BOSTON When Boston's business elite gathered on Tuesday night to pay tribute to the first family of mutual fund giant Fidelity Investments, they got a rare, insightful look into the private world of patriarch and company Chairman Edward C. Johnson III.
The 81-year-old Johnson and his family are almost as famous for avoiding the spotlight as they are for building Boston-based Fidelity into a global financial powerhouse.
"They give new meaning to low profile," said Peter Lynch, who was more famous than his billionaire boss when he ran Fidelity's Magellan Fund. "They define that term."
But there were Johnson and his family accepting congratulations from well-wishers as they were inducted into the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce's Academy of Distinguished Bostonians. Several hundred people, including Boston Mayor Tom Menino and State Street Corp Chief Executive Jay Hooley, gave the Johnsons a standing ovation for their decades of quiet, but generous contributions to the community.
Johnson has defined the modern day mutual fund business, bringing innovations such as check-writing for money market funds.
"He makes Steve Jobs look like he was asleep," Lynch said after the late Apple Inc leader's biographer, Walter Isaacson, talked about innovation.
On Tuesday night, Johnson's handshake was firm, but he seemed more frail than in recent years.
In recent years, it has become a parlor game in Boston financial circles to guess when Johnson will step down and who he will name as his successor.
The person most discussed is his daughter, Abigail Johnson, who runs Fidelity's personal and workplace investing business and is a vice chairman and director of FMR LLC, the holding company for Fidelity.
She recounted how her training in learning the family business began in the 1970s at the family dinner table.
"The telephone would ring and someone would leap to get it," Abigail Johnson said. "The call would invariably be for my father."
Ned Johnson, as he is known, would always take the call, spending 15 minutes to 20 minutes hearing about a Fidelity customer's problem. Before the call ended, he would make sure he got the correct spelling of the customer's name and confirming the client's account number.
Like Jobs, Ned Johnson "completely dissects" all of the elements that go into a customer's experience.
"He is consumed with a passion for fixing things," Abigail Johnson said proudly. "Ned Johnson is on the case."
Privately-held Fidelity reported $1.6 trillion in managed assets at the end of February with more than 500 mutual funds.
Lynch, who began working at Fidelity in the 1960s when it had fewer than 100 employees, said Johnson still works on the same floor as he did back then, occupying what he called the smallest CEO office in the world.
"It's been more than 40 years attending meetings with him," Lynch said. "You talk about five to seven ideas and he'd ask nine or 10 questions. ... It's always exhilarating and exciting to be in the room."
(Editing by Richard Borsuk)