'Why?' Isn't Just for Kids

Deb Schoneman '96 M.B.A., asks questions to get ahead.

As mother to two young girls, Deb Schoneman, treasurer of Piper Jaffray, is no stranger to questions. Like parents around the world, she has heard her children ask “why?” countless times. The difference between Schoneman and many other parents is that she hasn’t outgrown asking “why?” herself. “I have always asked ‘why?’ Why does that work, and how does it work? I learn something new every week,” she said.

Schoneman has been with Piper Jaffray for almost 18 years. When she first began working there, she brought a finance background to a business that didn’t really have a finance position; the people who worked at Piper Jaffray did accounting, not financial analysis. At that time such staffing was typical of similar firms, but the industry was beginning to shift to more of an emphasis on finance. Piper Jaffray’s new controller felt, as Schoneman did, that a greater focus on finance could benefit the company.

Together, the controller, Schoneman and changes within the industry influenced the firm’s structure, and eventually Piper Jaffray added three finance director positions, one of which was held by Schoneman. The firm’s structure continued to change, most recently when the retail side of the business was spun off in 2006, and with these changes, Schoneman took on more responsibility, leading her to the position she holds today.

As treasurer, Schoneman performs the traditional functions of this position, such as cash management and funding, but she also continues to lead the financial planning and analysis group, as she did in her most recent role as a finance director. She also has responsibility for financial risk management.

Her job change has given her a lot of new experiences, experiences that she fears many women miss out on due to lack of confidence. “My job has had a lot of quick movement, especially over the past seven years,” she said. She is glad that her husband encouraged her to step beyond what she knew early in her career and that she has built the confidence to tackle jobs with elements she has never before experienced. “It’s just like a CEO moving to a new industry,” she said. She has learned to focus on what she can bring to the table from her experience, rather than on focusing on what she doesn’t yet know.

Schoneman believes that her success comes not only from asking questions and proceeding with confidence but also from building strong relationships with her clients, who are mostly internal. “I’ve really wanted to help my clients. I’m not just serving them because it’s my job. Because of this, I know I can call on many people across the firm if I need help.” She also refuses to confine her role merely to the boundaries of her job description. “A lot of the jobs I’ve held didn’t exist before I held them,” she said. She knows that if her position is becoming routine, she needs to expand herself in some way.

Schoneman’s ability to step beyond what she knows plays out not just on the job but in her leisure time. “My husband and I vowed to take a one-week vacation without the kids every year,” she said. One year, just prior to a trip to Cozumel, her husband signed them both up for scuba diving lessons. Knowing that Schoneman really didn’t want to go scuba diving, he asked that she just take the lessons, without committing to actually going on a dive. She took the lessons and loved it; she has been scuba diving for 10 years now.

With a commitment to growth, Schoneman would enjoy the opportunity to become a CFO some day, but for now she relishes the learning opportunities as treasurer. “My focus right now is understanding foreign currency exposure and expanding our risk management discipline,” she said. “Firms that are doing this well are not suffering so much in the current economic climate.” She’s armed with questions and confident about the future.

Piper JaffrayPiper Jaffray is a middle market investment bank and institutional securities firm. Founded in 1895 with headquarters in the Twin Cities, the company has 1,100 employees in 29 offices around the world. Schoneman says Piper Jaffray's size is part of what makes it special. Although the company is focused on growth, it is not striving for a "Wall Street scale." "You can make a difference in a company this size," said Schoneman. "You are not such a small piece; what you do and think really matters."

More from B Magazine