He is one of the most important business figures and philanthropists in Massachusetts, yet he is rarely seen in public.
But on Tuesday night, Fidelity Investments chairman Edward “Ned’’ C. Johnson 3d and his family at last agreed to soak up a bit of limelight, accepting a Distinguished Bostonians award from the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, before some 1,600 guests.
Abigail P. Johnson, Fidelity’s president and heir apparent to the mutual fund company that her grandfather founded in 1946 and that her 81-year-old father has turned into a financial empire, spoke on the family’s behalf, offering perhaps the most personal glimpse of the successful, billionaire Johnson family the city has seen.
She credited her father with building Fidelity into the $1.6 trillion manager it is today, calling him “a man consumed with passion and endless energy for fixing things.’’ She said Ned Johnson’s devotion to customer service was “legendary,’’ and described him as understanding, “no, not just understanding - I mean completely dissecting’’ every aspect of how customers experience Fidelity.
Ned Johnson, with his famous Yankee disregard for media attention, is renowned in the business world for his hands-on management style, running one of the nation’s largest mutual fund and brokerage companies. He is also a major philanthropic donor in the area, directing hundreds of millions of dollars from two foundations to arts organizations, such as the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum, and to educational and civic charities.
But the Johnsons do not put their names on buildings or issue press releases when they make large gifts. Mayor Thomas M. Menino said the Johnsons are so low-key that many people in the city have little idea of their civic and philanthropic reach. He said, “Thank you for making a difference in the city of Boston.’’
The Chamber of Commerce had for years sought to give the Johnsons the award, and the family finally accepted this time, perhaps because Ned Johnson - vigorously energetic and “wicked smart,’’ according to former Fidelity mutual fund star Peter Lynch - is now in his 80s.
Abigail Johnson avoided even the slightest allusion to succession plans at the company, the stuff of endless speculation in the investment business and in Boston’s circles of power. But she suggested her father’s continuing presence at the firm, currently the third-largest mutual fund group after long ranking as No. 1, while recounting personal stories about her father and declaring that there would be “many more to come.’’
In one instance, the younger Johnson described family dinners when she and her siblings were growing up, and the phone inevitably ringing. Her father would always take the call, she said, and patiently listen, sometimes for as long as 20 minutes, to a customer calling with a complaint. While his kids looked on, he took notes and carefully got the spelling of the caller’s name so he could address their problem.
Ned Johnson, though protected by security staff, chatted easily with reporters during a break in the speeches. He said he felt well, and several times deflected specific questions about the company’s businesses, joking that “You wouldn’t be interested.’’ He spoke of Boston’s successful growth on the Seaport and making the most of its educational and cultural institutions.
If he searched at times for the right words, he still joked in his patrician Boston accent about his view on news reporting. “Just remember,’’ he said, “there are many ways to think about things.’’
Fidelity’s colorful chairman is renowned for his love of art and Asian culture, a devotion to health and fitness that belies his age, and a vocal distaste for what he views as overreaching federal regulators. A video tribute detailed the Johnson family’s contributions to Boston over generations, starting with a dry goods company that eventually sold out to former local retailer Jordan Marsh.
The Distinguished Bostonians award was given last year to the Kraft family, owners of the
Lynch said the Johnsons, while being low-profile in all matters of civic engagement and philanthropy, have made Boston a better place to live, and he lauded Ned Johnson as an innovator.
Only a year ago, Fidelity fell into a public dispute with Governor Deval Patrick, as the firm moved nearly 1,100 people out of Marlborough to its facilities in Rhode Island and New Hampshire. The governor criticized the firm’s leaders for not informing him of its plans, and Abigail Johnson ultimately met with Patrick to talk over the matter.
Abigail Johnson thanked her parents for being a good mother and father and grandparents, and said, “We love you, and thank you for making Boston our home.’’
Beth Healy can be reached at email@example.com.