Business

Abby Johnson sends clear message with fund manager’s firing

Fidelity’s Gavin Baker posed for a portrait in 2014.
Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe/File
Fidelity’s Gavin Baker posed for a portrait in 2014.

Star money managers are few and far between, so Gavin Baker’s abrupt departure from Fidelity Investments last month had plenty of people in the mutual fund industry scratching their heads.

Fidelity and other big fund companies usually plan a methodical transition when a top performer leaves. But this one came out of the blue, with two co-managers put in charge and Baker gone without explanation.

But then on Thursday came the news that Baker had been fired for allegedly sexually harassing a junior employee, according to a person familiar with the matter. The decision to dismiss Baker, who managed the Fidelity OTC Portfolio, was approved by CEO Abigail Johnson, the person said.

Advertisement

But a spokeswoman for Baker disputed the account, first reported by The Wall Street Journal and confirmed by the Globe. She said Baker left amicably before planning to become engaged with his longtime girlfriend, an analyst and fund manager at the company. Baker, the spokeswoman said, believed that he and his fiancee should not work at the same firm, and that he’s excited to start a new job later this month.

Get Talking Points in your inbox:
An afternoon recap of the day’s most important business news, delivered weekdays.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Either way, industry experts said that the way Baker’s departure played out was highly unusual in a world where one manager can bring in millions of dollars in fees each year with a successful fund. With Hollywood, cable television news, and Silicon Valley under fire for cultures considered hostile to women, Fidelity’s move was a clear signal that sexual harassment would not be tolerated.

“I’ve been following these people for close to a quarter century and I’ve never heard of this occurring before,” said John Bonnanzio, an editor at the Fidelity Monitor & Insight newsletter. “It certainly suggests that Fidelity’s got the appropriate culture for dealing with these things. To fire someone who manages as much money as he does, one of their highest-profile fund managers, says a lot about that culture, a lot that’s good.”

Investors in Baker’s fund and its affiliated accounts could end up paying the price for the sudden switch, said Louis Harvey, CEO of Boston-based fund research firm Dalbar Inc.

“When you bring in a new manager, you tend to have a disruption in performance,” Harvey said. “It’s a very expensive proposition for investors.”

Advertisement

Baker oversaw nearly $17 billion in assets as the lead OTC Portfolio manager, including more than $16 billion in Fidelity’s OTC mutual fund, which focuses on tech stocks but invests in a variety of sectors. He had an aggressive style, often making bets on emerging tech companies — such as Uber and Tesla — without long-term track records of profitability.

The OTC fund is designed to hew closely to the tech-heavy Nasdaq composite index, although Baker’s charge, of course, was to beat the index. Katie Reichart, the lead Fidelity analyst with Morningstar, said Baker largely was successful in that goal. The OTC fund had a 19.4 percent annualized return from when Baker started managing the fund in July 2009 through his Sept. 18 departure date, she said. The Nasdaq composite, meanwhile, was up 17.9 percent on an annualized basis.

In 2014, Baker’s strong performance prompted then-Globe columnist Steven Syre to name him “fund manager of the year.”

“I believe the world is going to change more in the next 20 years than it has changed in the past 70 years,” Baker said at the time. “I try to invest in great companies at the center of these powerful, multi-decade secular trends.”

Fidelity spokesman Vin Loporchio said the company doesn’t typically comment on current or former employees. “But speaking generally. . . when allegations of these sorts arise, we investigate them immediately and take prompt and appropriate action,” he said.

Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com.