Movers and Shakers: Kerris Wigfall, Vice President, Fixed Income Compliance, ING U.S. Investment Management

By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

“It’s very hard for me to say there are particular barriers for professional women,” began Kerris Wigfall, Head of Fixed Income Compliance at ING U.S. Investment Management. “And as an African American woman, I’m pretty sure a lot of people would expect me to say it’s harder to move forward. But that hasn’t been my experience.”

She continued, “Different companies play by different rules in determining how people grow and move forward. For me, I’ve focused on learning and trying to be the best at what I do, and I’ve been honest with myself with regard to what I’m willing to tolerate. I’ve found that’s how to earn people’s respect. As a result, people have been willing to vouch for me and help me move forward.”

She recalled how, when she interviewed for her first company out of law school, the firm didn’t have a compliance job available. “But the person who interviewed me was impressed by my skills and abilities, and he wanted to take a chance on me. Nine months later, he called me back because he found an opportunity for me.”

Similarly, another previous boss has served as a reference for her later on. “He knew what I could do and my level of professionalism and was willing to do what he could to help me take the next step in my career.”

Wigfall says she has been able to cultivate that kind of sponsorship throughout her career. “I’ve been blessed to have people who understand what I’m trying to do, and really support me moving forward,” she added.

Career Path in Compliance

After studying finance at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland, Wigfall went on to earn a law degree. She explained, “I had always planned to go to law school. Going into college, I thought as an accounting major I’d be able to make a good living while earning my law degree, but along the way I realized I hated accounting and switched to Finance. In my junior year at Morgan, my future became clearer as I saw securities law as a way to put the Finance and Law degrees to work.”

“But the more I learned about attorneys, the more I realized I didn’t want to work at a firm. I was working crazy, insane hours through law school, and then came to realize that I would have the same kind of schedule if I worked for a law firm,” she continued with a laugh. “That’s what led me to compliance. It would allow me to merge my finance background and my legal background. It would be a challenging career in something I liked, with the opportunities and earning potential I was looking for – and it would also be something interesting.”

After law school, Wigfall joined T. Rowe Price Associates and then three years later, she moved to Morgan Stanley Investment Management in the law division, transitioning from mutual funds to policy and procedure. Then she moved to Citigroup Asset Management. “I was responsible for Fixed Income Compliance, North America. It was a combination of my roles at T. Rowe Price and Morgan Stanley. I was now responsible for the guideline compliance as well as policy and procedure.”

When Citigroup Asset Management was acquired by Legg Mason, Wigfall decided to leave the firm to seek other opportunities, and she became Chief Compliance Officer at MEAG NY. “It gave me the opportunity to move forward from a management standpoint,” she explained.

“That was the biggest step of my career,” she said. “From managing a small team to overseeing compliance for an entire company, that was a major achievement for me. I worked alongside the three other Vice Presidents, the COO, and the CEO to make decisions for the company and it gave me an opportunity to weigh in and make decisions about what was good for our employees.”

Six years later, she joined ING in June of 2011, where she is responsible for the fixed income compliance team, as well as overseeing the compliance function for company’s senior loan business. The move from a small company to a much larger one has been interesting. At MEAG NY, there were about 55 employees and 5 vice presidents, she noted, and at ING there are a few thousand employees and therefore many vice presidents. However, each officer’s decisions and responsibilities impact a larger business.

She continued, “Being a manager means you have a lot of responsibilities, but it’s also really great to be in a role where you have the ability to further the interests of the people who work for you. Helping others to learn and move along in their career is what I enjoy most.”

“Right now there are so many different things happening that I am excited about. For example, now I’m learning more about our real estate finance group. ING is such a dynamic company. That keeps this job interesting.”

Currently she is also following the impact of the new regulations coming out of Dodd Frank. “It will be interesting to see the true impact of it and to what extent it lasts and survives the changing administrations over time,” Wigfall explained. “One complaint I’ve never had is that this job is boring. Every day in compliance you find new challenges.”

Advice for Professional Women

Wigfall advised women to watch out for self-imposed limitations. “I can’t say I’ve had challenges because of my race or sex, but I think we enable obstacles when we expect race or sex to be a challenge. If you expect it, you start to limit yourself.”

She continued, “You begin pulling back because you think someone’s going to hold you back. I made the decision that I was going to succeed, that I was going to get the opportunities I wanted, and I worked hard to get them.”

“I put myself in a position where I couldn’t be denied opportunities because I had proven myself. Whatever you do, go into it with the full intent to do your best.”

Beyond that, she advised young women beginning their careers to keep an open mind. She explained with a laugh, “Every company has its issues, and you will have days when you think your job is broken and you need a new one.”

“When you first start out you have to learn that no matter what people say, everyone has a role to play. You may hear people say that a certain person doesn’t belong in that leadership role. Trust, they did something to get there.”

She explained, “Give people the benefit of the doubt – they’re doing something to earn that spot. Keep your eyes open and you will learn something. I think that young people don’t always realize that. But if you pay attention, you begin to realize that there is a lot happening behind the scenes and you will learn what it takes to move forward within your company or within your field.”

For women who are toward the mid-level of their careers, she continued, “Don’t forget to reach back to those climbing the ladder behind you. “And don’t forget what it was like when you were entry level,” she continued. “Once you’ve achieved a certain level of success, it’s easy to forget what it was like, how badly you wanted that title back then. Never forget how that felt.”

She added, “The best thing about my job is being able to bring talented people forward.”

In Her Personal Time

Outside the office, Wigfall says she enjoys baking. “I love to bake. It started with me being a picky eater. I’d go to a restaurant and order something and then I’d go home and make it the way I thought it should have been made.”

She also spends a lot of time with her family. “My sisters are here in Atlanta too, and most of the time if you can find me, you’ll find one of them as well!”