Outcry over Ken Fisher comments could mark turning point for industry conferences

Advisers foresee more awareness about the need for an inclusive atmosphere

Oct 10, 2019 @ 2:00 pm

By Mark Schoeff Jr.

Strong negative reaction to a prominent investment adviser's offensive remarks at an industry conference earlier this week could signal a change in what kind of language and atmosphere will be tolerated at such gatherings.

Ken Fisher, founder of Fisher Investments, reportedly laced his fireside chat at the Tiburon CEO Summit in San Francisco with references to genitalia, seducing women and taking drugs, among other awkward topics.

Tiburon's meeting was conducted behind closed doors but attendee Alex Chalekian, founder and chief executive of Lake Avenue Financial, posted a two-minute video on Twitter describing Mr. Fisher's remarks — a move that was hailed by dozens of industry participants in replies to the Tweet.

The incident is being called a potentially pivotal moment for financial services conferences, which continue to be a male-dominated environment that can be unwelcoming for some women.

"What this feels like is a #MeToo moment for the financial services industry," said Cathy Curtis, founder of Curtis Financial Planning. "It represents a turning point in awareness. It's probably going to make conferences a lot more comfortable for women. It's going to make men much more aware of what they say when they're on a public stage or in a mixed group."

Marci Bair, president of Bair Financial Planning, said the fallout over Mr. Fisher's remarks could affect future speaker lineups.

"Hopefully, this is that turning point that people who put on financial conferences will be more mindful of who they invite to speak," Ms. Bair said.

Ryan Shanks, co-founder and chief executive of FA Match, a career-management platform, said people who use language like that attributed to Mr. Fisher have no place at conferences in an industry that is becoming more diverse.

"They should be isolated and evicted from this ecosystem," Mr. Shanks said.

It's not enough for a conference to feature women on panels, the idea of inclusivity has to permeate everything that occurs at the meeting, according to Marguerita Cheng, co-founder and chief executive of Blue Ocean Global Wealth.

"We need to be more intentional and mindful about how we're interacting with others, especially if we're industry leaders, and [Tiburon] was a CEO conference," Ms. Cheng said. "I do think this is a turning point. We're going to see accountability."

[Recommended video: John Rogers on why the advice industry lacks diversity]

Mr. Fisher's initial reaction to the controversy, in which he apologized for offending and said his intended meaning had been misconstrued, was criticized as being out of touch.

"He reminds me of [President Donald] Trump in his response," Ms. Curtis said. "Has he not heard of the #MeToo movement?"

Others suggested Mr. Fisher, 68, had a generational disconnect to what today's audiences think is appropriate language.

On Thursday, Mr. Fisher apologized again for his remarks.

"Some of the words and phrases I used at a recent conference to make certain points were clearly wrong, and I shouldn't have made them," Mr. Fisher said in a statement. "I realize this kind of language has no place in our company or industry. I sincerely apologize."

Ms. Bair said she has developed a thick skin when it comes to sexist comments and attitudes at industry conferences.

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"That's not to say it's okay, just because I'm used to it," she said. "Women need to be encouraged to attend conferences where they're not subject to these kinds of crass conversations."

The XY Planning Networkimplemented a code of conduct in 2017 that prohibits sexual harassment at its conference. Michael Kitces, a partner and director of wealth management at Pinnacle Advisory Group and co-founder of XYPN, said attendance at the XYPN LIVE conference was up this year 76% from its level three years ago before the behavior policy was put in place.

But it may not be possible to address the problem through a policy. Part of it is cultural. What some men think is funny, some women can find offensive, such as wife jokes.

"I don't hear a lot of women doing husband jokes when they're on stage," Ms. Curtis said.

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