Voice of Experience: Denise Higgins, CFA, Client Portfolio Manager, ING U.S. Investment Management

denisehigginsBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

Having spent most of her career as a portfolio manager, Denise Higgins, CFA, Client Portfolio Manager at ING U.S. Investment Management, says she feels very fortunate to have worked in a profession where women succeeded based on merit. “As a portfolio manager, you get a report card every day and your performance can be judged very objectively. If you deliver strong results, you will advance,” she said. However, one of the key challenges for women in the industry is that there are still few female role models at the very top.

But, she continued, she believes things are improving and that senior women can help facilitate the change – by actively mentoring and sponsoring the next generation of women in the pipeline.

“Take the time to be a mentor. You can mentor formally, but do it informally too. Identify the people who have good promise and try to give it back by advising them and raising their exposure. The only way to get more women in management roles in the industry is to lend a hand and be proactive about it,” she encouraged.

Career Transitions

“I’m one of those lucky people who fell into the investment management business right after school,” Higgins recalled. After earning an MBA at Wharton, she interned at Lord Abbett, and was then asked to join the company full time. Higgins spent the next ten years there, first working as an equity research analyst for a mid cap value fund and eventually becoming a portfolio manager.

In the early ‘90s, Higgins joined JP Morgan Asset Management to work with the firm’s core products, like its small cap core portfolio, and then moved to McKay Shields for the next ten years, where she worked with small cap and all cap growth products. “Over my career, I managed all kinds of funds,” she explained, “Growth, value, core, small, mid, large… I felt I was growing along the way and I loved it.”

“I was happy at McKay, but in ’09 when the market corrected, a new chairman came in and decided we should exit the equity business – and let everybody go. It was a little bit of a shock.”

Higgins spent the next few months thinking carefully about her career – where she wanted to go next, what her strengths were, and what she found interesting. “I really tried to take a ‘blue sky’ approach,” she said. “I started doing a lot of networking and explored the possibilities. I had spent my career managing money, but in that role I had also had experience interacting with clients, and I liked that.”

She began spending more time networking with people in client facing areas. “I was trying to figure out what I liked and didn’t like, how roles were different at different firms, and the more I heard about it, the more I thought a client-related position was something I’d enjoy. I began looking for a hybrid where I could leverage my investment expertise with my client skills.”

After several months of interviews, Higgins landed at ING U.S. Investment Management as a Client Portfolio Manager. “I liked the people and the research-driven culture there, as well as the nature of the role. They were looking for a broad based expert who could represent the entire equity platform. It is challenging but extremely interesting – and I like it that way. I meet with existing clients and focus on new business development efforts, and I’ve absolutely loved it.”

She added, “I feel unbelievably fortunate I found this new role and I could make this career segue. I’ve transitioned very happily so I feel lucky in that sense.”

Currently, Higgins is enjoying learning more about her new position. “There’s a learning curve – when it comes to the sales and distribution side, I had some exposure as a portfolio manager, but not in this much depth. In addition to working closely with our equity investment team, my role touches so many aspects of the organization that I’ve never interacted with as deeply before, such as sales, marketing, and client service. I’m enjoying working with so many colleagues in various departments, and I’m also enjoying the client interaction – I find that very rewarding.”

She added, “At the end of the day, the most important thing we do is to provide great stewardship and service to our clients, and I feel I can do that very effectively in this role.”

Industry Views

Higgins says she has always been interested in tracking industry trends, because the asset management industry is always evolving and changing. “Industry-wide, a lot of institutions continue to diversify more, and the trend seems to be allocating away from domestic equities and toward alternatives. I understand why – there’s a lot of volatility,” Higgins said.

“However, now that we have experienced over a decade of fairly weak equity market returns, I wonder whether the pendulum may be swinging in the wrong direction. From a long-term perspective, it might actually be time to consider shifting some assets back to equities. Alternatives can help protect the downside, but in some cases can also limit the upside potential, which may make it more difficult for institutions to meet their long-term return targets. ”

Referring to her career-long involvement in equities, Higgins said with a laugh, “I don’t mean to sound self-serving! But I read with interest recently that a very large public pension plan has stated its intention to reduce alternatives and increase equities in the next five to ten years. I think that is a trend which bears watching .”

Women in the Financial Services

Higgins believes one of the key challenges for women in the industry is how few women make it to the top. “I think in the asset management industry, we do a good job of attracting women into positions such as research analysts and portfolio managers. But in senior management at a lot of money management firms, there are fewer women than would be ideal.”

She continued, “I know it takes time and a lot of work on the pipeline. I think ING U.S. Investment Management is doing a great job. But the industry still seems to be fairly male dominated. Hopefully over time the industry will see how talented women are, and women will move into more senior management roles.”

She advised women beginning their careers in the industry to work hard. “It’s a very competitive industry, but it’s absolutely fascinating. You’ll always be learning something, and the market is always changing – you never get bored. You can definitely advance if you perform well, and I would encourage younger women to enter this field. ”

Looking back on her early career, Higgins says she wishes she had been more confident. “I think I could have been more confident in myself to ask for more responsibilities earlier than I did. It wasn’t until I asked to be a Portfolio Manager that it happened.”

She explained, “There’s nothing wrong with asking, as long as you deliver on your responsibilities. I should have learned that earlier on. Don’t hesitate to ask to take on more, especially if you’re proud of your work. That always impresses me when a young person asks for the opportunity to do more.”

Higgins encouraged young women to network early and often. “Network both inside and outside your organization. Meet other people and get their perspective on how other organizations do things. That makes you more valuable to your organization to have that knowledge.”

She also advised junior people to reach out to more senior people. “In your organization, don’t be afraid to reach out to a manager and say ‘I’d love to learn more about what you do.’ I think people are impressed by younger people trying to learn more. Also ask more experienced colleagues about their thoughts on industry trends – our industry is constantly changing, and getting their insights may help you to think about different ways your career might evolve.”

Higgins praised ING’s mentoring program, adding that the firm spends a lot of time carefully matching up mentors and mentees. “I’ve really enjoyed participating in the mentor program and I get a lot out of it too – a lot of perspective. It’s very rewarding.”

She also mentioned the firm’s “speed mentoring” program, where junior people get the chance to spend 15 to 20 minutes with the management committee. “It helps the firm identify talent, and it gives them exposure they wouldn’t normally have.”

In Her Personal Time

Outside work, Higgins is involved with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. “Diabetes is a widespread disease which can cause very serious long-term complications, and it has affected my family and many friends. I sit on the JDRF’s Investment Committee and try to maximize the foundation’s assets, which are used to fund research to cure diabetes.”

She explained, “I figure, I know how to invest – it’s something I can do to help cure this disease, which is a cause I’m very passionate about.”