George Putnam, who led Putnam Investments and served as Harvard University treasurer, dies at 92
As George Putnam moved through positions of power, he carried the heritage of some of Boston’s most historic names.
He formerly was chairman of Putnam Investments, founded in 1937 by his namesake father. And as treasurer of Harvard, he played a key role in changing how the endowment was managed at a university his great-uncle, then-president A. Lawrence Lowell, led in the early 1900s.
Yet when discussing leadership and responsibility, Mr. Putnam always sounded the theme of collaboration. “The power in today’s world is friendship,” he told the Globe in 1975. “It’s knowing where to go.”
Mr. Putnam, who was 92 when he died March 25 and had lived much of his life in Manchester-by-the-Sea, hadn’t always envisioned taking his place in his family’s succession of investment managers.
“Despite majoring in biochemistry and doing a little postgraduate work analyzing margarine and shortening, I went directly from Cambridge to the Business School and thence to the canyons of finance,” he wrote in 1974, describing his path from Harvard College to Harvard Business School.
“To please my father, whose health was failing rapidly, I took my brand new MBA to the Putnam Funds in 1951 — and have been there ever since,” he said in the 25th anniversary report of his Harvard class, adding that it was “a great thrill” to help turn a $40 million mutual fund organization into one that by 1974 managed “well over $3 billion of other people’s money.”
When he retired in 2001, after 50 years with his family’s business, he had chaired each of the mutual funds in the Putnam Group, and the company was managing more than $350 billion in funds and assets.
Mr. Putnam also had chaired or served on an array of boards, including those for the Museum of Fine Arts, Wellesley College, the Peabody Essex Museum, Massachusetts General Hospital, and McLean Hospital.
Throughout, he remained low key about his personal influence. “If you have it, you don’t flaunt it,” he said in the 1975 interview while discussing how power is wielded in Boston.
Few, however, could lay as strong a claim to having been born to manage money.
His father, George Putnam, founded Putnam Investments during the Great Depression. The company’s “balanced fund” invested in stocks and bonds, and its guiding principles had been established in part by an ancestor, Justice Samuel Putnam. While hearing a case involving Harvard investments, the judge wrote what was then known as the Prudent Man Rule.
“All that can be required of a trustee is that he shall conduct himself faithfully and exercise a sound discretion. He is to observe how men of prudence, discretion, and intelligence manage their own affairs,” Samuel Putnam wrote.
Mr. Putnam and his father weren’t fond of using Sr. and Jr., and after the elder George Putnam died in 1960, Mr. Putnam had his name legally changed to dispense with Jr.
In 2000, he announced that he planned to step down the following year as chairman of what officially was Putnam Management Co., and said he also would retire as chairman and president of the firm’s funds.
“It’s a young person’s business. Investment management requires a lot of youth and energy,” he told the Globe then, adding that he would become chairman emeritus of the company. “There is a role for old poops like myself when the markets turn,” he added. “A little gray hair comforts the shareholders.”
A decade earlier, he had stepped down as chairman of the MFA’s board. Asked by a Globe reporter then if he considered himself a Boston Brahmin, he replied: “I probably would qualify.” He added, though, that he equally valued his Irish heritage. “One of my grandfathers was born in County Clare,” he said, “and I’m immensely proud of it.”
The fourth of five siblings, and the only son, George Putnam was born on Aug. 30, 1926, and grew up in Manchester-by-the-Sea.
His father’s family traced its roots to New England’s Colonial era. His mother, Katharine Harte Putnam, was from Philadelphia. Her ancestors went back to the Mayflower, and her maternal grandfather was Oliver Ames, governor of Massachusetts in the late 1880s.
Katharine Putnam was an internationally known breeder of poodles. One of her standard poodles was best in show in 1958 at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.
Mr. Putnam graduated from St. Mark’s School in Southborough. He enlisted in the Army Air Forces in 1944 and served stateside because the war ended before he could be stationed overseas.
In 1949, he graduated from Harvard with a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and married Barbara Weld on June 23, his graduation day. Two years later, he graduated from Harvard Business School and joined the family firm.
Mrs. Putnam, who had been a leader of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, died in 1993.
Mr. Putnam kept close ties with Harvard and was one of five, from a field of 10, who were elected in 1967 to serve on the Board of Overseers. Among the five not elected that year was US Senator Robert F. Kennedy.
In 1973, Harvard president Derek Bok appointed Mr. Putnam treasurer of Harvard. In that role, Mr. Putnam was instrumental in creating and served as the first leader of the Harvard Management Company, which handles the university’s endowment investments. He stepped down in 1984 and was awarded an honorary degree from Harvard the following year. Bates College also honored him with an honorary degree that year.
He formerly chaired the national Investment Company Institute, and at home had chaired Manchester-by-the-Sea’s Finance Committee.
Along with serving on the boards of numerous companies, Mr. Putnam was a board member or trustee for organizations and institutions including St. Mark’s, the New England Aquarium, the Boston Museum of Science, and the Nature Conservancy in Maine, where he kept a summer home.
“He was a man of many interests and he attacked them all with great passion,” said his son, George III of Manchester-by-the-Sea, who also is in the financial investments field. “He loved working with his hands, doing carpentry or doing yardwork. He loved growing orchids.”
Mr. Putnam also built model train displays for several decades “and was still doing it. Up until just before his death, he was working on yet another model train layout,” his son said.
“That’s kind of how he approached things,” his son added. “He never did anything halfway.”
Services will be private for Mr. Putnam, who in addition to his son leaves his wife, Nancy Burrows Boardman Putnam of Manchester-by-the-Sea; two daughters, Bambi Putnam of New York City and Susan W. Peck of Philadelphia; 10 grandchildren; and three great grandchildren.
Mr. Putnam “was also very dedicated to his family — all generations of his family,” his son said. “If we ever had any questions about our ancestors, he was the one you went to.”
And Mr. Putnam remained devoted to the belief that friendship fostered true power.
In a 1979 Globe essay on volunteerism, Mr. Putnam wrote about “the ability to get a job done,” which he called his “definition of power.”
Success in that realm “lies in knowing where to turn for help and support in a project,” he added, “and real ‘power’ lies in the friendship, respect, and trust of people who can help provide success in a venture.”