From the South Pacific to South Jordan—SoJo’s ‘consummate’ CFO
Sep 09, 2019 11:47AM
By Jennifer J Johnson
Sunil Naidu is celebrating 10 years with South Jordan City. He is the city’s chief financial officer, credited with helping the city achieve AAA bond ratings, thus saving taxpayer dollars.
By Jennifer J. Johnson | [email protected]
It is just before 4 a.m. The 7-year-old awakens, taking care to not to disturb his siblings. He gingerly finds his day clothes, then dresses in the dark and walks to the kitchen.
“Sunil!” His mother’s smiling face greets him as he joins her and his much older sisters in the simultaneous preparation of the day’s breakfast and lunch.
It is the early start of what will be a long day for the youngest of the family’s 11 children. He and his siblings soon gather around the breakfast table with their parents, enjoying their time together.
When breakfast is done, Sunil hugs his parents and departs for school. The walk is adorned with ferns and orchids and Fiji’s signature plant—the fragrant gardenia. It is the beauty visitors from all over the world come to Fiji to see. After school, he will assist his father, who tills the land with a cattle-driven plow. The family will gather again for dinner, and then it is off to studying and homework. At bedtime, the boy succumbs to deep sleep, to be awakened the next morning by his internal alarm clock.
That was then, now is South Jordan
That was 6,000 miles away and oceans of years ago.
Today, the native Hindi- and Fijian-speaking Sunil Naidu is the chief financial officer for South Jordan City. He oversees the city’s finances in terms of budgeting, forecasting and even raising investment financing for capital development.
Naidu is “the consummate professional,” according to South Jordan City Manager Gary Whatcott.
His journey from his parents’ farm in Fiji to now serving as chief financial officer for a nationally decorated small city is an inspiring one. He is the model of a hard-working, determined, and—the adjective Naidu repeatedly uses to describe himself—“positive” individual.
Learning the financial reins at a young age, then opening up his world in Utah
As a youngster, the matter of family finance and the greater responsibility for farm forecasting and budgeting fell to him. The multi-hundred-acre family farm yielded sugar cane, rice, beans and other crops. Horses, cows, goats, pigs, chickens and ducks added to the mix.
The rigorous work trained Naidu to embrace positivity.
“When I was younger, I thought working with the farm was hard,” he said. “Now, I have the same habit—regardless of what it is, there is nothing that is impossible.”
Naidu excelled as a student and was given the opportunity to study in Australia and then to travel farther across the world to Brigham Young University. BYU introduced Naidu to two profound forces that would shape the rest of his life.
While an undergraduate, he joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and then elected to serve a mission. It was a commitment that would cost him his government-provided scholarship, but to Naidu, it was a worthy trade.
Naidu earned a bachelor’s in finance, and then a master’s in public administration. To this day, he is the only member of his family to have graduated from college.
While working on his master’s, Naidu met his wife, April, who, like her husband, worked in municipal government, prior to electing to work in the home to raise their two children.
The “consummate financial professional”
Naidu worked in a variety of private-industry positions before joining South Jordan City in 2009. In addition to bringing his skills to the city, he has, on a volunteer basis, helped elevate the skills of municipal-finance professionals throughout the state.
“He is asked by other cities to help their CFOs,” Whatcott said.
Additionally, Naidu has served in statewide leadership for the Utah Government Finance Officers Association.
Whatcott compliments Naidu’s role in helping SoJo be a fiscally sustainable city for the future and gives kudos to a financial-forecasting system the CFO has developed.
“I am surprised by how sophisticated the modeling is,” he said.
Whatcott deems Naidu’s communication skills exceptional, almost akin to his financial abilities.
“He is very detailed when he needs to be—able to talk in layman’s terms when he needs to be,” Whatcott said, underscoring the challenge of translating complex budgets into digestible, understandable concepts for non-financial experts, including elected officials and city residents alike.
Having worked with SoJo as a financial adviser for more than 15 years through the firm Lewis, Young, Robertson and Burningham, Laura Lewis observes that, “There have been some elected officials and constituents that can make a government official’s job challenging, but I have never, ever, ever seen him get ruffled.”
Having traveled with Naidu and Whatcott to secure financing for investments such as the city’s new public safety building, Lewis notes that municipal finance experts are routinely asked questions by investors that they need time to research and revisit prior to answering, as opposed to doing so on-the-fly. Not so much with Naidu.
“Many financial planners will have to say – ‘I’ll get back to you,’” Lewis said. “But, most often, Sunil knows the information on the top of his head.”
From profiling to proactive problem-solving to always remaining positive
Part of Naidu’s world that professional peers Lewis and Whatcott have not encountered themselves is the seeming racial profiling at airline security checks.
Several times, Lewis shares, more than 100 travelers would advance through airport security without issue, then Naidu would be, almost always, pulled aside for more rigorous search.
“It didn’t always seem random to him,” she said.
To solve the ongoing inconvenience, Naidu underwent a security clearance to allow him to be able to clear checkpoints as breezily as his colleagues.
“I’m a very positive thinker,” he said when asked if he has ever encountered prejudice. “I don’t dwell along negatives. I think even if there were [an instance], I just don’t allow it to take control of me.”
It is 4 a.m.
South Jordan City CFO Sunil Naidu rises, like clockwork. Instead of the sound and smell of his native South Pacific Ocean to greet him, he has the sweet sounds of slumber from his wife and children to accompany him as he goes about his morning tasks. All the while thinking about the day before him and the greater positives waiting ahead—for himself, for his family and for South Jordan City.