Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Remembering John McGillicuddy

John McGillicuddy's death this past weekend brought back many memories of this exceptionally charismatic man. He was Chairman and CEO of Manufacturers Hanover from the mid-1970's to 1991 and continued in that role with the merger partner Chemical Bank until his retirement in 1993. One testimonial in the New York Times used the phrase "prince of a man" and that sounds right. He had that unusual quality of being able to light up any office, conference room or auditorium he entered with his smile, easy confidence, and ability to somehow acknowledge a crowd as a group of individuals through eye contact, nods, and gestures. There was nothing fake, practiced, or orchestrated about it. That was just the natural John McGillicuddy.

This quality had no elitism to it. John seemed to never forget a name and a face. At every level of "his" organization, from security guard to back office clerk to vice president he recognized and respected people who played their role with a positive attitude. His recognition often paid people more than their salaries. As just one example, in 1990 or so my secretary had flown to Florida to visit relatives and as she boarded her flight back and walked through the first class section she was greeted by a friendly "Hi Anne" and gentleman John standing up to greet her. Not only that, once the flight was aloft John walked back into the cabin and stood in the aisle for a chat. If there was ever a more exhilerated person for days after, I've never seen it.

Joining Manufacturers Hanover in 1980 I quickly learned that there was one unequivocal leader, role model, and driver of the culture of the firm. As a junior officer a year or so later I became part of one of John's signature events. That was the annual all-officers meeting in April of each year. The 5000 or so bank officers in New York would meet at the headquarters on Park Ave. and then walk in mass behind the New York Police Department bagpipe band through cordoned off streets to Radio City. After a few speeches and awards capped off by a rouser from John, we would all be led back with the same Irish leadership sounding away, taking the crowd to an evening of food and drink back on Park Ave.

The second half of the 1980's was an extremely difficult time for the money center banks and the optimism and competitive drive for growth that characterized the management by John and his team left Manny Hanny severely stressed. 1988 was truly a touch and go year for the firm with its leading position in troubled Argentine debt and its large energy and commercial real estate portfolios. McGillicuddy bit the bullet and for the first time, this man who valued loyalty that went both ways above all else, announced lay-offs. He sold the prosperous Pennsylvania based consumer finance company and other assets. He promoted young stars so they would no longer need to stand in the seniority line. With all that, there are some who would say that what really pulled Manny Hanny through this period was John's charisma and character, respected in Washington, above all else, and by fellow CEO's around the country who he had helped in a pinch in the past. It was a tough time and he led the way, not always happy but certainly determined.

Vindication came sooner that anyone could have expected. In the summer of 1991 a proposed at market price "merger of equals" between ManHan and Chemical Bank was negotiated. The across the street neighbors with vastly different cultures came together based on the willingness of John McGillicuddy and Walter Shipley to compromise with and respect each other. Both banks were weak and much of the market, meaning the securities analysts and investors who followed banks, mocked the deal through the fall of '91. One analyst wrote that "it's like tying two bricks together and thinking that they'll float". There were issues of consequence that arose continually but at year end the deal closed and by late January the new Chemical Bank had successfully completed the largest equity offering ever done at that time in the United States to recapitalize the institution. It turned out that those two bricks were just the beginning of a line of dominos with John McGillicuddy leaning on the first one.

As for me, I respected John immensely but wasn't really in the mold of a real John McGillicuddy man at first. My hair was a little too long, my comments could have more than a touch of irreverance, and my attitude a bit cavalier. As a 30'ish Southerner just half a block from hippiedom I wasn't a natural at this straight arrow but rough edged New York culture. I never was, but eventually a buttoned-down, principled, supportive, and stubborn boss pushed me forward and my performance was recognized. When John made a point of introducing me to his wife and family at his retirement party, it made my day, or a long night.

-----My most sincere condolences to the family.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Julie said...

beautiful tribute, John. I hope this makes the rounds. Will send it on to my nephew at Wharton.

J.

11:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A friend sent this to me...he sure was a prince of a man! Miss him every day. RIP JFM

11:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And thank you, John Borden, for a lovely tribute. ERIN MCGILLICUDDY MILLS

11:30 AM  

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