It may be an over-used chestnut at times, but that “there is no ‘I’ in team” is still a popular phrase in the worlds of sport and industry. And Kathleen Murphy, a team player to her fingertips, is the epitome of someone who believes in the importance of “we” rather than “I” when it comes to getting things done. Is this valuable characteristic something that harks back to her high school sporting days? She certainly seems to think so. Her swim training (to state championship level), along with her participation in basketball, she acknowledges, taught her an early lesson about the importance of teamwork, both “on the field and in business.” Fast-forward a couple of decades, and Murphy – the president of Fidelity Personal Investing (a unit of Fidelity Investments) and one of the top 50 most powerful women in business – is still convinced of the value of teamwork. To this end, there’s no separating herself from the rest of her colleagues and closing the office door behind her: “Everyone’s on the same team, and there’s no reason for me to have an office… We don’t have offices anymore because it’s all about collaborating together in teams. I gave up my office several years ago.”With a bachelor’s degree in economics and political science, followed by a Juris Doctor degree from the University of Connecticut School of Law, Murphy – known as Kat or Murph to friends, family, and close colleagues – initially worked in the legal department at Aetna, rising to general counsel and chief compliance officer. After Aetna sold its financial services to ING, she switched from legal matters to the business side, becoming CEO of ING U.S. Wealth Management – and later moving to Boston to take on her role at Fidelity. In this role she has responsibility for Fidelity’s retail brokerage, mutual fund, IRA, insurance, and managed accounts businesses.
The teamwork started early for Murphy, who grew up in Connecticut as the third of six children. Her father, a salesman whose Murphy and Ahern forebears hailed from Cork, and her mom, a nurse with Connors and Reardons from Kerry in her bloodline, raised their three boys and three girls in a traditional Irish-Catholic family. “They drilled into us the importance of faith, family, hard work, and being good people,” she said in an interview with Irish America in 2019. The importance of sticking together – on another team – was also nailed down at an early age, with Murphy’s father telling his offspring: “You guys can fight among yourselves as much as you need to, but as soon as you walk out that door, you support your brothers and sisters.” It was her dad’s sudden death at 57 which Murphy also credits with eventually influencing her current career path. With the division of roles in the family having been fairly traditional – Murphy’s mom paid the bills while her dad did the investing – Murphy helped her mother navigate the new reality of having to manage her finances in the best way possible. With three kids still in college, this would be quite the challenge.
Recalls Murphy: “Helping my mother through this period gave me a very clear picture of some of the financial challenges people, especially women, face. Women have a very different perspective on why they care about money, and it’s to either help their family or achieve their goals. And they’re quite often, unfortunately, intimidated by the way the financial services industry both talks to them and treats them in the process. I have developed quite a passion for trying to empower women to take control of their futures by taking care of their finances.”It’s no surprise that the avid young reader who adored Little Women – Jo March featuring as something of a personal hero – and the Nancy Drew series would grow up to feel so strongly about the need to encourage women as the masters of their own financial affairs. This empowerment of women is something Murphy returns to again and again – and she outlines the way in which Fidelity is trying to change the status quo, both in terms of hiring more women in financial roles and in helping female clients to benefit from better financial management. “At Fidelity we’ve got a team focused on helping women,” she explained to Irish America editor Patricia Harty in last year’s interview.
“We’re breaking down barriers in terms of how approachable the information is we provide … We’ve hired more women financial advisors – less than twenty percent of financial advisors in the industry overall are women. We’ve had a focused effort over the last several years to hire women at all levels in terms of serving customers, and so now in our branches, across the country, I’m pleased to say that half of the people we have hired in our branches over the last several years are women, which is much better than the industry average.”Despite her elevated status in the company she joined in 2009, Murphy manages to keep a close eye, and ear, on the bottom line, and uses her commuting time to listen to customer calls so she can keep an eye on how best to improve the customer experience. She is a big believer in positive energy, hard work, curiosity, and a good attitude. Having enjoyed positive mentoring experiences on her way up, she appreciates the value of having someone on your side: “If somebody has confidence in you, you tend to take more chances, you tend to do more, and I have always benefited from that.”
What does she see as key issues for the future? “Having inclusion and diversity of thought, and really embracing that, is the future,” she states confidently. “There’s a huge challenge in that more than half of college and postgraduate degrees are earned by women, and yet less than twenty-five percent of the financial services industry is made up of women.”
The recipient of an honorary degree from University College Cork in 2014, Murphy is a regular visitor to Ireland, and Fidelity have recruited a lot of staff from the Leeside university. She appreciated the significance of the honor: “My father’s family was all from Cork, I was like, ‘Oh my God, if my father was still alive…’” In his address at the occasion of her UCC conferring with a Doctor of Economic Science, Professor Ciaran Murphy paid tribute to Kathleen: “She is generous with her time and she actively shares her advice with others, on a range of social media and traditional platforms. Her social conscience has led, among other things, to her support for the U.S. State Department’s Mentoring Program, which has enabled her to connect with and support businesswomen from emerging countries like Bangladesh, Palestine, and Ghana.” Eileen Murray, co-CEO of Bridgewater Associates, who serves alongside Murphy on the FINRA board of governors [FINRA is a government-authorized not-for-profit organization that oversees U.S. broker-dealers], has this to say about the dynamic Connecticut native: “Kathy Murphy is a leader who has the unique combination of incredible integrity, smarts, vision, wisdom, empathy, common sense, and a great sense of humor. She’s one of those people who knows what needs to happen and makes things happen… Ireland and America should be proud to call this special person ‘daughter.’”