The cold calls go out, hundreds a day, from a dank basement in the redwood hills south of San Francisco.
Inside the rambling, rustic-chic house, the billionaire Kenneth Fisher has deployed a division of his mostly young, mostly male acolytes on a single, high-pressure mission: sell.
Worn carpets, musty smells, poor insulation: It’s not what you might expect from a money-management empire that’s been overseeing more than $100 billion. But then, this is the private kingdom of Ken Fisher, where Fisher’s way is the only way.
For decades, the idiosyncratic money manager has sold himself as a brilliant stock picker with the help of almost a dozen books, torrents of direct mail, seminars, videos, ads, magazine columns and more. His happy message for investors: “We do better, when you do better.”
Indeed, Fisher Investments has done very well — most of all for Ken Fisher. Over the past decade, as the firm filled mailboxes across America with tens of millions of marketing flyers, it has employed aggressive sales tactics to sell stock investments with relatively steep fees.
Fisher, meantime, has grown fabulously rich: He’s now worth about $3.8 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
Few who’ve passed through his private-residence-turned-office in Woodside, California, or headquarters on a tree-lined campus in Camas, Washington, were surprised when Fisher let loose with a string of sexist and vulgar remarks at an industry conference this month. At Fisher Investments, such language isn’t unusual.
At a staff meeting in 2008, for example, as financial markets were reeling, a woman asked Fisher if he’d considered shifting into defensive holdings.
“Why would I want half a dick?,” Fisher replied, according to two people who attended the meeting.
Fisher, 68, initially said he was surprised by the recent uproar because he’s spoken like that plenty of times. He later apologized.
But for Fisher, the man, as well as Fisher, the firm, the fallout is piling up. Already, more than $1.8 billion in assets has drained away since his remarks on Oct. 8.
Pensions for Michigan and Iowa and for the city of Boston have fired the firm. Fidelity Investments is part of the growing exodus. Others have said they’re reviewing their relationships.
Interviews with more than a dozen current and former employees paint a sobering picture of life inside Fisher Investments that began long before the recent blowup.
Some described severe pressure to reel in and keep customers. Many spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid jeopardizing their careers or violating non-disclosure agreements.
Fisher, for its part, said it has nothing to hide and that it’s proud of how employees strive to serve customers.
From Camas, an old mill town that’s turned into a growing suburb along the mighty Columbia River, Fisher instills a hit-the-phones-or-hit-the-bricks ethos. The area (population: 23,800) is no one’s idea of a financial center, but it has one advantage over his former California headquarters: no state income tax.
Fear is ever-present, some former employees said. They said they were held to vague targets and that it was easy to get in trouble for questioning the firm’s methods or objectives.
Some former employees said they or colleagues got dinged or “written up” by supervisors for what they saw as minor or surprise infractions, such as failing to respond to an email from a manager quickly enough.
Salespeople must stick to rigid schedules and make hundreds of calls a day, sifting through names of mostly unqualified or uninterested prospects. Many hires are recruited directly from college and are gone in a year or two.
“I thought Fisher was my dream job,’’ said Nick Morrison, who joined the firm in nearby Vancouver in 2011, when he was fresh out of the University of Idaho. He left the following year. “From the very first day, it was just a nightmare.’’
Morrison said he departed after having an anxiety attack in the parking lot.
In response to such comments, Fisher Investments pointed to internal surveys showing 79% of its employees think that the company is a great place to work.