Caren Franzini had just completed her MBA when she found herself being interviewed for a job by a hot-shot investment banker — and she was getting annoyed.
The young banker kept peppering the Wharton School grad with the same question: Why did she want to work for the firm?
“I finally said, you know what, you’re asking me a question, and obviously I’m not giving you the answer you want,” she said.
So the banker answered it himself: “For the money,” he said. “That’s why you want to work here.”
Franzini, the longtime head of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, recalled that incident, during an interview last month at her parents’ home in Atlantic City, where she grew up. The banker’s comment offended her, she said, but it also reinforced something that had become clear: She wasn’t just interested in making deals: She was interested in turning those deals into tangible development.
After earning her MBA in the early 1980s, Wall Street was an attractive option, but Franzini opted instead for the public sector. She took a job at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey before joining the state Treasury and, in 1992, the EDA. She became its CEO in 1994.
Franzini said growing up in Atlantic City taught her the importance of rebuilding New Jersey’s urban areas.
“You have to make a difference where you live,” she said. “That was the philosophy of my mom and dad.”
Franzini’s parents, Ruth and Murray Raphel, co-owned Gordon’s clothing store with Ruth’s sister and brother-in-law, Shirley and Milton Gordon. The couples also lived together — first in apartments above the store, and later in their current home, near the Ventnor City line. Each couple had three children; snapshots of the two families’ grandchildren crowd nearly every surface in the living and dining rooms.
Gordon’s grew from a small clothing store into the anchor of what Murray Raphel called the state’s first urban pedestrian mall, Gordon’s Alley. But the Atlantic City of Franzini’s childhood was one where urban issues were at the forefront. Fights — and sometimes riots — broke out at the city’s public high school, and Ruth Raphel said many parents were fearful, “but I never kept them home,” she said.
Murray Raphel’s knack for sales, meanwhile, propelled him to a side career as an author and public speaker, traveling the globe teaching lessons every salesman should know.
A lot of those same lessons were taught at the dinner table in the Raphel home; Caren said Sunday morning breakfasts were a favorite time to talk.
“Be aware of what the customer wants — not what you want to do, not what you want to accomplish — but what your customer wants,” he said during the interview. “If you can accomplish that goal, then you’re going to be successful with the customer.”
Regarding her father with an adoring grin and a protective hand on his shoulder — to halt him when he launches into a story that’s too long — Franzini said her father’s sales tips have served her well. In her public-sector job, she can’t always make the “customer” happy — she’s bound by legislative mandates, so she often has to tell applicants “no.” But Franzini said respect and customer service are still important.
“You want great service from the public sector, too,” Franzini said.
That attitude sets her apart, according to the man who hired her at the EDA.
“Caren gets the fact that it’s the work and not her,” said Anthony Coscia, who spent a decade as the EDA’s board chairman. “It’s not very threatening to people in leadership to have someone like her in her position because she doesn’t promote her own efforts.”
Coscia, a partner at the law firm Windels, Marx, Lane & Mittendorf, said Franzini’s business acumen and focus have been key to her longevity through Republican and Democratic administrations. She has had seven different governors sign her paychecks since becoming CEO.
Gov. Chris Christie kept Franzini on board, but changed the agency’s role, putting Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno at the forefront of business recruitment and retention, and helping to launch Choose New Jersey to lure new businesses here.
Maureen Hassett, the EDA’s senior vice president of governance and communications, said Franzini doesn’t mind proving herself.
“She knows that with a new team in town you have to get to know them and you have to prove yourself. She takes that really seriously,” Hassett said.
Hassett said Franzini also knows how to say thank you. Franzini said she often takes the time to hand-write thank-you notes in the mornings before the official workday begins.
“That was another lesson learned from my father,” she said. “He would tell me, you know what, you should be writing three thank-you letters a week, to a staff person, to someone you do business with, just out of the blue.”
“That’s something that’s not really done,” Murray Raphel said, saying the rarity of a hand-written note means it can leave a big impression.
Franzini joined the EDA during the Democratic administration of Gov. Jim Florio. Her father, however, is a Republican, and the former director of the Atlantic County freeholders. He used that perch to move more county offices into Atlantic City, and later helped launch the aquarium at Gardner’s Basin as a spot for children whose parents had come to town to gamble.
At 84, Murray Raphel has left the speaking circuit, though he still gets invitations. Instead, his anecdotes live on through his 16 books and his daughter, now a frequent public speaker herself.
In “Selling Rules,” Murray Raphel lists 52 rules for sales professionals to follow, one of which is “brand yourself.” Asked what she thinks her reputation is in Trenton, Franzini hesitates. Her mother does not.
“She has a passion for her job. And she’s apolitical,” Ruth Raphel said. “People know that they can’t come in and bamboozle her.”
But her image, Franzini said, isn’t as important as being happy with her job. She said she’s comfortable in her own skin.
“It’s in my DNA,” she said. “It’s who I am, of where I grew up, what I did, what I got exposed to. That’s what makes you who you are.”
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On Twitter: @JaredKaltwasser