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Thursday, March 24, 2022

Ned Johnson Dies

Reported by Neil Anderson, Managing Editor

The billionaire former chief of one of the biggest mutual fund companies in the world has passed away.

The Late Edward Crosby "Ned" Johnson III
June 29, 1930 - March 23, 2022
Ned Johnson, chairman emeritus of Fidelity Investments [profile], died last night, according to a LinkedIn post today from Abby Johnson, one of Ned Johnson's two daughters and his successor as chair and CEO of the Boston Behemoth. The publicity-shy fundster was 91 years old, and it was under him that Fidelity grew to be the biggest 401(k) recordkeeper (and one of the biggest fund firms), still privately held and family controlled.

"He was first and foremost father to me and my sister Beth and brother Edward and husband to my mother Lillie," Abby Johnson writes. "He passed away peacefully at home in Florida surrounded by his family."

Edward Crosby Johnson III was born on June 29, 1930, son of Edward C. Johnson II, who founded Fidelity in 1949. An alumnus of Harvard College and a U.S. Army veteran, the younger Ned Johnson joined his father's company as an analyst in 1957. Later, he PMed two funds: the Fidelity Trend Fund and the Fidelity Magellan Fund. In 1972, Ned Johnson rose to president of Fidelity, then in 1977 he took over as chairman and CEO, six years after the launch of the first money market fund and one year before the addition of section 401(k) to the Internal Revenue Code.

Under Ned Johnson over the following three decades, with the high-profile success of Fidelity funds like Magellan and Fidelity's big pushes in the 401(k) recordkeeping and money market fund spaces, Fidelity grew to be the biggest mutual fund company in the world. The firm also diversified into related areas, becoming one of the big mutual fund supermarkets, discount brokerages, RIA custodians, and B-D clearing firms; Fidelity's different units famously even competed with each other for outside business. He even founded a limo service and a ferry business. Yet Ned Johnson himself, though known in Fidelity and famous among fellow fundsters and in the art world, mostly stayed out of the spotlight himself (in contrast with the industry's star PMs, including some of Fidelity's), though he couldn't avoid it in his home town of Boston.

In 2014, (after years of speculation about his retirement and who might fill his shoes at the top) Ned Johnson passed the reins of Fidelity to Abby Johnson, who took over as CEO while he stayed on as chairman. In 2016, he handed off that hat, too. Yet he remained a sizable Fidelity shareholder, alongside Abby and her two siblings. (For years, those four Johnsons have been among the richest fundsters in the U.S. on the usual lists of billionaires.)

The succession came even as Fidelity in recent years was overtaken in mutual fund AUM by a certain giant in Pennsylvania (founded by a less publicity-shy fundster) thanks largely to the rise of index funds. Yet Fidelity remains the largest 401(k) recordkeeper by assets and participants and far more diversified outside of pure asset management than any of its mutual fund titan rivals, and under Abby Johnson Fidelity has since made its own big push in the low-cost indexing and ETF space. And like two of the other mutual fund titans, the Johnson family has kept Fidelity as a private company for all these decades.

"After nearly 60 wonderful years working at Fidelity, I am retiring," Ned Johnson wrote in a November 2016 memo to Fidelity's staff. "Although I am retiring, I am not saying goodbye. I will become Chairman Emeritus, maintain office hours at 245 Summer Street in Boston, and continue to consult periodically with Abby and Fidelity's Board of Directors."
As I step back from my management duties, I think it is appropriate to pause and reflect on where we stand as a company. Throughout Fidelity's long history of growth, our dual commitments to our customers and to innovation have served us well. By investing in technology and using the kaizen method of continuous improvement, we have built a strong brand, industry-leading positions and multiple profitable businesses. No other company with whom we compete has the breadth of products, services and distribution channels that we offer.

While we have enjoyed much success, evolving customer preferences and new regulatory requirements are transforming the investment management industry. However, we are prepared to seize the opportunities in this changing competitive landscape. I have never felt more confident about Fidelity's future than I do now.

Outside the office, Ned Johnson was famous for his art patronage and as a local philanthropist.

"He loved his family, his coworkers, work, the stock market, art and antiquities, skiing, sailing, history, and a good debate. He could be counted on to have the contrarian view on just about anything," Abby Johnson writes today. "He will be missed by many." 

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