Quiet, Unassuming, Modest — and One of the World’s Most Powerful Women

Wealthy philanthropist and CEO of Fidelity Investments Abigail Johnson came up through the ranks of the family business ‘the old way’

By TONY LENNOX

Abigail Johnson, CEO Fidelity Investments

CEO of Fidelity Investments Abigail Johnson. Photo: Singhaniket255, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Despite being one of the world’s wealthiest women, Abigail Johnson cuts an unobtrusive figure on the streets of her native Boston. She is rarely recognised, even by fellow New Englanders.

“I often can’t get a table, so I don’t eat out that much,” she joked during a recent interview. But beneath the modest façade lies resolute determination. Johnson has been president and CEO of Fidelity Investments, a Boston-based investment management giant, and chair of Fidelity International since 2014.

Asked what advice she’d give her younger self, she is emphatic: “Don’t doubt yourself — keep at it, stay looking ahead, stay committed, and stay true to yourself.” She may well have heeded her own wisdom: her personal wealth is estimated to be more than $22bn.

The 59-year-old is the product of an old Massachusetts family. Her grandfather, Edward Johnson II, founded Fidelity in 1946 with just one employee. Her father, Edward “Ned” Johnson III, who died aged 91 in March, grew the family firm before passing the reins to Abigail.

Today, Fidelity is an international business with 45,000 employees worldwide. The company’s philosophy is to make investment accessible, and affordable, to ordinary families. Abby Johnson, as she is known to her staff, abides by that — but she has her own ideas on how to take the company forward (while still following her father’s advice): “Always strive to be better. No matter how well you might seem to be doing, your job is never done.”

Part of her strategy has been to focus on millennial and female investors. Her first job at Fidelity, while she was still at high school, was fielding phone calls. This exposure gave her an understanding of the importance of customer service, and today she applies technology and personal understanding to help investors engage with the business.

“Don’t assume the answers are already out there,” she says. “The answer might not be something that’s been done before. Trust your instincts.” Johnson’s aim is to keep the company vibrant and proactive, especially in its contact with a new generation of customers. She believes women have an important role to play in Fidelity’s future — as investment managers, as well as customers.

“Asset management is a great career for women,” she says. “We have a real need right now to recruit more women, because when women customers come into our branches very often the first thing they say is ‘I want to work with a woman’. We don’t have enough women who are customer-facing.

“Women as customers are really quite different. They tend to under-rate their abilities as stewards of their own financial situations. They describe themselves as beginners, even though they know more than they give themselves credit for, and they tend to be more methodical.”

In 2015, Abigail Johnson set up Fidelity’s Boundless programme — specifically designed to encourage more young women to consider careers in the financial services. She has commissioned teams to study how the sector is perceived across genders.

Johnson holds a BA in Art History in 1984 and an MBA from Harvard Business School. She started her career with management and IT consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, where she met her husband, the entrepreneur Christopher J McKown, with whom she has two adult daughters.

Johnson worked in the family firm for 26 years, in a succession of obscure positions, but gradually began taking on more prominent roles. She developed a thorough knowledge of company dynamics before becoming CEO of Fidelity Investments at the age of 52. Since 2014, she’s put her own stamp on the business, moving the headquarters from sedate Devonshire Street offices to Boston’s go-ahead Seaport tech district.

Ranked sixth in the Forbes list of the world’s most powerful women, Abigail Johnson remains down-to-earth. She takes commercial flights and queues at the car-hire desk like everyone else; she supports arts projects and charities, including a young people’s club, a public radio and television station, and a Boston homeless shelter. She even serves meals there, on occasion — the Johnson family name is known for philanthropy, as well as business expertise.


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