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How Jack Bogle got stronger from failure

Rick Newman
Senior Columnist

Vanguard founder Jack Bogle, who died on January 16 at the age of 89, is properly known as the inventor of the index fund and an investing genius. But Bogle was also an inspiring figure who prospered after failure and got stronger, not weaker, when he encountered adversity.

I profiled Bogle in my 2012 book Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success. I knew Bogle had started Vanguard in the 1970s after some kind of falling out at another financial firm. But as I did more research and interviewed Bogle at his office outside Philadelphia, I realized Bogle had the enviable ability to learn from setbacks and turn adversity to his advantage. He was persistent, but more than that, he found new opportunities amid gloomy times that would sink many of us.

Bogle was a financial whiz who only started Vanguard because he lost a boardroom battle at another company he was running, Wellington Management, which fired him in 1974. He didn’t march out and incorporate Vanguard the next day. He moped and wondered what to do next.

On a train one day, Bogle broke down in tears, overwhelmed with stress. “I was totally wiped out,” he told biographer Robert Slater. “I don’t recall another time like that, when I was wiped out by it all.”

The Vanguard origin story is well-known, but somewhat forgotten is the ferocious resistance Bogle met when he became a prophet of low-fee, passive investing. Those lower fees meant less income for brokers and dealers, and the industry attacked him, lampooning his lowly index fund as “Bogle’s Folly.” There were many points at which Bogle might have justifiably quit. Skeptical investors ponied up far less money for his fund at the outset than he hoped for, leaving him barely enough to work with. The Securities and Exchange Commission imposed regulatory barriers that nearly killed the firm. Competitors trashed Vanguard in the press. And all this happened in the 1970s as the stock market was doing lousy and double-digit inflation spooked investors.

“Nobody ever would have imagined that that wouldn’t be the end of me.”

Oh yeah, Jack Bogle also had a chronically weak heart. He had his first heart attack in 1969, at age 31. He would eventually have six heart attacks, and receive a transplanted heart in 1996.

Years later, I asked Bogle what kept him going when he was tempted to give up. He told me about the Greek myth of Antaeus, the son of Poseidon, who had gained fame as an unbeatable wrestler. Antaeus’s secret was that he gained indomitable strength when he was in contact with the ground, which meant he got stronger when knocked down. Bogle felt he, too, had gained strength from a smackdown. “When I got fired,” he said, “nobody ever would have imagined that that wouldn’t be the end of me.”

Bogle named his company after the flagship of British war hero Admiral Lord Nelson. “Nothing could withstand the squadron under my command,” Nelson had written. “The judgment of the captains, together with the valor and high state of discipline of the officers and men of every description, was absolutely irresistible.” Bogle wanted the same esprit de corps at Vanguard, and later on, when the company was successful, he sometimes gave talks to the “crew,” as he called his staff, likening the firm’s early battles to Nelson’s triumphs at sea. Bogle viewed his career and his mission as an epic narrative.

Bogle was born in 1929 and his family lost a sizable inheritance during the Depression. His father lost his job, started drinking and drifted away after Bogle’s parents divorced. Money became scarce. Bogle earned a scholarship to Princeton, where he was a have-not who earned side money serving food in the dining hall to wealthier kids.

When I interviewed him, some 60 years later, he said his modest upbringing made him feel lucky.

“If you grow up the hard way,” he mused, “maybe the odds are 70 percent you can make something of your life. If you grow up the easy way, maybe the odds are 40 percent.” And of the Princeton kids he served food to, he said this, grinning: “Deep down, I think I felt sorry for them. They weren’t born with all the advantages I had.”

During his senior year at Princeton, Bogle wrote a thesis dryly titled, “The Economic Role of the Investment Company.” It contained the seminal ideas Bogle would tap when he formed Vanguard. “Mutual funds should be managed for the shareholder, not for the manager,” he lectured me years later. “They should be run in the most economical, efficient and honest way possible. It might sound like idealistic prattling, but a big part of whatever I’ve done is my idealism.” Jack Bogle can prattle all he wants.

Confidential tip line: rickjnewman@yahoo.com. Click here to get Rick’s stories by email.

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Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman