The secret to Jamie Dimon's luster

Journalist Duff McDonald's new book, 'Last Man Standing,' takes a fresh look at the megabank CEO for our times.

EMAIL  |   PRINT  |   SHARE  |   RSS
google my aol my msn my yahoo! netvibes
Paste this link into your favorite RSS desktop reader
See all RSS FEEDS (close)
By Jia-Lynn Yang, writer

How are you doing financially compared to the start of the year?
  • Better
  • Worse
  • About the same

WASHINGTON (Fortune) -- It's hard for a banker to get much love these days -- unless his name is Jamie Dimon, in which case he's hailed as the hero of his industry.

The 53-year-old CEO of JPMorgan Chase gets a thorough biographical treatment, and more praise, in the new book Last Man Standing: The Ascent of Jamie Dimon and JPMorgan Chase by journalist Duff McDonald.

Dimon and his family and friends opened up to McDonald in dozens of interviews, and it shows in the richness of the portrait. The shorthand description of Dimon has long been that he's a ruthless number-cruncher.

Here, McDonald fleshes that out considerably, portraying Dimon as a perfect megabank CEO for these times: He's attuned to risk -- in 2006 he yanked the company out of more than $12 billion subprime mortgages it had originated -- and he leads his employees with a sensitive moral gut. He also has a lifelong habit of mouthing off to authority (Citigroup's Sandy Weill being the most famous recipient, but certainly not the first.)

McDonald starts by digging into the Dimon family tree -- and finds a classic American immigrant story. Dimon's paternal grandfather was a Greek immigrant who shortened the family name from Papademetriou to Dimon, because the latter sounded French. After he was fired from a job as a bus boy, Jamie's grandfather started working at a branch of the Bank of Athens. And so the Dimon family's penchant for banking was born.

Dimon's independent streak surfaces early on. At the Browning School on Manhattan's Upper East Side, Dimon asserted himself against teachers constantly. In one striking anecdote, the only African American student in the class was asked to leave after misbehaving, prompting the teacher to say, "Six hundred thousand died to free the slaves, and this is the gratitude we get." Dimon took his things and walked out.

Later, when Dimon worked for a small firm in Boston called Management Advisory and Consulting, a partner assigned him a project to finish over the weekend. When the partner didn't show up to see Dimon's work on Monday morning, Dimon confronted him. Dimon told the partner his weekend had been ruined, adding, "And because of that, I will never work on another project for you again." Others at the company told Dimon he couldn't say such things. "Yes, I can," he responded. "And they can fire me if they want to."

This brashness contributed to the famous falling out between Dimon and his mentor Sandy Weill. In 1998, soon after Weill and Dimon pulled off the merger between Citicorp and Travelers, Dimon was fired, and observers ever since have been wondering what might have been if Dimon had stayed to run Citi (C, Fortune 500). McDonald quotes Richard Bookstaber, author of Demon of Our Own Design, who puts the firing up there with Time Warner's merger with AOL in the annals of disastrous business decisions. "[Weill firing Dimon] probably cost $200 to $300 billion. It's pretty amazing."

Ten years later, toss in a major financial crisis, and these two men who once forged their careers together are watching their legacies transform. Weill's vision for Citi is not panning out, while Dimon has emerged a hero following JPMorgan Chase's takeover of Bear Stearns and purchase of Washington Mutual's assets.

Here again McDonald portrays Dimon as a man very much in control of the situation last fall. The book reveals that at one point early last September, Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson called Dimon and told him he could acquire Morgan Stanley for nothing. Dimon immediately said no; there was too much overlap between the banks and JPMorgan (JPM, Fortune 500) already had its hands full with Bear Stearns.

And that's the sort of steel that makes it no surprise that, while Weill chose to write a memoir in 2006 -- The Real Deal -- to defend his side, Dimon let a journalist in to tell this story. To top of page

Read the excerpts from Duff McDonald's book

Jamie Dimon vs. Sandy Weill

When a bank feud got physical
Company Price Change % Change
Apple Inc 99.02 1.35 1.38%
Facebook Inc 74.92 -0.27 -0.36%
Bank of America Corp... 15.50 -0.09 -0.58%
Dollar Tree Inc 54.87 -0.08 -0.15%
Family Dollar Stores... 75.74 15.08 24.86%
Data as of Jul 28
Index Last Change % Change
Dow 16,982.59 22.02 0.13%
Nasdaq 4,444.91 -4.65 -0.10%
S&P 500 1,978.91 0.57 0.03%
Treasuries 2.49 0.02 0.89%
Data as of 2:16am ET
More Galleries
The 13 most WTF gadgets From the weird to the gross, these 13 gadgets will make you wonder why they even exist. More
Best-loved cars in America These cars and trucks topped J.D. Power's APEAL survey, which measures how much owners like their new vehicles. More
America's most powerful cars A new 'horsepower war' has erupted among U.S. automakers and these are the most potent weapons in their arsenals. More
Worry about the hackers you don't know 
Crime syndicates and government organizations pose a much greater cyber threat than renegade hacker groups like Anonymous. Play
GE CEO: Bringing jobs back to the U.S. 
Jeff Immelt says the U.S. is a cost competitive market for advanced manufacturing and that GE is bringing jobs back from Mexico. Play
Hamster wheel and wedgie-powered transit 
Red Bull Creation challenges hackers and engineers to invent new modes of transportation. Play

Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.