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Ken Fisher's lewd comments brought conference culture onto the stage

Shirt collars loosen, the audience slips away and the booze flows long before dinner. And that’s just the start.

As Wall Street tries to stamp out its longstanding reputation for bawdy misbehavior, some denizens fond of the old culture have been finding periodic refuge at industry conferences. After dark, many events are known for lewd comments and other interactions that would never fly back at the office.

Then on Tuesday, billionaire Ken Fisher took the stage at a summit for wealth and investment industry leaders in California and stunned the crowd by comparing the process of gaining a client’s trust to “trying to get into a girl’s pants” and also talking about genitalia. He has been trying to explain his remarks ever since, apologizing repeatedly.

Among many who regularly attend industry gatherings, the surprise in Fisher’s remarks was that he spoke them into a microphone. In interviews, financial professionals, including more than a half-dozen women, said they hear such comments at many events — but it’s usually after the formal presentations are done and crowds regroup in networking sessions, restaurants and bars.

“The sad truth is, I’m not shocked by what was said,” said Gail Graham, a 37-year veteran of the financial industry who held senior posts at Fidelity Investments and United Capital Financial Advisers and has run her own consulting business for wealth advisers. She hopes Fisher’s comments will prompt the industry to finally change.

“Those kinds of things have been said in front of me for a very long time” while socializing at conferences, she said. “At the same time, the networking is the most important part.”

A statue of a defiant girl stands facing the Charging Bull sculpture in the Financial District of New York, U.S., on Wednesday, March 8, 2017. State Street Global Advisors, a nearly $2.5 trillion investor and unit within State Street Corp., installed the bronze statue in front of Wall Street's iconic charging bull as part of its new campaign to pressure companies to add more women to their boards. Photographer: Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg

Women — often a small fraction of conference attendees — also described trying to network with men who respond with elevator eyes, comment on their appearance, or reach out mid-conversation to touch their hair, arms or backs. One woman said she keeps having the same experience: Male attendees drink and get handsy. Because the events happen away from the office and human resources departments, people are willing to cross boundaries, she said.

“People joke about putting roofies in my drink — different people, different events, it’s a theme,” said Sonya Dreizler, a consultant. She thought she would be treated better by other attendees as her career advanced. At some conferences it’s improved, she said, but at most it hasn’t.

Almost everyone else interviewed for this story spoke on the condition they not be named. Most noted that they never reported incidents. Some said they want to make connections and do business, and that complaining risks creating enemies instead.

The venue where Fisher spoke is meant to be private. Tiburon Strategic Advisors hosts the summit for chief executive officers, charging a $25,000 membership fee that includes access to the semi-annual events in San Francisco and New York. Unlike many conferences hungry for attention, Tiburon’s are closed the media. The idea is to create “the only true forums where financial services industry CEOs” can freely discuss business opportunities, according to the company’s website.

Fisher’s remarks came to light after Alex Chalekian, the founder of Lake Avenue Financial, posted a video on Twitter calling them “absolutely horrifying.” The incident has gripped the investment world, even if it wasn’t the first time a prominent member of the industry said something vulgar they soon regretted.

“I realize this kind of language has no place in our company or industry,” Fisher said in a statement Thursday. “I sincerely apologize.”

Tiburon added Fisher’s name to a list of attendees it has banned over the years for a variety of reasons, including comments that were insulting or disrespectful, Managing Partner Charles “Chip” Roame said in an open letter posted online Thursday. He said he had encouraged speakers this week to address topics including the lack of women in the industry.

“Comments like we heard on Tuesday, in my opinion, will discourage women from participating in the wealth & investment management industry,” Roame wrote, seeking suggestions on addressing that problem and in enlisting more women and minority speakers for future events. “Help us.”

Bloomberg News