Conversations in Management: J. P. Morgan

“The first thing is character.”

J.P. Morgan.

Morgan_SteichenDuring a congressional hearing, Morgan had been asked if money and property were the most important factors in lending money. He quickly responded, “No, sir. The first thing is character.” Of course, “character” may not be the first word that comes to mind when discussing J. P. Morgan. He is widely regarded as the archetypal Robber Baron. By 1890, he controlled one sixth of the nation’s railroad industry. By 1892 he’d combined Edison’s electric company with seven others to form the General Electric Trust.  The pinnacle of his success came in 1901 when he created the world’s first billion dollar corporation by purchasing the Carnegie Steel Company and merging it with his own interests. The coup gave him control over 70% of the industry. At one point he had more influence over the economy than the Secretary of the Treasury and, for that matter, Congress. When Congress adjourned without passing a budget to pay the military, Morgan personally provided the War Department with enough cash to meet the monthly payroll. In time, he came to serve as a one-man Federal reserve which, ironically, was created the year he died in 1913.

But there was another side of Morgan.  Morgan believed that his great wealth carried with it great responsibility. An avid collector, Morgan seeded and helped establish the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Natural History. He gave photographer Edward S. Curtis $75,000 to underwrite his 20 volume photo series on Native Americans. When told of the need by a physician friend, he provided a million dollars to build a modern Lying-In (maternity) Hospital. As the senior warden of his church, Morgan supported and funded innovative social programs that included an industrial school, sewing classes, boys’ and girls’ clubs, soup kitchens and health programs. Beyond distributing wealth—at the time of his death he retained only 19% of his personal fortune—Morgan expressed values that resonate today. He had been scheduled to sail on the Titanic but cancelled at the last minute. When later asked to comment on the monetary loss of the ship, he replied, “Monetary losses amount to nothing in life, it is the loss of life that counts.” Shortly before he died, a reporter asked what his greatest joy in life was. He answered that it was his children and grandchildren.

So it turns out that there’s more to J. P. Morgan—and to the people who populate your world for that matter—than meets the eye. Yet what about the issue of character? Morgan had many of the attributes we might associate with a man of character, but he did something more. He was a man of extraordinary business acumen and based business decisions on the character of the people he was dealing with. Can you say the same? We all agree that character is important, but to what extent does character factor into your personal and business dealings? Do you hire, deal or associate with people on the basis of their character? It’s not always easy to do, but it’s a good idea. When you surround yourself with people of character, you’re with a group that reflects what you believe—not what you’re willing to settle for. These are people that will help you grow and who will enrich your life as you enrich theirs. It’s a no compromise approach to living in a world that is too often willing to substitute excuses for doing what you know is right. You may not be as rich as Morgan, but in the company of people of character, you can live just as well.     —Ebert

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