Despite the trend toward industry consolidation in the pursuit of scale, the age of COVID has become the great neutralizer across the financial services industry.
“Not being able to walk factory floors and count fish in the tanks is definitely a big challenge,” said Barbara Ann Bernard, founder and chief investment officer of Wincrest Capital.
Speaking Wednesday morning as part of the Women in Asset Management virtual conference, Bernard talked about the challenges facing the financial services industry, as well as the opportunities that arise in a more socially distant world.
From a portfolio manager’s perspective, Bernard admitted that “not being able to go see the company is an adjustment.”
But she added, “If you’re not going to the mine, then a Zoom call is the same as meeting in a hotel.”
Bernard was joined on the panel discussion by Shundrawn Thomas, president of Northern Trust Asset Management, to analyze the pluses and minuses of an industry that has generally fallen behind when it comes to diversity and inclusion.
“I love the business we’re in, but we simply have not been an industry that excels in diversity,” Thomas said. “We have to be intentional.”
Along those lines, he cited examples of “very competent people in the industry that with training can step into portfolio manager roles.”
This week Thomas wrote an open letter to corporate America reflecting on the state of race relations in the workplace, in which he encouraged people to try to “hear with the head and the heart.”
“I was encouraged last year when a group of CEOs and industry leaders got together and discussed the duty of governance, but there’s a lot of room in between our ideals and our practices,” he said. “We can’t be just self-interested. There has to be a collective push for the health and diversity of the industry.”
From a basic logistics perspective, Bernard said the asset management industry is a “great career for women.”
“I really think it’s the best career in the world because you get paid to learn for a living,” she said. “I am never bored. Never. It’s an incredible career for women with children. There’s an element of predictability to it. You know when earnings season will be. Markets close at a set time.”
Bernard’s advice for women in asset management is to avoid being steered down a path toward sales, rather than analytics.
“When women advance, everyone tends to push them into sales,” she said. “The more senior you get, the more of a salesperson you have to become. The right order is analytics, then sales, not sales and then a dead end.”
As an avenue toward progress, both panelists saw glimmers of hope in the increasingly popular world of sustainable investing strategies.
“I’m hugely encouraged” by the growth of ESG investing, Bernard said, but she qualified that there needs to be a greater focus on how companies are allocating their resources and actually supporting sustainable causes.
“Nobody is talking about aligning the values of a firm with the way they invest their pension plan,” she said. “From my perspective, there isn’t a supply problem, there’s a demand problem.”
Referencing an occasion years ago when Warren Buffett was challenged to diversify his board of directors, Bernard said there is power in speaking up and raising questions.
“Just write a letter,” she said. “You will make them very uncomfortable. When something is the norm, you don’t question it. I don’t think these companies have even thought about it. I would challenge everyone on this call to write a letter, and we can all move the needle.”
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