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NICSA's O'Halloran to Give Industry an Education

Kathleen O'Halloran, the National Investment Company Service Association's [NICSA] newly appointed director of education, joined Colonial as its director of training in 1986, just about the time new government regulations clamped down on investors' ability to totally duck taxes on their IRAs.

Hoping to sock some money into the accounts before the cutoff date, thousands of investors began filing new IRA applications in the months that followed. The applications, she said, were piled up everywhere and Colonial and other companies hired droves of new employees to process the forms. The employees were, she said, like drones who knew how to do one task and do it quickly.

The mantra at the time was, "Hit enter and that's it," she said.

Today, the industry is much different and O'Halloran says mutual fund companies are becoming less reliant on drone-like workers. Instead, firms are hungry for dedicated workers who are intent on developing new skills and branching into new disciplines and new parts of the company. "The industry is going to be much more sophisticated," she said. "Workers' expectations of the jobs are much more sophisticated. We need to train people and let [them] know that we care about their whole education."

This fall, the NICSA named O'Halloran, a former English teacher who has devoted more than 15 years to training mutual fund executives, to do just that: build new education programs and help workers expand into new disciplines in their careers.

Her new position is director of education. The appointment, say observers, represents a shift in thinking for the industry, from focusing microcosmically on training people for individual tasks and positions, to training a new kind of worker who can examine the industry from a macro view, take it all in, move into new careers, and use that overall understanding to develop new best practices.

The Industry's Head Teacher

Those who know her, gush that O'Halloran is perfect for the job. The Wellesley Hills, Mass., resident has been training mutual fund workers through NICSA programs for about four years. She is known to bring props to her classes, such as an Easter basket full of wooden eggs to illustrate the idea of putting "all of your eggs in one basket." She was also part of an effort by Lee Gremillion, an operations specialist, to write and publish a macro view of the industry. That book, "A Purely American Invention. The U.S. Open-Ended Mutual Fund Industry," was published through NICSA last year. O'Halloran has a credit in its pages.

An Interest in the Macro

In 1997, when O'Halloran began training workers on a volunteer basis for NICSA, she said the group expected to see about 30 people at a seminar. Instead, 102 showed up. "We thought, We've been missing the market,'" she said. Interest in macro industry training has continued at that clip for the past four years, she said.

Now, O'Halloran's charter is to sate that interest by creating new partnerships for NICSA with educational institutions such as Boston's Northeastern University. She is also working to develop new onsite training programs that will involve her flying to the offices of mutual fund companies around the U.S. and conducting seminars. In addition, she will promote a new online learning tool that was developed with tech consulting firm Acadient and is based on Gremillion's book. Never before, observers say, has an industry figure pushed so hard to augment the training methods of individual firms with such aggressive, Gestalt-styled education programs.

Tough Message to Sell

But O'Halloran has a good deal of work ahead of her. The industry, slumped in dismal markets and national anxiety, is facing layoffs. And O'Halloran is pushing companies to focus on education, which is seen as a key method for retaining employees. Gremillion said smart companies will brace for when the industry recovers and have well-educated employees ready to take on a new boom in fund sales.

Bob Goldberg, who says he played a key role in hiring O'Halloran as NICSA's president, and since leaving the post has become the managing director of Acadient, the developer of NICSA's online learning program, expects the industry to warm up quickly to O'Halloran's efforts, perhaps even from sheer necessity. "You can't keep people confined into a silo kind of arrangement," he said. "By nature they want to grow."