Abigail Johnson ranks high on my list of people I’d most like to meet. Unless you closely follow or work in the financial services industry, chances are you have no clue who Johnson is. That’s among the myriad reasons I so admire the woman.

Johnson is Chairman and CEO of Fidelity Investments, the Boston-based investment firm with more than $8 trillion in assets under administration, including a substantial portion of my net worth. I’ve been a Fidelity client for more than 30 years, and have dealt with its offices in southeastern Michigan, New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. I routinely pester its international desk for assistance verifying the symbols of Canadian stocks I want to trade. I’ve called for portfolio assistance during the wee hours of the morning, including Christmas Day. My Fidelity advisor graciously puts up with me despite my being a chronic worry wart paralyzed by investment fear.

Abigail Johnson

Without exception, the hundreds of Fidelity representatives I’ve interacted with over the decades have been knowledgeable, well trained, exceptionally professional, and eager to assist. The flawless track record makes Fidelity the HR wonder of the modern world. God bless them, all their customer support functions are managed in house and located in the USA.

Fidelity’s uncompromising commitment to stellar customer service is the company’s secret sauce, first formulated by Johnson’s grandfather when he founded the company in 1946, and continuously served up since by Johnson’s father, who ran than company for nearly 40 years, and now by Johnson herself, who took the helm in 2014 and is known as Abby among friends and colleagues.

Another secret sauce ingredient, one the media glosses over and doesn’t appreciate, is that Fidelity is half owned by its employees. The maxim of modern capitalism is that a company’s responsibility is to maximize the stock of its shareholders. Fidelity is an example of what happens when employees directly benefit from their labors.

This ode to Fidelity was sparked because of the hellacious experiences I’ve had in recent weeks trying to get a human being on the phone at companies that were delighted to sell me their goods and services but prefer not to assist me on how best to use them or get them repaired.

Destroyer of stellar customer service

In America, the once golden marketing rule “the customer comes first,” has been replaced with “avoid and frustrate the customer at all costs.” I’m happy to share some of the companies that pushed me over the edge: Blue Shield of California, JennAir, Verizon, Breville, and Sonos. A pox on all the CEO houses of these respective companies, particularly the abode of Sonos CEO Patrick Spence. I once raved about Sonos, but Spence has since offshored Sonos’ customer support to India, Costa Rica, and who knows where else.

Fidelity is among the few remaining American companies that respects its customers and is there for them at critical times. In April when the market tanked, my Fidelity rep’s assistant called me — yes, called – to arrange a meeting to discuss my portfolio and my concerns. Call me old fashioned, but when someone contacts me by phone, not email, I view it as a sign of genuine interest and concern. My rep is based in Century City, home to Fox Studios, a major Hollywood talent agency, and prominent law and other professional services firms, so I’m quite certain my account is decidedly among his smallest and least profitable.

Fidelity’s corporate name is dated. It’s as much a technology company as it is a giant financial supermarket. The financial services industry today is powered by technology and Fidelity has distinguished itself on the cutting edge. The company’s robust website is so remarkably user friendly that even a technophobe like me is comfortable using it to trade stocks online. Unlike Vanguard’s, whose site has been plagued with repeated outages at critical times, Fidelity’s site is built to withstand days where trading volumes are at record levels. Fidelity’s stock trading app and its robo-advisory product are consistently ranked among the best by the financial press.

Silicon Valley is trying to muscle into the financial services space, but they’ve yet to figure out or appreciate the importance of 24/7 customer service. One of these companies is Robinhood, a trading app highly popular with millennials whose founders previously built and sold trading software for hedge funds.

Robinhood’s site was recently hacked and about 2,000 customers had their funds siphoned elsewhere. The company’s victims were angered upon learning that Robinhood didn’t have a customer service number. In this day and age when hacking and identity theft are commonplace, I argue that consumers should only do business with financial services companies offering 24/7 customer support from the U.S. (I maintain that offshoring consumer financial services information is a breach in itself.)

What’s remarkable about Fidelity is its ability to grow and meet challenges organically. In a recent interview with Barron’s, Johnson explained that Fidelity has “a corporate culture that we care deeply about” and that absorbing employees from competing companies can put the culture at risk. Johnson said it’s the responsibility of all Fidelity associates to help the company to determine its strategic direction, an internal process she referred to as “Scan. Try. Scale.” I’m guessing that means study the market, test your concept, and then figure out how to implement it on a wider platform.

Dallas Morning News, December 13, 2020

Fidelity doesn’t always get things right. It came very late to the ETF party, but once it joined, it quickly made its presence felt. Fidelity has positioned itself to be a major player in the Bitcoin space, an effort that Johnson has personally overseen. Underscoring that Fidelity has some of the coolness and innovation of a Silicon Valley tech company, it tested Bitcoin by accepting the digital currency in its cafeteria.

In my experience, Fidelity attracts a certain type. The company’s employees tend to be polished but very understated. They are exceptionally conscious and diligent about Fidelity’s compliance rules and regulations, which makes it, which makes it unlikely that a Fidelity customer is going to get fleeced like Bank of America’s Merrill Lynch unit allegedly did to former New Hampshire governor Craig Benson. Being so straight laced makes it problematic for them to deal with wiseacre customers like myself. My rep freaks out every time I say I’d like to name him as my primary beneficiary. (Fidelity reps speak on a recorded line and a client saying he’d like to name his rep as a beneficiary could set off alarm bells.)

The understatement stems from the top. Johnson, who turns 59 on Saturday, is a beguilingly taciturn person who so easily blends into a crowd that few would ever guess that she’s among the wealthiest people in America, with a net worth of about $15 billion. My sense is that Johnson doesn’t want her wealth to define her, and if given the choice, she’d welcome not being included on Forbes’ list of wealthiest Americans or would be delighted if they grossly underestimated her net worth.

Johnson strikes me as genuinely down-to-earth. Among the personal details I’ve gleamed: Johnson flies commercial, doesn’t drop her name to get reservations at restaurants, and not only worked out at a local fitness club, but also wore its facility issued clothing. The internet connection at Johnson’s suburban Boston home is so spotty that she had to go to Fidelity’s headquarters to conduct a zoom interview with the Dallas Morning News. Johnson has an MBA from Harvard but her undergraduate degree is in art history, which suggests her interests extend well beyond reading Excel spreadsheets.

Johnson rarely gives media interviews, preferring to engage with employees and Fidelity clients. But she’s a pro at media relations: Watch Johnson’s recent interview with Barron’s editor Beverly Goodman (embedded in this article) and notice the multiple times she acknowledges Goodman’s and Barron’s work. Making journalists feel good about themselves and their publications is a surefire way to disarm them and make an interview go your way. (Also notice how Goodman beams when hearing Johnson’s acknowledgments.)

Johnson’s seeming humility sets a powerful example for Fidelity’s rank-and-file. It telegraphs that she doesn’t want Fidelity to be all about her, but rather a much bigger mission where all employees are critical to the company’s success. Amazingly, the message was heard and understood by every Fidelity employee I’ve ever encountered.

So, to Fidelity’s 50,000 plus employees, take a bow all of you. In a world of increasingly C- and D-team companies who harness technology to distance themselves from their customers, you’re the A-team players trained to do right by the people whose business you rely on. Consider yourselves fortunate you work for a company controlled by a family whose members have always conducted themselves with integrity and grace and strived to enrich their employees alongside themselves.

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