5 Questions with... Kym Hubbard, Board Director of PIMCO Funds and State Auto Financial Corp.

How throwing "new people parties," became a path to the boardroom for an accounting trailblazer.

We know what the classic image of a accountant/portfolio manager is: hard number cruncher with awkward social skills. But meet Kym Hubbard, who along with once managing a $12 billion pension fund will tell you about another past role: informal social director for her own “new-people parties.”

Based in Chicago, Hubbard turns out to be a surprise in many ways. At 62, she may be retired from her role as chief investment officer and treasurer of Ernst & Young, but she is far from slowing down. She sits on two company boards—PIMCO Funds and the NASDAQ-traded State Auto Financial Corp.—as well a few high-profile nonprofits, including the Field Foundation of Illinois and the Economic Club of Chicago.

Hubbard graduated from Bradley University with a degree in accounting and started her career both as a Price Waterhouse accountant and as a trailblazer, often the sole African-American woman with her head down over a client’s audit. On the way, she became the portfolio manager of a $12 billion pension fund for the State of Illinois.

When we caught up with Hubbard, she gave us a glimpse into a career steeped in global finance, but one that also includes stints on nonprofit boards and years of her own breed of networking. All of which, we would learn, helped land her current board roles.

You learned about finance working at First National Bank of Chicago, L.F. Rothschild, and Raymond James. But for a while, you were also head of fixed income and trading at the US unit of Yamaichi Securities. What was that like?

It was more exciting than people think. The Japanese are very hierarchal, routine, and respectful of trends. But I learned a lot about building relationships from them. Their culture generally focuses much more on relationships than on the bottom line, and they focused on the strength and trust of relationships between institutions and clients. I actually had a very pleasant experience at Yamaichi.

Yamaichi collapsed in the late 1990s, after you left. Maybe the firm should have been focusing more on profits.

(Laughs.) That doesn’t detract from what I learned there—relationships are at the core of business. You need profits and relationships.

Your first board seat was at a small nonprofit, Chicago’s African American dance troupe Muntu Dance Theatre. Is serving on a nonprofit board a good initial way to pick up directorship experience?

Yes and no. You have a fiduciary responsibility on a for-profit board. At a nonprofit, you can come and go as you please; you’re doing it more for passion. But later in my career, the nonprofits became more important. When I left Ernst & Young and determined I wanted next to sit on a company board, I looked at my nonprofits more strategically: I asked myself, what other CEOs and CFOs are on the board? What types of people can I talk to about mentorship and sponsorship and if I have the right skills? What director there could see how focused I was as a board member?

So how did you get your board seats?

My first board seat was State Auto Financial Corp. out of Columbus, Ohio. That was a word-of-mouth referral. I had told someone I was interested in a directorship, and they then told someone who was on that board. PIMCO came from a search firm reaching out to me, but that too came from me reaching out to the search people prior to that. When PIMCO came along, they said, “Oh! Maybe Kym would do this!”

So we’re back to the importance of building personal relationships.

I believe you can’t meet enough people. I am always meeting someone new. I thrive on it. I used to throw “new-people parties,” and it drove my husband crazy. I would have these parties for people I just met and was fascinated by. We’d say, “Let’s have lunch one day,” but then we’d never do it, so every few years or so, I’d throw a party for us to finally get together. Take someone new to lunch or coffee at least once a month. You never know. The more people you know, the more opportunities come to you. There is no downside.