Voices
Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Character counts

A lack of money and smarts is not at the root of our financial problems

Issue: "Four horsemen of the apocalypse," Oct. 4, 2008

Three decades ago my father, several of my brothers, and I sat with Presley Edwards, the retired top man at the A.G. Edwards brokerage firm, to quiz him over breakfast on some of the main things he had learned during his years in business. "Two things come to my mind," he mused. "First, find more start-up money than you ever think you'll need. Figure as closely as you can what it'll take. Double that. Double that again. Multiply that by 10. And then pray that you have enough."

And second? "Hire the smartest people you possibly can. Don't stint on that."

That's the conversation that might stick most in my mind when the stock market starts gyrating again. Was somebody insufficiently capitalized? Had they not been able to hire managers who were smart enough?

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That's the conversation that would stick in my mind-except for another conversation I had 20 years later with Presley Edwards' son Ben. Ben Edwards was chairman of the board and CEO of A.G. Edwards during that company's glory years, guiding it to its position as one of the top 10 brokerages in the country, and at one point the only top 10 brokerage not headquartered in New York. It was often the Edwards' willingness to go against the crowd that led to so much of its success.

When I told Ben Edwards about my earlier conversation with his father, he laughed. "I can imagine Dad saying that," he said. "And I'd still agree with his first point. But I'd have to adjust his second one. These days, we can hire all the smart young people we want. These days, we have to look a whole lot harder for character."

What a difference a generation makes. "The temptations are so much bigger," he went on, "and the moral ability to handle them seems so much more limited."

That was 10 years ago. So I called Ben Edwards again last week, and we talked about whether the current economic earthquake is mostly about failure of know-how, failure of character, or maybe something altogether different.

I was surprised and impressed how reluctant this former boss to 14,000 people was to point his finger at others. Instead, he modestly illustrated how easily power goes to someone's head. "If you're a CEO and you've got a pretty good job, that means you've got good people in charge of every area of your business-leaving you with not a heck of a lot to do. So what do you do? You feel embarrassed because you're the highest paid person and you ought to be doing important things. So you downsize, or you acquire or be acquired, or do any of these things that make the front page of the financial papers. When I'd get tempted like that and everything was going smoothly, I'd go out and do something unimportant until I got over it. But I've seen it happen with a lot of CEOs."

Or, Ben pointed out, "your company's making a lot of money, as a lot of these were in the good times and the dream bubble, and you start thinking that you're smart and you're responsible. You take credit-when actually it's the little people who are doing the grunt work that are really making or losing your money-and maybe in spite of your bad decisions!"

This, I thought, is exactly the kind of character that we so much need but see so little of these days. This veteran of high finance opposes repeated government bailouts, defies anybody "to show where the government's running something has made it better," and scorns the scandalous "good-ole' Charlie" bonuses so many companies have offered non-performing executives.

But still he looks at himself. "Greed is what we notice in other people and most of the time fail to notice in ourselves. I've been guilty a number of times." On our tendency to rationalize: "The most dishonest thing is when we justify something in our heart by saying that everybody's doing it."

Here's the kicker. The A.G. Edwards firm is no more. After Ben Edwards' retirement and against his protests, the company he spent a lifetime building was sold in 2007 to Wachovia. And now Wachovia is reeling, its stock only a fifth what it was two years ago.

So does Ben Edwards, also being treated these days for life-threatening cancer, feel like Job? "Not at all," he says with gusto. "I've had way more blessings than anyone I know. I'm a blessed man."

Today, it wasn't a smart market analysis I needed. I needed a real live example of the kind of character that makes any economy strong. But it's in short supply.

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