President of Fidelity's Employer Services Company
Born Abigail Pierrepont Johnson, December 19, 1961, in Boston, MA; daughter of Edward C. (Ned) Johnson III (an investment-services company executive); married to Christopher J. McKown (a company president); children: two daughters. Education: Hobart and William Smith College, B.A., 1984; Harvard University, M.B.A., 1988.
Addresses: Office—Fidelity Investments, 82 Devonshire St., Boston, MA 02109-3605.
Answered phones in the customer-service department of Fidelity Investments, 1980; research associate with Booz, Allen and Hamilton; joined Fidelity Investments as a stock analyst, 1988; became a portfolio manager; became associate director, 1994; named senior vice president, 1998; became president of investment services, 2001; named president of Fidelity's Employer Services Company, 2005.
Few outside the financial world know Abigail Johnson's name, and that is by design. Johnson runs the employer services division of Fidelity Investments, the Boston-based powerhouse founded by her grandfather. In 2004, her company managed a staggering $893 billion in assets on the mutual-fund market, and thanks to that she is considered the most influential woman among the ranks of American financial executives. Despite her status, Johnson shuns publicity and rarely gives interviews. "Anyone who has run money knows that blowing your own horn is usually a way of calling a top on your own performance," she told BusinessWeek writer Geoffrey Smith.
Born on December 19, 1961, in Boston, Abigail Pierrepont Johnson is descended from an old Boston Brahmin family whose roots in New England commerce date back to the early 1800s. In 1946, her grandfather, Edward C. Johnson II, founded Fidelity Management and Research (FMR) as a mutual-fund firm. Mutual funds are groups of stock-market investors whose money is pooled and managed by a professional portfolio manager, or team of managers. Fidelity emerged as one of the leading firms in this finance sector, which enjoyed phenomenal growth alongside the general boom in stock-market investing during the 1980s and '90s.
Johnson's father, Edward C. (Ned) Johnson III, took over the company in 1977, when the elder Johnson retired. Her first job at the company came when she was just out of high school in 1980, answering phones in its customer-service department. At Hobart and William Smith College, she majored in art history, but went on to Harvard Business School, from which she earned her M.B.A. in 1988. She joined Fidelity Investments full-time as lowly stock analyst that same year, just as her father had once done, and was assigned to the Select Industrial Equipment Fund, a decidedly unglamorous division. Johnson was eventually promoted to portfolio manager, and proved herself an able fund overseer who achieved solid, though not extravagant, results for Fidelity's thousands of clients.
In 1994, Johnson was made an associate director of the company, and a year later, her father divested himself of a large chunk of voting shares, handing them over to FMR, the parent company. This left Johnson as the largest shareholder—though the company is still a privately held one—and the business media predicted that her father's move was a sign that she was now in line to someday succeed him as company chair. In 1998, she was promoted to senior vice president. By this time she was also married and a mother of two; her husband, Christopher J. McKown, is a health-care information company co-founder and president.
In May of 2001, Fidelity announced that Johnson was succeeding Robert C. Pozen as president of Fidelity's mutual-fund division. There were rumors of personality conflicts between Pozen and some of the company's fund managers, and the news came as somewhat of a surprise to Wall Street. Johnson's position made her number three at the company, after her father and chief operating officer Robert L. Reynolds, but she was in charge of a significant area, investment operations. The 280 mutual funds run by Fidelity were in trouble at the time, with a bear market—when the value of stocks traded declines at a steady rate, and investors struggle to earn money instead of lose it—in full swing by then, with little sign of abating.
Fidelity had been losing market share over the past few years, with a slew of competitors like the Vanguard Group gaining new customers via savvy marketing strategies. Still, Johnson's company remained an industry powerhouse. It was a $1.4 trillion empire, holding nearly $900 billion of the American mutual-fund business, plus another $100 billion in fund business from overseas, for some 17 million investors. "Its investment decisions are felt in the stock-market, and at companies in which it holds shares," an article in the Economist noted. "Fidelity's voice is heard in the proxy motions that are filed by disgruntled investors, and in the reorganisations that follow bankruptcies."
Johnson's approach was likely to vary from her father's, some industry analysts theorized; Ned Johnson, a collector of Asian art, was a follower of kaizen, a Japanese management philosophy that advised growth in small increments—a direct contrast to the American penchant for growth by mergers and acquisitions. Johnson, by contrast, liked contemporary art, and voiced a different view on the matter in a rare interview. "Sometimes you can gradually improve things," she reflected in the BusinessWeek article by Smith. "But sometimes, they don't work, and you've just got to just say: Let's grind this baby to a halt."
Fidelity also differentiated itself from other mutual fund companies by letting its portfolio managers buy and sell more aggressively on the market, rather than just following the stock market indices, as many of its competitors did. Johnson encouraged her managers to be even more aggressive—though she admitted it was a chancier strategy, she told BusinessWeek's Smith. "It's never obvious what a smart risk is, which is why we hire smart people." Yet the mutual-fund business was just the part of Fidelity by then, thanks to her father's aggressive expansion. It was involved in venture capital, real estate, temporary employment, and even a motorcoach business. Johnson's younger brother, Edward C. Johnson, is an executive with the real-estate division, and her sister's husband also holds a management position. On May 2, 2005, Johnson was named president of Fidelity's Employer Services Company, which provides retirement, benefit, and human resources services to companies.
Johnson is one of a handful of women to run a mutual-fund company, among the 400-plus firms that make up the market. She rarely gives interviews, but is a well-known figure at Fidelity's Boston headquarters, where she is called "Abby." After eleven-hour days at the office, she heads home to her grandfather's former abode, located on a suburban Boston road. She and her family also spend time on Nantucket Island in the off-duty hours. Thanks to her family's Fidelity fortune, Forbes estimated her net worth at $10 billion, which made her the fourth-richest woman in United States in 2001. Her company is so powerful that it has spawned its own independent press, such as the Fidelity Insight newsletter. Its editor, Eric Kobren, gave Johnson high marks for her old-fashioned Yankee values and aversion to publicity. "She's cool and calm, and she works hard every day," Kobren told Time journalist Daniel Kadlec. "She doesn't have that air of being one of the richest people in the world."
BusinessWeek, July 8, 2002, p. 56.
Economist, May 26, 2001, p. 2.
Money, October 1995, p. 52.
New York Times, May 22, 2001, p. C1; May 3, 2005.
Time, April 26, 2004, p. 81.