal. Because municipal bonds are sensitive to interest-rate movements, a fund’s yield and share price will fluctuate with market conditions. Bond prices generally move in the opposite direction of interest rates. Thus, as prices of bonds in a fund adjust to a rise in interest rates, the fund’s share price may decline. To the extent a fund focuses its investments in a single state or territory, it is subject to greater risk of adverse economic and regulatory changes in that state or territory than a geographically diversified fund. Changes in the credit rating of a bond, or in the credit rating or financial strength of a bond’s issuer, insurer or guarantor, may affect the bond’s value. A fund may invest a significant part of its assets in municipal securities that finance similar types of projects, such as utilities, hospitals, higher education and transportation. A change that affects one project would likely affect all similar projects, thereby increasing market risk. Investments in lower-rated bonds include higher risk of default and loss of principal.