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Fidelity president’s message to women: Break the intimidation cycle

The United States is in the midst of a two-decade, $22 trillion shift in assets to women, who now make up the majority of the U.S. population.

Kathleen Murphy, president of Fidelity Investments personal investing division at a Fidelity Investments office in Dallas.
Kathleen Murphy, president of Fidelity Investments personal investing division at a Fidelity Investments office in Dallas.Read moreTNS

Kathleen Murphy is fed up with the investment world being created by men in the image of men at the expense of women.

And, as president of personal investing at the financial giant Fidelity Investments, she is in a position to do something about it.

Murphy, who's been in her high-command role for nearly a decade, oversees the management of $2.5 trillion held in nearly 20 million individual client accounts. That includes more individual retirement accounts than any other company in the world.

From Murphy's vantage point, women are underserved and often dismissed as irrelevant.

Look at the numbers, and you'll see how wrongheaded this is, she said.

The United States is in the midst of a two-decade, $22 trillion shift in assets to women, who now make up the majority of the U.S. population.

Unfortunately, too many women aren't mistresses of their financial universes. She wants them to take command before they're thrust into that role.

"I say to women: 'You're working pretty damn hard for your money, right? There's a reason you're working so hard. It's to enjoy your life, to fuel your dreams. So, get that money to work hard for you,' " Murphy said.

Her message to women: Break the intimidation cycle.

Nine in 10 women will be the sole financial decision-makers in their households at some point because they become widows, get divorced, or never marry.

"I do these big events where I say, 'Ladies, you can bet on being one of the 10 percent and not learn even the basics, or you can play the odds and think you're going to be part of the 90 percent and take control of your financial future,' " she said.

Murphy spent 15 years in legal and government affairs positions at Aetna and eight years at ING U.S., moving up to CEO of wealth management.

Under her leadership, Fidelity is changing how it attracts, talks to, and serves women. And Murphy believes that by doing so, Fidelity is also drawing in millennials, minorities, and anyone else who feels slightly spooked by financial planning.

"Investing's not hard, but the way we talked about it made it too complicated. Alpha, beta, quant," she said, ticking off financial jargon. "This is not a way to engage people."

First, Murphy wants more women to understand the difference between saving money and investing it. "If you're simply saving your money, you're actually losing money, because inflation is running higher than banks are paying."

Once women move their savings into investments, they tend to be as good or better than men in the returns they generate, she said. "Why? Because women, in general, have goals in mind, and they plan for the long term. Men, in general, focus more on shorter-term performance. 'How am I doing today?' 'What's the market doing today?' Don't get me wrong, we love men, too."

Murphy — who goes by "Kathleen" in professional settings but is "Kathy" or "Murph" to colleagues and friends — attributes much of her success to her upbringing in Wallingford, Conn.

"My parents had pretty fundamental rules: kindness, loyalty, stick up for your brothers and sisters," Murphy said. "We walked to school. It was such a nice, Beaver Cleaver life. But, we didn't have a lot of money."

She's the third of six children, sandwiched between an older brother-sister pairing and another grouping of a younger sister and two brothers, in a household where duties were supposed to be split along traditional boy-girl roles.

"I kind of rebelled against it," she said. "I make great chocolate-chip cookies. That's pretty much it when it comes to cooking. With three brothers, I got used to the concept of aggressive males early on. I'm not going to cede the territory, ya know."

The family was gender-neutral when it came to haircuts, Murphy said. "We all got marched to the local barber and got the same little short haircut because it was the cheapest in town."

It's one reason she keeps her hair long.

The Murphy brood went to the Converse factory store for $5 shoes once a year and to the bank monthly to deposit their babysitting and lawn-mowing money — they didn't get an allowance — into passbook savings accounts where they could see their money grow.

At 5-foot-8, Murphy excelled as a forward in basketball and as a backstroke swimmer, helping the Sheehan High School Titans become state champs three years in a row.

"I was terrible at swimming at first," Murphy said. "But I just loved it. I stuck with it.

"I was into swimming when the East German women were bulking up. I was very bulky, too. I could bench-press more than my older brother. I didn't take steroids, but I did lift weights and practiced for hours and hours and hours."

In 1984, she completed her dual-major degree in political science and economics at Fairfield University, a private Jesuit Catholic university in Connecticut.

"I didn't have any idea of what I wanted to do," she said. "I remember very distinctly being interviewed to be a manager for a local Dress Barn. I came out of that interview thinking, 'OK, I don't know what I want to do, but I know it's not that.' "

At the suggestion of a professor, she went to law school at the University of Connecticut.

In her first year, Murphy worked for a professor's small law firm that did everything from death-penalty cases to representing the local nudist camp.

"I didn't even know there was a nudist camp in Connecticut," she said, laughing.

That summer, she worked for Aetna, which had the largest law department in Connecticut with 150 lawyers.

The next summer, she interned at a big Wall Street law firm.

"I remember being in the firm's law library late one night, and there were two lawyers who'd been out of law school for four years, and they were so excited because they finally got to do a set of interrogatories," she said. "I decided at that moment: 'I'm not willing to pay this kind of dues.' I decided to take a job at Aetna for half the pay and twice the responsibilities of the New York law firm. I got to do real interesting stuff real quickly."

Zoe Baird, president of the New York-based Markle Foundation, was her boss and mentor at Aetna. Now, Murphy sits on Baird's nonprofit board.

"Kathy started out working for me, but over the years, I have called on her counsel at critical junctures in everything I have done," Baird said, adding that her friend has always been a shining star, even in her early days at Aetna.

"Kathy has a unique combination of brilliance paired with a down-to-earth presence that enables her to relate to all kinds of people. She is able to see subtle elements within issues that others can't and deliver remarkable insight — wrapped in that homey accent of hers so that it's easily understood.

"She's been a wise board member, helping Markle understand the evolution of the labor market and the opportunities ahead," Baird said. "She is deeply committed to everything she does, and we at Markle have felt it every day."

Fidelity came calling in 2008.

"When Fidelity calls, you take the call," she said. "And it's Boston — for a kid who grew up in Connecticut, right? We were Celtics and Red Sox fans, and we became huge Patriots fans."

She was drawn to Fidelity by the leadership of founder Ned Johnson, now chairman emeritus, and his daughter, Abigail Johnson, now Fidelity's CEO.

"You get yelled at by Ned or Abby if your operating margins are too high, because it means you're not investing in the value of the customer or the value of the long-term business," Murphy said.

Murphy sees too few women and minorities among her ranks.

"We're not going to accept the fact that less than a quarter of the financial industry is women," she said. "On the gender side, half of our new hires in our branches nationwide have been women for the last three years.

"It's not like, 'Oh, if you just try harder, you'll get them,' " she said. "You have to take a step back and say, 'What's the environment they want to work in?' Here's the thing — and I say this to the folks all the time: 'Let's examine our policies, and are they a turnoff?' "

Hours are a good example. She doesn't care when or how people get their work done, as long as they do.

"By the way, it's not just women who want to see their kids play soccer on a Friday afternoon. As we've made our policies and practices more flexible, everyone's benefited."

As for results, Fidelity's client investments grew 20 percent in 2017 — its sixth consecutive year of record growth.