Most Powerful Women in Finance: No. 18, Russell Investments' Michelle Seitz

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Chairman and CEO, Russell Investments

When Michelle Seitz was head of investment management at William Blair & Co. in Chicago, she often fielded calls from private equity investors who were interested in hearing her thoughts on industry and market trends.

In one such call, with TA Associates, Seitz had expressed interest in perhaps serving on a board of one or more of the private companies in TA’s portfolio. The discussions progressed over a period of weeks and at some point turned to another topic: succession planning at Russell Investments, the Seattle asset management firm that TA had acquired in 2016.

Next thing Seitz knew, she was packing her bags and heading west.

Seitz was named Russell’s chief executive in September 2017 and added the title of chairman four months later. She is just the seventh CEO — and the first woman in the job — in Russell’s 83-year history.

The decision to leave William Blair, where for 16 years she ran the institutional, mutual fund and private wealth management businesses, was not an easy one for Seitz. She had transformed the investment management unit from a regional money manager for high-net-worth families to a global one with nearly $70 billion of assets under management, and she felt a deep loyalty to the firm and its employees. Seitz and her husband also have five kids and she was concerned about uprooting them.

But Seitz made the jump because Russell is far larger and she saw an opportunity to have a major impact at a time when, she said, the industry needs to be reinvented to take out duplicative costs, improve value for clients and address the fact that millions of people are not saving nearly enough for retirement.

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“There is no question in my mind that the industry is in the middle of a massive structural change and I wanted to be at a firm that could make a real difference and drive the industry forward,” she said.

Russell is one of the top 75 money managers in the world, with about $300 billion of assets under management. (It also has $2.6 trillion under advisement for clients in 32 countries, making it the fourth largest adviser globally.)

As such, “we are one of the few firms worldwide that has the depth and breadth required to help close this retirement gap,” Seitz said.

According to the World Economic Forum, current and future retirees face a $70 trillion shortfall between what they have set aside and what they will need in retirement, and that will grow to $400 trillion by 2050 if the industry doesn’t address it, Seitz said.

One of the products Seitz is championing is a so-called personalized retirement account, a technology-driven tool that uses a wide range of data — including income level, monthly spending, the number of years someone plans to work — to help build portfolios that are highly tailored to the needs of individuals.

Under Seitz, Russell has also been investing heavily in technology aimed at eliminating inefficiencies in trading and portfolio management, with a goal of lowering costs, and improving returns, for clients.
Early returns have been promising. Last year, Russell reduced its operating expenses by 6%.

“Every dollar that you [save] in transaction fees, in management fees, is critical … to closing that $70 trillion gap,” Seitz said.

Seitz is one of the handful of women leading a major asset management firm. She said her career breakthrough came in 1987 just as she was graduating from Indiana University and was waiting on a job offer in the asset management division at NationsBank. With the clock ticking on other jobs she’d been offered but didn’t want, Seitz decided to call the hiring manager directly — only to find out that the job had gone to someone else.

Then, after a pause, the hiring manager asked if she’d be interested in joining the firm if a job was created for her. Weeks later, Seitz drove to Charlotte, N.C., “with my turtle U-Haul on top of my car,” and by the fall she was managing $800 million of client assets with full autonomy. The next year, she received the firm’s “rookie of the year” award for best performance.

The lesson: “If you want something,” Seitz said, “pick up the phone and ask for it.”

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Wealth management Retirement planning Global investing Asset management Russell Investments Women in Banking