Edward C. Johnson III, the longtime chairman and CEO of Fidelity Investments widely known as Ned, died at the age of 91 on the evening of March 23, 2022, at his home in Florida. "He could be counted on to have the contrarian view on just about anything," stated his daughter and successor as head of Fidelity, Abigail Johnson.
Fidelity Management & Research (FMR) was founded in 1946 by Ned's father, Edward C. Johnson II, but Ned transformed the Boston-based firm into a global asset management colossus. From 1977 to 2014, during his tenure as chairman and CEO, Fidelity's assets under management (AUM) skyrocketed from $3.9 billion to $5.7 trillion. "They were the unquestioned industry leader," commented the late John C. Bogle, the founder and longtime head of a major rival, The Vanguard Group.
- Longtime Fidelity Investments Chairman and CEO Ned Johnson died on March 23, 2022, at the age of 91.
- He is credited with many innovations in the fund management industry.
- From 1977 to 2014, while Johnson was CEO, Fidelity's assets under management (AUM) skyrocketed from $3.9 billion to $5.7 trillion.
Ned Johnson, Innovator
Born in Boston in 1930, Ned Johnson joined Fidelity as a junior stock analyst in 1957. He rose to president in 1972, and he succeeded his father as chairman and CEO in 1977. His daughter Abigail succeeded him as CEO in 2014 and as chairman in 2016, at which time Ned received the title of chairman emeritus.
After Ned moved into senior management at Fidelity, Congress created two savings vehicles that would be instrumental in fueling his firm's meteoric growth, the Individual Retirement Account (IRA) in 1974 and the 401(k) Plan in 1978. Fidelity would build a huge division administering 401(k) Plans and performing other record-keeping services for companies.
Ned Johnson started selling Fidelity mutual funds directly to the public, rather than through brokers. He also added discount brokerage services and made Fidelity a major player in institutional brokerage.
Other innovations credited to Fidelity under Ned Johnson included:
- In 1974, the first money market fund with check-writing privileges
- In 1974, offering retail customers the ability to conduct transactions by toll-free telephone
- In 1979, a 24-hour voice-activated computerized phone system for quotes
- In 1981, National Financial Services (NFS) formed to provide clearing and execution services to broker-dealers
- In 1983, voice-activated computerized phone answering and routing
- In 1983, walk-in investor centers
- In 1986, the first funds with hourly pricing, the Fidelity Select Portfolios
- Reviving and popularizing the concept of sector funds
- In 1991, the first donor-advised fund, Fidelity Charitable, now the world's largest public charity
- In 1995, the first fund company with a home page on the World Wide Web
- In 2008, Fidelity WealthCentral, the industry's first web-based wealth management platform
- In 2013, the first financial services application for Google Glass
Additionally, Ned Johnson made Fidelity active in real estate. He also bought a group of weekly community newspapers and even a limousine and bus service, the latter venture supposedly created after he was once unable to hail a taxi.
Fidelity Remembers Ned Johnson
In the day after his death, Fidelity posted a lengthy remembrance of Ned Johnson on its website. highlights follow.
"From direct marketing of money market funds to the trailblazing use of the Internet to innovations in retirement accounts and charitable giving, he democratized investing by refashioning the industry into a more dynamic, more egalitarian marketplace."
"As a boy, he would take apart clocks to see how they worked, and he peppered his family's mechanic with questions about car parts. He believed that to build a better business, he needed to know how it all worked together. This curiosity drove him to connect with employees at all levels of the organization, and he dedicated himself to becoming a subject-matter expert in nearly all facets of the company."
"As an analyst, Mr. Johnson found that sometimes the best stock buys are the ones that have a contrary opinion to the status quo. As he took over the leadership of Fidelity, he discovered that this same philosophy can be applied to business decisions too, often with dramatic results. He often said, 'If everyone else is doing it, I don't want to do it.'"
A quote from Ned Johnson: "We develop a new skill or start a new business only if it's good for our customers, good for the people who work at Fidelity, and good for the company."
Ned Johnson, Devotee of Kaizen
Ned Johnson was a devotee of the Japanese concept of kaizen, particularly its emphasis on constant incremental improvement, making it a "mantra" at the company. He had found a book about it in the gift shop of a Tokyo hotel, hired the author to lecture Fidelity executives, made a video about it for new employees, and wrote the foreword to another book on the subject, which included Fidelity as a case study.
Ned Johnson's embrace of kaizen may explain the frequent personnel shifts at Fidelity during his tenure. Among these were removing his daughter Abigail as head of the mutual fund division in 2005, while it was posting mediocre performance. He also fostered intense competition among fund managers and other staff, including giving two employees the same assignment to see who would perform better.
Fidelity Made the Johnsons Multi-Billionaires
Fidelity remains a private company controlled by the Johnson family. In 2021, Forbes magazine ranked Abigail Johnson and Ned Johnson as the 27th and 60th richest people in the United States, with estimated net worths of $25.2 billion and $11.5 billion, respectively.
As of Dec. 31, 2021, Fidelity reported that it:
- Served about 40 million individual investors
- Managed employee benefit plans for nearly 23,000 businesses
- Supported more than 3,600 advisory firms with back-office services
- Had $11.8 trillion in assets under administration (AUA)
- Had $4.5 trillion in discretionary assets
- Processed 2.8 million average daily trades in its retail and institutional brokerage units
In 2021, Fidelity also reported that it generated annual revenue of $24.0 billion and operating income of $8.1 billion.
Relatively Frugal Lifestyle
While Ned Johnson built an art collection valued in the "scores of millions," he otherwise led a relatively modest lifestyle for someone of his vast wealth. His frugality was evidenced in part by his refusal to build an impressive headquarters. Instead, he was content with housing his firm in an unadorned nine-story structure marked "Fidelity Building"’ by small bronze plaques.
The Johnson family has Boston roots dating to 1635 and made its initial fortune with the C.F. Hovey & Company department store. They have been among New England's leading philanthropists, often anonymously, particularly in the visual arts. In 1965, Ned and his father founded the Fidelity Foundation to work with nonprofits to strengthen their management and technology, with the goal of making them better and more effective.
Shunning the Limelight
Ned Johnson also shunned the limelight. Financial writer Joe Nocera observed: "Ned Johnson is an old-style proper Boston Yankee who thinks you're boasting and acting unseemly if you get your name in the paper. When his advisers once told him that Fidelity would have to talk to the press, his response was 'Fine, as long as it's not me.'"