Alan “Ace” Greenberg started working at the brokerage and investment bank Bear Stearns in 1949 as a 22-year-old clerk. Less than 30 years later, he ran the place, becoming CEO in 1978, taking it public in 1985, winning the chairman’s job, and then overseeing its near-death and sale to JPMorgan in 2008 as the chairman of its executive committee. Greenberg died on Friday at the age of 86 from complications due to cancer, JPMorgan Chase said today. He was a vice chairman emeritus at the bank.
In a note to employees, JPMorgan chief executive officer and chairman Jamie Dimon, and the head of JPMorgan Asset Management, Mary Erdoes, described Greenberg as a “true industry icon” and said “in many respects, he epitomized the American dream.” Greenberg handed over the CEO job to Jimmy Cayne in 1993 and stepped down as chairman in 2001.
Greenberg was a controversial figure for the role he played at Bear Stearns while it built up risky mortgage assets. Bear Stearns clients would lose faith in the bank, pulling money from it and precipitating its merger with JPMorgan at a fire-sale price backed by the Federal Reserve in March 2008.
While the bank’s chairman and CEO Jimmy Cayne had a far more direct role in running the investment bank, Greenberg’s executive committee still oversaw risk. In an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek in 2011, Greenberg said, “I did the best I could to voice my concern about what they were doing and got nowhere. Look, you do the best you can, and you can’t worry about it.”
“I was chairman of the executive committee, but not everything came to the executive committee,” he said. “There were areas I wasn’t even allowed to stick my nose in, certain fiefdoms.” Greenberg also sold a large portion of his stake in Bear Stearns in the run-up to the financial crisis.
Here’s the full memo sent to employees at JPMorgan:
Note from Jamie Dimon and Mary Callahan Erdoes to JPMC Employees
Today we mourn the loss of a true industry icon, Ace Greenberg.
It’s hard to imagine a financial services industry without Ace. In many respects, he epitomized the American dream, rising from a clerk to the corner office during his 65 years with the firm. Whether he was building Bear Stearns into an industry powerhouse or wowing the trading floor with his penchant for magic, Ace’s personality permeated everything he did. His intelligence and wit was only surpassed by his generosity and thoughtfulness.
J.P. Morgan is no doubt a better place for having had Ace as a part of it, and while there will never be another Ace Greenberg, the example he set will certainly live on through all of us that had the opportunity to learn from him.
Our thoughts and prayers are with his family.