Back in 2002, halfway between his retirement as the globe-trotting boss of Chase Manhattan Bank and his death in March at age 102, David Rockefeller stopped in Philadelphia to hawk his memoirs and complain about how America’s CEOs were no longer taking stands on public issues.
A grandson of Standard Oil monopolist John D. Rockefeller, David said he wished more corporate bosses – some of the most able and successful Americans -- would speak up publicly on issues of the day, as he, DuPont CEO Irving Shapiro and GE’s Reginald Jones had in their turbulent times.
He suggested U.S. action against foreign rulers he found oppressive, and was called a “mass murderer.” He advocated ties to Arabs, and was called an “anti-Semite.” Rockefeller claimed no regrets for speaking out: “As a loyal citizen, I had an obligation.”
Which set a standard for Rockefeller’s successor. Jamie Dimon camped with the JPMorgan Chase & Co. board of directors he chairs at Wilmington’s ornate Hotel du Pont last week (newly sold by DuPont to Buccini/Pollin Group, in a deal financed by PNC Bank) before the annual shareholders' meeting.
That event was held, not at the former DuPont Co. headquarters where agents of the original J.P. Morgan had financed World War I shipments to Europe, but at the bank’s sunlit Delaware Technology Center. That solar-powered former drug-company complex is where Dimon’s bank has concentrated 2,000 software developers and tech staff from among its 10,000 Delaware employees.
The company bases its credit card business in the state, and more. Wilmington is almost the only place outside New York where the company has offices for all major units -- trading and investment banking to tech and corporate lending -- noted Thomas Horne, a former Bank of America executive who joined JPMorgan in 2012 and now heads its Delaware operations. Hosting Dimon was a big moment for Horne’s team.
The thin, white-haired Dimon, who was alternately puckish and poker-faced, stood to hear an hour-long litany of exhortations from mostly liberal interest groups holding shareholder proxies.
AFL-CIO lawyer Robert McGarrah asked for curbs on bank grants to staff who leave for government jobs; investors sought to split Dimon’s job in two; a line of youthful immigration, gender-equity and environmental activists from the New York area demanded JPMorgan stop funding companies that “profit from racism;” Jeremy Davis of the National Pork Producers' Council praised JPMorgan's loans to pig farmers; and Sister Nora Nash of the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia asked the company to oppose new limits on shareholder proposals not backed by management.
When Dimon declined a shareholder request to resign from a CEO board advising President Trump, outlets from Fox News to Vanity Fair posted the story. “Trump is the pilot flying our airplane,” Dimon said, adding that it’s patriotic to give him advice, and that doesn’t mean he agrees with the president on policies.
His remarks reprised his detailed narrative in this year’s JPMorgan annual report. Dimon defended at length the rule of law, world trade, immigration, education improvements, and other positions targeted by Trump (and sometimes by Clinton) in last year’s campaign.
At first glance this seemed to position Dimon in the broad mainstream of issues important to voters in the bank’s home city of New York, where Dimon was raised, a Democrat, in a family with immigrant roots.
Dimon’s story as a CEO is remarkable. Leaving a top job at Citigroup after questioning his boss’s nepotism, Dimon recruited his most effective Citi peers – including Michael Cavanagh, now CFO at Comcast – to join him, starting at Bank One in Chicago, to combine a string of New York banks, including Rockefeller’s Chase Manhattan, and rebuild them into a better bank than Citi.
Dimon, alone among heads of America’s top commercial banks, survived the Great Recession and bailouts (though his rivals were richly rewarded for going away.) His bank now collects $8 billion in merger-advisory, finance, trading, tech, home-loan, credit-card and investment fees every month, and keeps $2 billion as aftertax profit.
But what’s his public program, really? In the annual report and at the meeting, Dimon stopped short of directly criticizing Trump’s trade and immigration limits. Dimon also called for tax reform, new roads and airports and other things Trump says he supports. He didn’t call for a balanced budget or new funding.
He would not go as far as some Republican Congress leaders in killing the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau or the Dodd-Frank bank reform law. But he said in the report and in Wilmington that it’s time for the government to ease its limits and make it easier for banks to lend faster.
It’s a cycle as old as American business, sighs Charles Elson, head of the corporate governance program at the University of Delaware. Banks blow up; government tightens rules; banks complain; government eases; repeat.
Should we expect more? Rockefeller told me he'd felt a duty as a CEO to identify national problems, but stopped short of suggesting strategies to solve them. Not his job.
By that measure, Dimon works in Rockefeller's tradition: tag big social problems in ringing phrases; but limit calls for action to business matters.
Don’t look to corporate leaders to push public solutions for public problems.
Read more by Joseph N. DiStefano