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Fidelity Investments Wants to Attract More Female Investors

And it's using Dallas-Fort Worth as a test market.
Onisa Treibs and George Prate
Sean Berry

Kathleen Murphy never thought she’d work in finance. Murphy, who today is Fidelity Investments’ president of personal finance, worked in government affairs and healthcare law at Aetna, ascending the corporate ladder all the way up to general counsel in the 1990s. But all that changed when her father passed away unexpectedly of a heart attack when she was 27 years old.

“My mom was a nurse at the time,” Murphy says. “She went on to become a coder. She embraced technology and found a new career for herself. But I’m one of six kids, and at the time, I had three siblings in college.

“My dad was a small business owner, and my mom didn’t have some big 401k to fall back on. And so I watched her struggle not knowing what to do, feeling like she could never catch up. It didn’t need to be that way. She could have been more aware. I think she could have controlled her financial future better. And my story, unfortunately, is not at all unique.”

The situation is what spring boarded Murphy’s decision to dedicate herself to financial planning and investing—not only to help her own mother get her retirement savings back on track, but also to help other women avoid the same financial woes.

Murphy notes that the divorce rate has doubled since the 1990s, and women lose about 40 percent of their income when they get divorced. (According to Murphy, that number is about 25 percent for men.) When it happens later in life, when a woman is in her 50s or 60s, Murphy says there’s not much time to recover. Women also tend to outlive their spouses, on average, by five to seven years, she says. “Nine out of 10 women will be the sole decisionmaker in their household of their finances at some point in their lives,” she says. “You can bet you’re going to be one of the 10 percent, or you can plan on being part of the 90 percent.”

That’s why the results of a 2012 study on financial habits of millennial females, in the graduating class of 2009 and 2010, were particularly troubling: just 12 percent of women in relationships considered themselves a primary decisionmaker in financial matters. This, despite women accounting for almost 60 percent of college graduates and earning more postgraduate degrees than men. “It’s not an us-versus-them thing,” Murphy says. “Women are doing really well in terms of getting an education, making a lot of gains in the workforce. And yet they lag in this very critical area: they’re working really hard to advance their careers, but they’re not having their money work hard for them.

“In my view, women have been underserved by financial services for decades,” Murphy says. “I don’t think it was intentional, but finance has been an industry largely run by men for the last 70 to 100 years. If you don’t have diversity of thought, you’ll do it in a way that’s natural to you.”

Empowering Female Investors

Enter Onisa Treibs, a branch manager for Fidelity Investments in Southlake.

Treibs began her career with the company in 2005 as a financial representative at the company’s Westlake campus. Over the last decade, she has taken on a range of leadership roles within the company. She is also an advocate for Fidelity Investments’ Women Investors Initiative, supporting the firm’s efforts to build greater awareness among women about the importance and impact of financial engagement.

Treibs says she, too, has a very personal reason for entering a career in wealth management. “My first 401k, I’m pretty sure there was no education and I don’t remember really learning about that in school,” she says. “And then cashing it out after I changed jobs, you know, it wasn’t even a couple thousand dollars. But if you do the math, and what that could have been if I didn’t cash it out with the penalties.”

Treibs says much of the local programming geared toward increasing the number of female investors is about education and demystifying investing.

“We host local events that are inviting for women to come in, get some fundamentals,” Treibs says. “Often time, they’ll come in and find out that they know more than they thought they did. It also helps that they’re surrounded by women who are sharing their stories and experiences. It’s fascinating to see how much women will talk among women. Immediately women will share pretty quickly and then get comfort from hearing stories like their own. I love it when I see clients come in to an event and then they leave sharing information and wanting to meet up later. That’s the type of events that we want to create more of, and creating more of those events to get that message out there sooner.”

As changing demographics impact banking and wealth management in the next decade, focusing efforts on populations that have not traditionally been the focus will serve the company well, Treibs says.

“When you empower women to be the financial decisionmaker, you’re changing decades of thinking,” she says. “Millennials grew up with two working parents. The idea of a stay-at-home mom is quickly becoming passé  for most next-gen clients of ours. So, by focusing on education and financial empowerment for women, you’re speaking to the next generation who sees it as commonplace.”

Plano As A Microcosm

As with other parts of the business, continuous experimentation at the branch level is vital, says George Prate, market leader in Fidelity Investments’ Plano office,  one of the largest offices in the company with more than 40 employees. A West Point graduate and U.S. Army captain for more than six years on deployments in Korea, Afghanistan, and Mali, Prate received his MBA from Dartmouth College and joined Fidelity Investments in a management rotational program, ultimately choosing a career as an investor center leader.

“The branch network resonated pretty strongly with me, because you get to help clients every day,” he says. “And then as a leader, I really view that the teams that I get the privilege of leading as my clients. I know that if I deliver a great experience to them, they’re going to deliver a great experience the client. It kind of had some of the best of both worlds with what I loved about the Army and leading teams, but also being able to do it with a company that puts the client first.”

Fidelity Investments’ Plano office is the test market for its new model of branches, focusing on open spaces, neutral colors, and modern design. Prate says the new-model branch starts with the lobby. “The physical space is warm and inviting,” he says. “It’s like you’re at a library. It’s very quiet. We don’t have CNBC or Fox News rattling off at you in the background.”

Instead, representatives greet clients in an approachable manner that is jargon-free, he says. “If you walk into our branch, you wouldn’t see a front counter like you do at most offices and maybe some of our competitors. A counter is more like a bank. It’s transactional. If you walk up, it’s also a barrier.”

Prate compares his branches check-in process to more of a concierge service. In terms of layout and design, Fidelity Investments’ Plano office is converting individual offices in its branches into pods of desks, a move aimed at making its locations feel more welcoming to younger customers. It also has removed large desks in favor of pods that puts clients and advisors side-by-side.

“One of the main things that I think gets overlooked is that Fidelity has cracked the code on the idea that if you build a space that’s warm and inviting for employees to interact as human beings, almost like they would at home with their families, then that also translates into how employees treat clients and how warm clients feel when they walk through your doors,” Prate says. 

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