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Ken Fisher's Crude Remarks: Forgiven and Forgotten?

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It’s been more than a year since Ken Fisher, head of Fisher Investments, uttered inappropriate comments at a now infamous conference in October 2019.

The Tiburon CEO Summit was closed to reporters, but an uproar quickly spread over social media and was soon amplified in mainstream media. Within a month, nearly $4 billion in assets was pulled from the company, as Bloomberg reported, and for a time it seemed the carnage might never end.

See: A Timeline of the Fallout From Ken Fisher’s Crude Remarks

But now, some pension funds have removed the investment manager from their watch lists, ending a probationary period and indicating all may be forgiven. Is Fisher Investments really out of the woods?

Watch List Removals

Among the pension funds that have restored Fisher Investments is the $28 billion Public Employees’ Retirement System of Mississippi. It placed Fisher on its watch list in October 2019, then removed it from the list a year later.

“As fiduciaries, we must always act in the best interest of the [Employees' Retirement] System and our membership,” says Executive Director Ray Higgins.

Similarly, the Kansas City [Missouri] Public School Retirement System (KCPSRS), which has nearly $700 million in total invested assets, placed Fisher on watch in January 2020, and requested regular updates on the firm’s task force on diversity and inclusion, among other measures.

“Fisher Investments fully complied,” confirms KCPSRS Executive Director Christine Gierer. In September, the KCPSRS board removed Fisher Investments from its watch list and returned it to good standing.

The $1.9 billion East Bay Municipal Utility District Employees’ Retirement System (EBMUD), in Oakland, California, recently followed suit. It had put Fisher Investments on watch status in November 2019 after 15 years as its sole active equity manager, managing some $144 million, according to press reports.

At its board’s bimonthly meeting on Jan. 21, 2021, it took Fisher off the watch list, according to Sophia Skoda, EBMUD’s finance director.

‘Made Me Nauseous’

Sonya Dreizler was one of more than 200 financial executives at the October 2019 conference. The head of Solutions with Sonya, a financial consulting firm in San Francisco, she says she was one of only 17 women present, and Fisher’s remarks “made me nauseous.”

Now she says she may be willing to put that behind her, without totally letting it go.

“I’m happy to forgive when I see that someone who has caused harm has done all they can to repair the harm, and that they are taking steps to continue learning and doing better,” Dreizler said. “Though I wish that threshold was a standard practice in finance, I don’t believe it is.”

Fisher’s Approach

For those who have forgiven Fisher, the reasons may be many.

While it’s been on EBMUD’s watch status, Fisher supplied the board with updates on its environmental, social and corporate governance practices; its internal diversity and inclusion task force; and an outside consultant it hired to aid fairness initiatives. It even conducted “listening tours” to learn more about specific issues and concerns.

Almost immediately after the scandal broke, Ken Fisher himself told the press he’d been misunderstood, then he apologized, acknowledging that his remarks demonstrated “inappropriateness.” He pledged to behave better in the future.

The firm then placed full-page ads in The Wall Street Journal and elsewhere picturing roughly 350 female employees — more than a quarter of its workforce — with testimonials about the company’s fairness and gender equality. “People are treated equally here regardless of race, gender, and culture,” Jessica Smith, a Fisher vice president, was quoted as saying.

Readers were referred to a website for more information, and in the days that followed, Fisher Investments garnered praise from other women who had done business with it, vouching for its corporate culture. 

“Fisher owned it,” said Kirsten Plonner, president of FiComm Partners, a financial services communications firm in New York specializing in crisis management.

“They acknowledged the problem, apologized for it, and promised to do better in the future,” Plonner said. ”And since then, they didn’t repeat the offense. There have been no whistleblowers or other scandals with the company that I know of.” 

Forgiven and Forgotten?

All of which means that Fisher Investments “handled its crisis well,” Plonner said. But she notes that although it may have “changed enough” for many in the industry to forgive it, they won’t necessarily forget.

“The industry has a long memory,” she cautioned. “If Fisher missteps again, the industry and media will hold them accountable.”

Indeed, Fisher Investments’ business seems to be booming. “Our business keeps firing on all cylinders,” according John Dillard, a senior vice president at Fisher. Assets under management grew from $121 billion at the end of 2019 to $159 billion at the end of 2020, he says, a gain of more than 31%.

Its most recent Form ADV filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission indicates that some 11% of assets under management come from public and private pension funds. The biggest share by far is from high-net-worth individuals.

Not Everyone Convinced

Nevertheless, the impact of these events on women in the business remains undetermined. Rachel Robasciotti, founder and CEO of San Francisco-based Adasina Social Capital, was among those outraged by Fisher’s comments.

Since then, she’s primarily dedicated herself to building a new firm aimed at “creating solutions to make it easier for investors, advisors, and institutions to align their money with gender, racial, climate, and economic justice,” she says.

Moreover, not everyone who pulled out of Fisher Investments is ready to come back. Among those who have chosen a different path:

  • The Iowa Public Employees’ Retirement System (IPERS), which used to employ Fisher to manage $386 million of its $34 billion trust fund, terminated the contract in October 2019. “Mr. Fisher’s comments have damaged the credibility of the firm and its leadership,” said Shawna Lode, an IPERS spokeswoman. In January 2020, rather than reinstating that contract, it hired another investment manager, RhumbLine Advisers.
  • Air Products & Chemicals pulled $30 million out of Fisher Investments in October 2019, thus “ending any relationship with Fisher,” according to spokesman Arthur George III.

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