Although men continue to dominate Wall Street, women are beginning to break into the higher echelons of mutual fund companies. Women have long served as marketing executives and portfolio managers at mutual fund companies and in the past few years, a handful have moved from these jobs into top positions.

Mutual Fund Market News spoke to five women recently made presidents of mutual fund companies and learned that most are themselves surprised about their success. None of them actually set out to head up a financial services company. They attribute their success largely to timing, unique backgrounds and joining firms that encouraged their development.

Now that they have reached these positions of leadership, these female executives speak confidently and comfortably about their jobs and encourage other women to strive to follow them.

"I got into the mutual fund business through a series of coincidences," said Bridget Macaskill, who, as president and CEO of the Oppenheimer Funds, is probably one of the most powerful women in the mutual fund industry. Based in New York, Oppenheimer's family of 65 funds has $95 billion under management.

Macaskill, who was named CEO in 1995, said the only reason she joined Oppenheimer in 1982 was that the firm had just been bought by a British company and could supply her with a visa to work in the U.S.

Macaskill had come to the U.S. from the U.K. because her husband had been transferred to New York. She had previously worked as executive director of marketing for Unigate, a food company in the U.K., and wanted to continue her career. A headhunter introduced her to the Oppenheimer chairman who wanted to establish a mutual fund company in the U.K.

The chairman was convinced that Macaskill's experience, albeit selling dairy products and baby food, could translate to selling mutual funds. He even persisted after Macaskill insisted she had no interest whatsoever in financial services, she said.

"I told the chairman he would soon discover I was totally wrong for the job and that as soon as I had my work visa, I would leave very quickly and quietly," Macaskill said.

Eventually, Macaskill gave in and joined Oppenheimer funds in 1982 as senior vice president of marketing. She said she changed her mind only because the chairman "was a wonderful salesman."

Her "unenthusiastic" attitude quickly changed when she realized that mutual funds were beginning to take off in the U.S. and that the Oppenheimer funds could use a marketing push from a person with a consumer background like herself, Macaskill said.

"In 1980, only six percent of the public owned mutual funds," she said. "But because the universal IRA was introduced in the early 1980s, mutual funds really became a consumer product. I found that a lot of what I had been doing in my previous role - looking at consumers, building product lines and branding - could apply to Oppenheimer."

Today, about 30 percent of the public owns mutual funds, Macaskill said.

Besides good timing, Macaskill attributed her success to an environment at Oppenheimer that encourages women.

"I know that in the 1980s, Wall Street was not a particularly friendly place for women," she said. "But I did not find this to be true. It is much more collegial here than competitive or political, and there are a lot of women at this firm on every level."

Macaskill has also found financial services more gratifying than the food industry.

"Giving people financial independence and helping them with retirement funding is very valuable," she said. "It's something we treat with a great deal of respect at Oppenheimer." Macaskill expects many more opportunities to open for women on the buy side, especially if the mutual fund industry continues to grow.

Unlike Bridget Macaskill, Barbara Krumsiek was drawn to finance while she was still in college. She was named president and CEO of the Calvert Group in 1997. The company, based in Bethesda, Md., has more than $6 billion in assets under management.

Krumsiek's original plan was to become a mathematics professor. But, after graduating from Douglas College in New Brunswick, N.J., Krumsiek decided to work for a short period before obtaining her masters in mathematics from New York University. She accepted a position as an analyst for the investment division of Equitable Life Assurance of Chicago and discovered she found business was more exciting than academia.

"I found that I enjoyed putting pure mathematics in an applied context," she said. "It was more exciting to work with real money, real people and real portfolios."

While she did eventually continue her education, Krumsiek stayed several years at Equitable. She largely credits her rise in the industry to an assignment she was given there in 1981 to start a family of funds.

Equitable is conscientious about affirmative action for women, she said.

"I credit that with getting a foot in the door and being given leadership opportunities," she said.

And like Macaskill, Krumsiek said the expansion of the mutual fund business fed by the growing dependence on 401(k)'s and IRA's in the 1980s helped propel her career forward and fed her enthusiasm for the industry.

In 1993, she joined Alliance Capital Management of New York as senior vice president and managing director. But the higher up Krumsiek got, the more she said she found the financial industry to be an "obstacle course for women."

"I began to realize that competence is not enough, that there are issues of positive politics," she said.

So, she hired an executive coach, "to gain insight into my management style and qualities and to discuss strategies," she said. That coach was Dee Soder, a psychologist. Dr. Soder taught her the importance of networking and looking to other leaders to perfect her management style, said Krumsek.

Krumsiek also was in a good position to become a CEO candidate because she worked closely with Equitable's salespeople while she was an analyst there, she said. If more women worked in sales, more women would qualify for leadership positions, she said.

Diana Herrmann has been president and chief operating officer of Aquila Management Corporation of New York since 1997. The fund complex manages $3.2 billion through a family of 10 funds. Even though the company was founded by her father, Lacy Herrmann, now the company's chairman, she has had to work hard since joining the company in 1986 to attain her current position.

"I've worked hard to earn the respect of our employees, shareholders and board members," Herrmann said.

She also went back to school in 1996 to attend a ten-week advanced management program at Harvard Business School. Earlier, she had received a B.A. in art history and human development from Colby College in Waterville, Me.

Besides to the Harvard training, Herrmann attributed her attaining of a leadership role to another, unlikely experience - having volunteered for a ski patrol for 25 years. That experience prepared her for becoming president of the fund complex by acclimatizing her to working with men, she said.

"I've worked in arenas with men for so long it doesn't really throw me off," she said.

Her previous job at European American Bank also gave her a good background for her current role because she worked in so many different areas of the bank, including credit audit and lending, Herrmann said. In her last position, she reported to an executive vice president one level down from the chairman.

Herrmann has been very insistent about being taken seriously in her career at Aquila, especially because her father founded the firm, she said.

"I negotiated pretty tough with Lacy when he asked me to join his firm," she said. "I wanted a thorough job description and a competitive salary and to establish the grounds on which we would work."

Herrmann has enjoyed developing Aquila into a niche firm that specializes in regional funds. Because the funds invest in bonds that are used to finance local projects, Herrmann likes to hold local shareholder meetings to tell shareholders how their funds are being used to improve their communities. This takes her to Hawaii, Alaska, Oregon, Washington, Kentucky, Idaho, Arizona, Utah, Nevada and Rhode Island.

Like Herrmann, Amy Domini is president of a specialized fund, Domini Social Investments. The fund, based in New York, now has nearly $1 billion under management. It has grown tremendously since 1996, when it had only $70 million under management.

Although Domini now believes passionately in socially-responsible investing, she originally fell into the industry by accident after she graduated from college. Her first job was photocopying at the brokerage firm of Tucker Anthony & R.L. Day of Boston.

Domini said she was "completely nave about any barriers to women on Wall Street at the time.

"I saw men as intelligent as me making investment decisions, and I wasn't making much money, so I told the head of the firm I wanted to become a broker," Domini said, amazed today at her youthful candor.

What she did not know was that a number of brokerage firms at the time were being sued for not hiring women. So, she got her chance.

"It never occurred to me that women should not be there," Domini said. "I felt more like one of the guys."

She then became a stockbroker in Cambridge, Mass. for five years and thought about nothing but returns. Then, two of her clients asked her simple questions about their investments that began to make Domini think more carefully about where she was placing their money.

The first came from a client who had inherited stocks in a timber company. Because the client was also a birdwatcher, she subscribed to Audubon magazine and was surprised to read that paper companies were destroying the North American songbird population through their use of dioxin. The client asked Domini to find out if the company she was invested in used dioxin, and Domini discovered that it did.

Another client, a Quaker, asked Domini to find out if an electronics company that the client held stock in made parts for weapons. That also proved to be true.

"I became interested in investing in a way that has a positive impact on the world," Domini said.

This prompted her to teach an adult education class on socially-responsible investing. She would have let the whole topic drop if a provocateur friend had not said to her that if she thought she was such an expert on the subject, she should write a book, Domini said.

Annoyed by the remark, Domini got her revenge by writing a book in 1984, "Ethical Investing," published by Addison Wesley Longman of Upper Saddle Brook, N.J. It has sold 25,000 copies.

The following year, she quit her job as a stock broker and spent the next two years at Franklin Research & Development, a socially-responsible portfolio management firm now called Trillium Asset Management, of Boston.

Domini realized that to make socially-responsible investing practical, she would have to prove that investing in socially-responsible firms can produce profitable returns. So she left Trillium and raised the capital to create a research company that could prove the financial merits of socially-responsible investing.

The firm, Kinder, Lydenberg, Domini & Co. of Boston, created an index of 400 socially-responsible companies. It then analyzed these companies' performance over the previous five years.

Domini found that the returns of socially-responsible firms kept pace with and sometimes exceeded the returns of the S&P 500. She then tried to sell the index to all of the major mutual fund companies, including Merrill Lynch, Fidelity, Vanguard and even the Calvert Group, a family of socially-responsible funds.

"Nobody wanted to launch an index fund," Domini said. "This was before index funds became acceptable. They also could not envision a market demand for this type of investing."

The heads of marketing were always enthusiastic about the idea because it would give them something fresh to sell but upper management would then kill the idea, Domini said.

"They were afraid of losing all their investment banking business by promoting a socially-responsible fund that might omit these clients," Domini said.

In 1991, Domini decided to launch Domini Social Investments on her own. The company did not take off initially because every aspect of the business was out-sourced and the fund lacked a track record, she said.

But, in 1996, the fund reached its five-year mark and gained the attention of consultants and 401(k) plans.

"I never thought the fund would grow to this size," said Domini. "There were years when I was pretty discouraged." But with society seeming to be breaking down, as evidenced by the school shootings, socially responsible investing is becoming more acceptable, she said.

"I believe half the public feels pretty hopeless and discouraged, and if it is not going to hurt their retirement plan, they would just as soon take the chance to make a better world."

Susan McGee became president of U.S. Global Investors in 1998. She joined the investment management company based in San Antonio, Tex., in 1992. U.S. Global Investors advises 16 mutual funds with $1.5 billion of assets under management.

Like her peers, McGee never envisioned heading up an investment firm. She intended to follow in the footsteps of many of her family members and become a tax attorney, so she majored in accounting at the University of Houston.

Her path to U.S. Global Investors seemed even more improbable when she graduated from college and decided to raise a family of three children over the next nine years.

Finally, at the age of 30, McGee decided to go back to school for a law degree and found herself taking a number of securities regulation classes. When she graduated in 1992, the head of U.S. Global Investors, who knew McGee through their children, asked her to become general counsel of the company.

"He wanted someone with an accounting background who could work on estate planning and 401(k) plans," McGee said.

She was able to rise through the ranks at the company because she is "a quiet competitor," McGee said.

McGee also said she learned how to get people to compromise from her years of parenting.

"Women learn how to make personalities meld," she said. "I think being a mother to children with competing needs, you learn how to compromise."

Her diplomatic skills enable her to work with all of the departments at the firm - the money managers, the back office, the legal department and sales and marketing, she said.

The most important piece of advice McGee said she gives to other women trying to reach management positions at mutual fund companies is, "Learn as much as you can about the different pieces, what goes on behind the scenes. Be creative about getting the pieces to work."

Subscribe Now

Access to premium content including in-depth coverage of mutual funds, hedge funds, 401(K)s, 529 plans, and more.

3-Week Free Trial

Insight and analysis into the management, marketing, operations and technology of the asset management industry.