Karen Wimbish, head of retail retirement at Wells Fargo discusses her 16 years in the securities business.

I grew up in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia with five siblings. I had a high grade point average, which at the time could translate into a high Civil Service score. I entered the Civil Service and worked at NASA in the aircraft wing design group at Langley Air Force Base for three summers.

When I graduated from the University of Richmond with a degree in math and economics, NASA offered me a job. My parents were horrified when I turned it down because it paid double what other graduates were getting. But I wanted to be around people in a less isolating role. I entered a management training program in retail banking with United Virginia Bank, which became SunTrust, and worked in credit analysis.

About every two years, I changed jobs at the bank. If there's a position that will expand your toolkit, even if it's a lateral or a short-term assignment, you should consider it. By moving around, I managed projects, was responsible for profit-and-loss centers, and helped turn around problem businesses.

In September 1987, I became a commercial account manager with a loan portfolio that included manufacturing and insurance companies concentrated in broker-dealers. The next month, the market crashed and the whole industry was awash in margin calls. My clients were faced with millions in outstanding loans. It was a baptism by fire, and no one could value their securities held as collateral.

In 1996, I moved from banking to brokerage when I joined Wheat First Securities, a predecessor to Wells Fargo Advisors. I spent four years in asset management, leading the high-net-worth and institutional relationship management group.

Next, I moved to the retail brokerage at Wachovia, followed by the Latin America Group, a real stretch assignment. We incorporated nine Latin American offices into our firm. I learned that if I could figure out those operations, I could figure out anything.

I've worked for the same firm under four different names for the last 16 years, starting with Wheat First. In 2010, I was promoted to my present position.

I love my job because retirement is on everyone's mind. When I appeared on TV, the makeup artist, hairstylist, and my production escort all asked me about their retirements. They ranged in age from 20-something to 50-something.

Our industry has been focused on accumulation and total return, but that's shifting. For the first time, boomers are spending principal. Retirement income is the next frontier.

Recently, I achieved a dream on my bucket list — visiting Machu Picchu in Peru, where farmers still till the fields by hand. It puts things in perspective. Despite our economic and social challenges, we're very fortunate in this country.

As Told to Pat Olsen


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