The head of alternative investments and specialty asset management at Bank of America had trouble envisioning herself on the cover of a business or financial magazine. In fact, the notion made her uncomfortable.
Spend a little time talking to Nancy Fahmy, the woman who occupies that position at the financial giant, and it isn’t hard to understand why. Let’s start with her demeanor. Fahmy is soft spoken on all subjects. She was raised by Egyptian immigrant parents who, although professionally accomplished, were models of humility and conveyed those values to their daughter, whether by indoctrination or osmosis. And when Fahmy recruits new members to her organization, humility is one of the chief characteristics for which she vets.
All of which still leaves this question hanging in the balance: What is she doing on the cover of this magazine?
In the final analysis, Fahmy considered it her duty. She was selected to serve as a global ambassador for Bank of America’s partnership with Vital Voices, an organization with a mentorship program that aims to achieve gender equality and economic empowerment for women. She also cites Catalyst, another global nonprofit focused on advancing women in the workplace, whose research and insights around female empowerment led them to develop the slogan, “If you can’t see her, you can’t be her.”
The verity of that slogan was learned firsthand by Fahmy during her early professional years on the trading floor at Bankers Trust, where she was unofficially mentored by the woman who would eventually become her first and only female boss, Mary Ann Coleman.
“First and foremost, it was her knowledge and her ability to execute,” says Fahmy. “She was incredibly knowledgeable, incredibly capable. I also had never worked for a woman, so it was an opportunity for me to model myself after a female executive and see how she navigated. She was one of the few women at the time that was in a position of power on the trading floor.”
Fahmy sat just feet away from Coleman on the trading floor and made a point of listening in to her phone calls with clients and colleagues to improve her knowledge and professionalism. She received direct guidance from Coleman as well, who her colleagues nicknamed “Mac” in accordance with her initials.
When Deutsche Bank acquired Bankers Trust in November 1998, Fahmy was able to retain her job and was eventually recruited by Coleman to work for her capital markets team.
“I was intimidated by her,” Fahmy admits.
That would change over time, as today the women remain friends, with Coleman having attended Fahmy’s wedding in Maui.
“She retired just this past year and still is a mentor to me,” says Fahmy. “I still call her because I continue learning from her. I really appreciate what she has done for me.”
To invert the previously mentioned slogan, Fahmy saw her and became her.
The first five jobs Fahmy held after matriculating from the University of Delaware were all at Bankers Trust, culminating in her ascension to the trading desk.
“They encouraged you to get involved in whatever you could and to be a problem solver,” says Fahmy. “You were rewarded for hard work and, frankly, I put my hand up and sought multiple jobs, year after year. I was able to learn so much. I started in the back office and worked my way to the equity derivatives office for institutional clients, but my goal was to be on a trading desk. I had my sights set on that beautiful trading desk overlooking the Statue of Liberty.”
It was a goal set and achieved by Fahmy, and she speaks fondly of the trading desk and capital markets to this day, as well as the quintessentially American view it gave her of the majestic Lady Liberty.
The situation didn’t last long, however. In November 1998 Deutsche Bank announced its intention to acquire Bankers Trust for $10.1 billion. The deal was finalized June 4, 1999. Fahmy was grateful that she survived the merger and became a member of the Deutsche Bank team, but gone was the Bankers Trust Plaza trading floor at 130 Liberty Street with the view of the Statue of Liberty.
“I was put on a floor with their lawyers. At the time I realized, ‘wow, this is not good.’”
That’s when Coleman saved the situation by approaching Fahmy and asking, “Why don’t you come work for me?” Fahmy joined Coleman’s team without hesitation.
“I didn’t officially work for her until we were at Deutsche Bank,” says Fahmy. “It was the best move I ever made.”
COMING TO AMERICA
Fahmy, the offspring of Egyptian parents who immigrated from Cairo, grew up in northern New Jersey, less than 20 miles west of New York City.
“I am first generation American,” she observes, “so I kind of grew up in an American household, but an Egyptian-American household. We valued a lot of the culture that my parents wanted to instill in us, but really so thankful to be born and raised here, with all the opportunities that it has afforded to me.”
The poignancy of her situation is made plain when she visits family and friends in Cairo and witnesses the stark chasm between the “haves and have-nots” and the absence of anything resembling a middle class, despite having a big population of highly educated young people staring down the barrel of a steep unemployment rate. It is those bright minds devoid of economic opportunity that served as the flashpoint for the 2012 Tahrir Square protest and overthrow of longtime President Hosni Mubarak. Ultimately, the country fell back under military rule and has struggled to enrich its people.
“All you have to do is drive down the street and you can see extreme poverty and wealth all in one place, and there is nothing in the middle,” reports Fahmy. “That is probably partly what drives my focus on education and economic empowerment.”
The Fahmy family was among the lucky. Her father — whom she refers to as “a very unique individual” — graduated high school early and headed to medical school, which is a seven-year program in Egypt.
“He was a real life Doogie Howser,” she says, referencing the 1989-1993 comedy/drama Doogie Howser, M.D., starring Neil Patrick Harris as a medical prodigy.
He studied and practiced as a physician in Cairo and eventually set his sights on the United States, seeking a better life for his family. But first came London, where he worked for several years as an orthopedic surgeon, married, and then he came to New York City and practiced medicine in both the Big Apple and New Jersey. In total, his medical career spanned more than 50 years.
Fahmy’s mother was also committed to the medical profession as a nurse.
“She cares deeply about people,” says Fahmy. “She is one of the most caring people I have ever met. I was raised by incredibly loving parents, and my life was filled with lots of family and friends.”
AN EMERGING PATH
Fahmy headed to the University of Delaware to study business administration and finance while minoring in economics. She had not a clue of what she wanted to do with her life at that point. The light started to dawn when she took a business elective taught by a woman who was a former business executive on Wall Street.
“I found it to be so fascinating,” says Fahmy. The students created mock portfolios, conducted stock trading simulations, and competed on returns.
The experience convinced her to join Future Business Leaders of America, an organization that assists young people in preparing for careers in business through academic competitions, leadership development and educational programs.
“There is a lot of pressure on young people to know exactly what they want to do, and it is hard to know until you graduate,” she says. “I got my first job in equity derivatives back office, and I didn’t know what that meant. I figured it out as I worked.”
A FINANCIAL RECKONING
Fahmy’s time at Deutsche Bank came to a close in 2006 when she was recruited to join Merrill Lynch. A former Deutsche Bank colleague recommended her for a new initiative at Merrill Lynch, the formation of a new business unit. They were looking for someone with experience in structuring cross-asset-class OTC derivatives. Fahmy came to know him while he was running the commodities business in wealth management at Deutsche Bank and was subsequently employed in the capital markets group at Merrill Lynch when he recommended her to lead the new initiative. They remain friends and colleagues today.
The trading desk at Merrill Lynch was her dominion when the global financial crisis struck in 2007 with magnum force.
“It was a scary time, a very uncertain time,” she recalls. “We didn’t know if our firm would survive. First and foremost, I was concerned about the clients, as well as the team that worked for me.”
Prior to 2009, Merrill Lynch was publicly owned and traded on the New York Stock Exchange. Business historians have written on Wikipedia that it rose to prominence on the strength of its network of financial advisers, sometimes referred to as the “thundering herd,” which allowed it to directly place the securities it underwrote. That distinguished the firm from many other big-name Wall Street rivals such as Morgan Stanley, which relied on groups of independent brokers for placement of the securities they underwrote.
Its storied past made it all the more shocking when the firm was essentially forced into the hands of Bank of America in September 2008 by regulators as the federal government sought to stabilize the U.S. and broader world economies as they teetered on the brink. In 2019, Bank of America renamed the unit simply Merrill.
“I was very fortunate in that I was able to secure a job internally for every person that worked for me,” she says. “We were able to transition a number of folks to different businesses within the firm.”
As frightening a time as it was, Fahmy believes it changed the industry for the better, focusing it on de-risking the business going forward and placing greater emphasis on risk/reward calculations.
“We have a very strong culture of identifying risk and ensuring that our teammates do the same,” says Fahmy, in reference to the combined BofA/Merrill company, which was also her transition from capital markets to alternatives. “I took the job in alternatives, and it actually turned into one of the best things I ever did. I really do love alts, and I probably wouldn’t have made the transition on my own.”
She considers the broadening access to alternatives as one of the most exciting things happening in the profession. Once geared toward institutional investors and high-net-worth individuals and families, alternatives are fast becoming accessible to retail investors.
“There has been a tremendous amount of evolution, a lot of product innovation. Alternative asset managers are innovating and creating solutions for clients that meet the accredited investor criteria.”
Much as you could imagine her advising her clients to do, Fahmy practices living below her means, and suspects having been part of an immigrant family might have given her an extra measure of cautiousness in financial matters.
“But I also enjoy nice things. I like to spend money on the things that I like and the people that I care about.”
Those would include travel, food and wine.
“Travel is a really important one to me,” she says. “My husband and I decided we would rather see a new country and have new experiences than buy one another gifts. We enjoy eating pretty extravagant meals in nice restaurants. I’m also a wine drinker. I like good wine and wine pairings.”
Fahmy doesn’t do trains anymore. She is not among the millions of Connecticut and New Jersey denizens who commute to Manhattan via Amtrak or the PATH train each weekday. That is her time to catch-up with friends and family, and she does that by phone, meaning her privacy would likely be invaded by those within earshot. More likely, they would simply be annoyed by the prattle.
All those years on the trading desk still has Fahmy traveling to work especially early, getting to her desk by 7 a.m.
“I don’t have a single meeting on my calendar,” she says. “I get a tremendous amount done.”
As the day progresses the team that gradually surrounds Fahmy is composed of people whose ethos is to roll up their sleeves. She admits to seeking to recruit people who share her professional worldview. That would include industriousness and humility.
“There is nothing that bothers me more than somebody who says, ‘that is not my job.’”
COVERING THE BASES
Fahmy points to the global financial crisis as the defining moment in her career. By the time it struck, she had accumulated 15 years of experience and credibility in capital markets, particularly cross-asset-class derivatives. When that market dried up on Fahmy and the industry, she was given her current opportunity in alternatives, an area for which she was devoid of knowledge. Or so she thought.
“A boss of mine on the equity side was moving into wealth management and he made that opportunity available to me. I questioned whether I could make the transition,” she recalls. “He said to me, almost flippantly, ‘you have been structuring derivatives and covering very diverse and challenging institutional clients for 15 years. This is going to be easy for you.’ That was a pivotal moment for me. I realized so much of what I knew was transferable. So, fast forward and I was running alternative investments and was asked to also run wealth management at the same time. I ran both businesses for about two years. I kind of realized at that point that I could do anything. Before that, I felt like I needed to be a deep subject matter expert for years before taking a chance on something else.”
It is those types of experiences and epiphanies that helped make Fahmy well suited to her role with Vital Voices, for which she was selected 2017 Global Ambassador for Bank of America’s partnership with the women’s empowerment organization. Fahmy provides mentorship to women entrepreneurs from around the world, as BofA assigns a contingent of female leaders from within the company to pair with women entrepreneurs as part of a structured mentorship program that teaches the mentees skills ranging from creating business and marketing plans to securing financing.
“These women get a lot out of it, but I feel like I got a tremendous amount out of providing that guidance, not just to the mentee that I was paired with, but the full group of 20 women,” she says. “We were all together for a weeklong stint in New York and then multiple follow-ups. It aligns not only with the bank’s commitment to empowering women, but also my personal passion for economic gender equality and providing equal access to education and to capital.”
It was, after all, the influence of Mary Ann Coleman who catalyzed Fahmy’s early professional years and served as her unofficial (and, perhaps, unwitting) mentor. Fahmy learned early the power of emulating someone who models professionalism and success. But first, aspiring women have to see it, and it was the recognition of that lesson that — despite Fahmy’s discomfort with the notion — landed her on the cover of this magazine.
Mike Consol (firstname.lastname@example.org) is editor of Real Assets Adviser. Follow him on Twitter @mikeconsol to read his latest postings.