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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Kremlinology at Fidelity

News summary by MFWire's editors

Back in the final quarter of the last century, CIA agents, reporters, and other Westerners tracking the latest goings-on with Leonid Breshnev and his successors developed the discipline of Kreminology: essentially using tea leaves, entrails and any other obscure means possible to read the thoughts and interpret the actions of ancient men holding tenuous grasp on the reins of power through tea leaves or any other obscure means possible.

Today's Boston Globe column on Fidelity chairman Edward Johnson, III (everyone calls him Ned) , is right out of that Red Square tradition. Rather than address the stability and management of nation's top servicer of Americans' retirement dreams and its obligation to provide clear lines of authority to its customers, the article reports on Ned's energy at 80 while glossing over his refusal to meet with outsiders to explain how the firm is managed.

“He’ll never retire,’’ James C. Curvey, vice chairman of Fidelity’s parent company, FMR LLC, tells Globe reporter Todd Wallack.

The report also glosses over Ned's renowned ability to dump possible successors at a time when outsiders see those successors gaining the authority to take over the business. Wallack writes that Ned's belief in Kaizen (the striving for continues improvement) leads to his "tinkering with Fidelity, replacing a steady stream of executives over the years and rejiggering the company’s structure from time to time."

With no hint of irony, Wallack places Ned at the "vanguard" of "an older generation of Americans who are living longer, healthier, and more active lives." (The irony, of course, is that Jack Brennan and the rest of Vanguard's board felt no remorse at tossing their founder and leading visionary Jack Bogle over the side of the ship when he turned 65, the firm's mandatory retirement age).

That steadfastness places Ned among a group that includes Berkshire Hathaway's Warren Buffett (Ned's junior by a few months), Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone (87), T. Boone Pickens and News Corp. owner Rupert Murdoch (both 82).

Walker points out that though Ned is now an octogenarian, he still shows significant energy and focus.

"At work and play, the lanky Johnson seems as vigorous as ever," writes Globe reporter Todd Wallack. "He works out at the gym in Boston’s Seaport Hotel, which a Fidelity affiliate owns. And he pursues other passions, ranging from collecting Asian antiques to helicopter skiing in Utah."

As further evidence of Ned's engagement, the Boston paper points to Fidelity's advisor conference in Naples, Florida held last month, where Ned was seen racing from session to session and engaging advisors directly. Oh yes, he also made the late night reception at the pool and was seen getting at least a few matches of tennis in between obligations.

One advisor, Peter J. Raimondi, president of Banyan Partners, told the paper that he marveled at the interest Ned took in advisors and their business.

“He will look you in the eye, shake your hand, and ask you questions the first time you meet him,’’ said Raimondi who met Ned over breakfast. “He was genuinely interested in the answer, and I took that to heart.’’

The article also focuses on Ned's attention to details of projects that catch his interest, ranging from the firm's computer systems for customer orders to ordering new sinks at the Seaport Hotel.

Most interesting to modern day Kremlinologists may be Wallack's report on Ned's Alzheimer's philanthropy. Wallack notes that the disease took the life of Ned's father and predecessor at Fidelity in 1984, explaining his gifts and interest in it.

“Ned probably knows as much Alzheimer’s as many doctors,’’ said Robert Pozen, one of the former Fidelity executives who Fidelity watchers once considered a possible CEO.

In 2009, Fidelity’s Charitable Gift Fund was a major supporter of an education effort on the disease called the Alzheimer’s Project. The effort included a four-part HBO documentary along with a website and an outreach campaign.

Johnson has also created the Alzheimer’s Research Forum Foundation (ARFF), an online clearing house of Alzheimer's related information that some are calling "one of the best places in the field."

Few realize that the ARFF is even one of Ned's projects. Though it is run out of Fidelity's headquarters, its Website states simply that it is funded by an anonymous foundation. Still, the Globe's check of public records found that nearly all of the ARFF's funds come from a Johnson foundation and that its board members have ties to Fidelity. The ARFF's seed money also came from a Fidelity-backed foundation.

Obviously, as Fidelity insiders have suggested to the MFWire in the past, Alzheimer's remains an issue at the forefront of Ned's thoughts.

Ned's other passion, according to the Globe, is Asian art. Pozen says he once convinced Ned to visit the nation's capitol by reminding him it would be an opportunity to visit a just-opened Asian art display. Ned has also donated to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and created the Brookfield Arts Foundation. That foundation's Yin Yu Tang project restored an 18th-century Chinese merchant’s house. 

Edited by: Sean Hanna, Editor in Chief

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