Interview with Duff McDonald, Dimon Biographer

Last Man Standing: The Ascent of Jamie Dimon and JPMorgan Chase

For those who carefully followed JPMorgan Chase’s activities and commitment to maintaining a “fortress” balance sheets through the 2007-2008 economic meltdown, Duff McDonald’s highly readable Last Man Standing is far more useful for its detailed portrait of Jamie Dimon and how he became both king and defender of the fortress.

Having left a job at Goldman Sachs to pursue a career in journalism, McDonald is well-equipped to investigate and write about the financial topics he principally pursues.  He is a contributing editor to New York, which published the Dimon profile that jump-started the book; Dimon gave McDonald a considerable amount of access and time, given Dimon’s obvious preoccupations during 2008.

McDonald writes about Dimon’s upbringing in New York, as a twin son in a well-to-do Greek-American family.  After Tufts and Harvard Business School, Dimon rejected jobs with investment firms to hitch his wagon to Sandy Weill, a family friend.  One finishes the book wondering: Could Dimon have gotten to the top without the high-profile opportunities that came with his Weill affiliation?

“Jamie’s talent and drive and raw intellect are undeniable, but it’s also undeniable that being with Sandy put him in a special place careerwise,” said McDonald shortly before catching a train to his home in Bronxville.  (He had spent the morning at JPMC, researching another story.)

"But remember that shortly after he began working with Sandy at American Express, Sandy was out of a job.  Jamie took risks early on.  Several people in his life told him that the smart thing to do would be to walk away from Sandy Weill,” McDonald continued.  “But Jamie would have found his way to the top by one route or the other.  Maybe it would have taken longer, maybe not…history only happens once.  Remember he’d already had a 30-year career by the time he got to JPMC.”

So many Chase alumni think of themselves as Bankers, and Chase as the Bank, and yet one reads Last Man Standing and isn’t sure whether its Chairman and CEO is.  McDonald agrees.  “What is Jamie Dimon?  He’s a financial services executive and operations guy – not necessarily a banker.  He’d done consumer lending early on, insurance at Travelers and investment banking. Citigroup had just been created and he was out the door.  The beauty of his career and experience is that he didn’t spend it all in one place,” McDonald said.

“He just outworks everybody.  He knew the new business as well as people who had been there,” McDonald continued.  The book notes how Dimon is able to quote the numbers and issues of business three levels below the executive suite.  He does not suffer fools gladly.  And in a world where so many business celebrities are pictured as cowboys, perhaps Dimon's greatest asset is his discipline and risk-aversion.

In his time spent with Dimon, his family, friends and colleagues, did McDonald sense Dimon’s favorite part of being at JPMC?  “He’s like an animal for detail.  Data gets him going…‘mastering the moving parts’ is clearly something that drives him, doing it better than somebody else, more thoroughly,” said McDonald, whose book abounds with examples of that mastery.

“Jamie loves the retail banking business, because of its predictability, profitability and stability.  Even before Bear Stearns, people wondered, ‘What retail competitor is Dimon going to buy?’  Because of the size of the numbers and personalities, there’s a  sexier story  on the investment banking side, but I think Jamie’s heart is with the retail banking business.  He thinks it’s a great business. Investment banking can destroy a bank in an instant.”

McDonald notes how other retail brands – Citi, Bank of America – were tarnished in the economic crisis.  “The only brand that came out of this thing undamaged was Chase, reflecting the level of care and focus they give to the brand. One thing Jamie doesn’t do is play fast and loose.  Anyone who has a personal or psychic investment in brand of Chase, he didn’t do them wrong.”

McDonald notes how conscious Dimon, a great student of history, is of what came before him to make JPMC the institution it is.  "There are a number of private dining rooms on the 50th floor at 270 Park, and each has a theme of a heritage organization, for example a Manufacturers Hanover room, Morgan Guaranty, Chase Manhattan, and each has a piece of art or artifact relevant to that institution. 

"He appeared to do his best to keep a lot of the threads represented
, the great institutions that he has inherited.  It's not just Jamie and the present, but the brand mantle," McDonald said, noting that the integration of JP Morgan and Chase is still not completed to his satisfaction.

Asked whether Dimon exudes power or something more charismatic, McDonald responded, “Certainly there’s a sense of power today, but he’s had the charisma even before.  It’s hard to enter his orbit without feeling you’re near someone extraordinary.  He’s not a small man – his mere physical presence is something.  And then there’s the energy.  He’s obviously not a timid person, and he goes a mile a minute.  You can barely keep up with him.  You sense that he can barely keep up with the words out of his own mouth, which can’t keep up with his brainpower – and there are not a lot of wasted words, either.”

As a result of Dimon’s stewardship of JPMC during the economic meltdown, JPMC harbors a “cult of Dimon”, McDonald admitted.  “While he enjoys the attention, he’s also sensitive to the fact that the cult is a growing one – I played my part in it." 

McDonald’s book includes a wonderful anecdote about an article in Fortune that Dimon deliberately refocused on his “SWAT” team, to share the credit; he does his best to dispel the notion of a “cult of Dimon” with humor as well.

“I tried to be on guard against buying into the Jamie myth,” said McDonald, acknowledging that he had received some criticism to the book possibly not being critical enough – even though it has plenty of examples of Dimon’s short temper, his uses of language that might hinder political ambitions and errors made under his watch.  “But he is the winner – the last man standing,” McDonald said.  “Yes, he can be short, blunt, loud, curt, but is he one of the greater talents?  Yes.  The greatest? Maybe. And a lot of bankers wouldn’t do that book because they’re not that likeable.  Jamie is fun to hang out with, interesting.  You’d want to have a beer with him.”

Are there other cults of personality at JPMC?  "There are no competitors – no pretenders," smiled McDonald.  As for possible successors to Dimon, there's Jes Staley,
named head of investment banking at JP Morgan in September 2009.   "You see the name of Mary Erdoes, CEO of asset management, with greater frequency, and Mike Cavanagh and Charlie Scharf have their fans," McDonald said. "But there's no doubt the stock will take a hit when Dimon leaves – it's just a question of how big a hit."

Not that he is predicting that Dimon will leave soon, but McDonald writes several times in the book of Dimon's sense of patriotism and his feeling that "public service part of that calculus, giving back."

How will this jibe with the Democrat Dimon's history of forcing huge job reductions as part of the mergers he's engineered and executed over the years?  "We didn’t talk about job cutting, but he's no Al Dunlap," said McDonald, referring to the so-called "Chainsaw Al" of Sunbeam, who seemed to take pleasure out of firing people.  "With Dimon, it's efficiency. And like it or not, particularly in businesses like branch banking that are people intensive, sometimes efficiency is doing more with fewer people.  I never got the feeling he just couldn’t wait to get his hands on the employee roster and cut it in half, but if he feels it is overstaffed, he’ll address the issue."

Last Man Standing gives you a real sense of who that man is, to his family, his friends and his colleagues – truly a man of scrupulous standards and intellectual power.  It may even hold some surprises for the reader, particularly in the realm of Dimon's definition of "casual dress".   

–– Andrea Axelrod

Last Man Standing (Simon & Schuster, October 2009) can be purchased via Amazon, as well as at most major bookstores.