John C. Bogle, who died at 89 on Wednesday, was a great man. After 30 years as a newsman, I don’t say great much. A master salesman, a smart persuader, a family man, Jack built an organization that became dominant in a tough industry, and a big Pennsylvania employer. He persuaded millions of successful Americans and their bosses to trust his Vanguard Group with their old-age savings. His low fees saved customers piles of cash.
His frank, disarming, cheerful style made people who saw him, at live events and on financial TV, and who read his 12 books, articles, and testimony, believe that they could understand money and time. Jack’s message worked at both levels, with finance students such as his admirer Warren Buffett and with the literate public, ever anxious about the future.
His long marriage and large family and the way he worked at mending filial relationships were all admirable. So were the scholarships he gave young applicants to the elite schools that had aided him -- Blair Academy and Princeton University. His eagerness to listen to critics and to research their criticism -- so he could refute it, or concede a point -- would please his old teachers.
Financial products are sold, not bought, as another marketeer who built another dominant Delaware Valley company, the late Charles M. Cawley of MBNA, liked to repeat. Jack had endless energy for talking, to individual investors and retirement-plan honchos, and to journalists. He charmed and praised in part because he was frank and blunt. He also had an eye for sharp, memorable phrases, and answered queries fast, making useful friends.
He liked retelling the boardroom-rebel story of his creation of Vanguard in the wreckage of the 1970s bear market, and naming Wall Street villains he said enriched themselves at client expense. All this won Vanguard decades of glowing media coverage that persisted long after his retirement when Vanguard was no longer the upstart underdog.
That is among the many remarkable parts of his career: Jack was Vanguard in the flesh -- the avuncular face of the firm that grew as its rivals shrank after the last financial crash -- long after he was medically discharged from boss duty, longer than he ran the place, and for years after he had to take mandatory retirement from the board, as I noted in my review of his final book last month.
I’m not sure what they will do without him. Maybe generate his hologram?
I have written about Vanguard about as long as anyone. I worked there as a teenaged temp when it was a few years old and mostly employed recent college-grad women, answering phones. It wasn’t always a happy place -- Jack batted down a union organizing effort, and threatened legal action against Dan Wiener and his Independent Adviser newsletter when Dan calculated Jack’s pay from report fragments (no longer possible with Vanguard’s limited public reports). But the old Vanguard “Crew" tend to remember him as an inspiring, loyal boss, and recall the camaraderie of those years as the good old days.
Jack resurrected Temple University founder Rev. Russell Conwell’s old Acres of Diamonds speech, a favorite of insurance salesmen a century ago: He saw opportunity everywhere, especially in America, the greatest country in the world, for a person willing to watch, work, plan, and persist. Sounds simple. Of course he was born with a strong, smart, loving mother, and prep-social-class connections, as were the fellow Ivy Leaguers he recruited for top jobs, who now run the company, way off Wall Street in the leafy Great Valley.
If he was bullish on America, Jack’s message to savers is, in its cheerful wrapping, pessimistic: You can’t beat the market. Those pros can’t, either. The best you can do is capture broad market gains, while minimizing your fees. As rivals cut their fees to match, Jack said Vanguard should cut its fees more than it did, and never raise them, as it sometimes does, a bit.
When I asked about Vanguard’s chief, Mortimer “Tim” Buckley, who cites his long-ago stint as the founder’s assistant, Jack was a bit dismissive of the question: He had built the company. Today’s gang inherited his thriving operation. Jack’s successors are less accessible, more self-protective, and even more on-message. Maybe it’s a function of scale or a sign of the times: Vanguard staff now writes loads of direct publicity. But Jack felt it was useful to personally test yourself, against sharp and blunt challenges, answer critics, and explain patiently.
His praise of Vanguard’s fund-ownership structure has been so generally absorbed that I still hear from financial writers (and savers), who are surprised to learn it is, after all, a private, for-profit, insider-controlled company that does not disclose boss pay, marketing costs, or other basic information.
When I wrote stories that Vanguard might not see as favorable, I would call him to review where the facts were taking me and ask what I was missing. He would call back, sometimes from routine heart-doctor visits, sometimes from the Bogle summer compound in the Adirondack High Peaks, and talk off the record, because he’d agreed not to second-guess his successors publicly. We went round about Vanguard’s ex-tax expert, David Danon, who accused the company of using its unique structure to underpay U.S. and state taxes. Jack at last said Danon might or might not be right on the law, but he was disappointed that anyone who had worked at his company, which he felt had done good for customers, would not loyally defend its interests.
Once, when a Vanguard principal denied something that Jack felt my column made clear was true, he called, laughing, to congratulate me. It was the best thing to happen to that person, and a good thing for Vanguard, he said, to know that outsiders were paying attention.