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My times with Jack Bogle, the best friend investors ever had

Andy Serwer
Editor in Chief

I first got to know Jack Bogle, founder and former CEO of Vanguard, in 1991 when he was a spring chicken of 61. I was writing a story “VANGUARD A FUND FAMILY FOR THE 1990s.” (In an era of diminished expectations, Vanguard's low-cost mutual funds aim to improve returns. Investors are signing on. Competitors are growing nervous.)

I still kind of like the lead: “Deep in the Delaware Valley, about a mile from where George Washington's troops spent the icy winter of 1777-78, another kind of revolution is taking shape.”

I had gone down to Valley Forge, PA—Vanguard HQ—to meet the man.

And Jack was a real kick. He was friendly and personable, but also proud and cantankerous. He already knew he was onto something. Something big.

“The marketing strategy of my company,” says Bogle, “just happens to be giving shareholders the best deal possible, and it works wonderfully.”

And he was right of course. Vanguard was becoming a raging success, with $80 billion under management at that point. Index funds and low fees. It was a better, safer, lower cost way to invest. And investors beat a path to Vanguard’s door.

Jack told me his boyhood hero was Billy Mitchell, the U.S. Army general who foresaw the importance of military air power and was later court-martialed for outspoken criticism of his superiors. Jack battled his early bosses at Wellington Management and then later picked fights with anyone in the industry who he thought was unfair to investors and/or didn’t believe in his orthodoxy of indexing and low fees (including many at Vanguard.) That was pretty much everyone.

Ned Johnson III, CEO of Fidelity told me: “We offer many services that Vanguard doesn't. I think Jack Bogle forgets that there is more than one way to run an investment company.” Unlike the Johnson family which owns Fidelity, Bogle never became super rich. Pretty wealthy yes, but nothing crazy. I’ve seen estimates of his net worth at $80 million, whereas Johnson is reported to be worth over $7 billion. That’s mostly because Vanguard is kind of a coop, owned by its shareholders, not Bogle or others, (a big reason why Vanguard’s fees are low.)

Through the years I met with Jack any number of times, but I wrote my next big piece about him in Fortune in 2001: “Say It Loud They're Average and Proud Two old ideas, low fees and indexing, make Vanguard the fund company of the moment.” By then, 11 years later, Vanguard had $540 billion under management. (NB: I worked on that piece with reporter Julia Boorstin, now of CNBC.) Bogle was still railing against active investing, which he told me was “a game of chance, and a bad one at that."

At that point Bogle was mostly out of Vanguard after knocking heads with the then CEO. In fact, the company tried to down-play Jack’s role, but that was impossible. He was the heart and soul of the company. Vanguard always has been and always will be, the House that Jack built.

Vanguard group founder John Bogle at his office on the Vanguard campus, near Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, January 16, 2003.

The last time I wrote about Jack at Fortune was in 2012. Vanguard had $2.2 trillion. (Can you imagine building this thing, watching it grow?) Eighty-three years old at the time, Jack took the train up from Philadelphia by himself. I met him in a restaurant: “He was easy to spot. Not because he was oozing wealth from every pore and surrounded by an entourage — but because he wasn’t. Over there in the corner, he’s the older fellow in a plain suit and a boring tie who looks a tad uncomfortable in a place that serves up Spanish Octopus a la Plancha, with sofrito, cocoa beans, marble potatoes, and serrano ham. (He would have a hamburger — hold the pickled ramp dressing.)”

We talked about his new book, “The Clash of the Cultures: Investment vs. Speculation,” in which he eviscerates most investing practices and much of what happens on Wall Street. “I don’t pay attention to what others say. I say what I think,” he tells me, while warily eyeing my Fall Roasted Root Vegetable Salad with petite lettuce, goat cheese, duck confit, figs, apple, and carrot vinaigrette. “I don’t know how to do otherwise.” (I think he wants to say something about my salad, but Jack does have some limits.)

And I said goodbye:

“As I help Jack hail a cab to take him to Penn Station (no Town Cars or limos for him) to catch his train back to Philadelphia, I realize that when you boil it down, his success is a result of the power of independent thinking. Jack has consistently gone his own way and made up his own mind. It’s an important point to remember when considering how to invest.”

Today Vanguard has $5.1 trillion, second only to Blackrock ($6.3 trillion) in the rankings of asset managers.

I did my last interview with Bogle, this time for Yahoo, at the 2017 Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting. Jack was still a kick: "300 people around here have thanked me today, and only 299 of them wanted a selfie,” he joked. Earlier Buffett had called him out at the meeting: “Jack Bogle, who I talked about in the annual report, Jack Bogle has probably done more for the American investor than any man in the country. “Jack, could you stand up? There he is.”

It was a great moment. The world’s greatest investor tipping his hat to the best friend investors ever had.

Cheers Jack. I’ll miss you.

Andy Serwer is editor-in-chief of Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter @serwer.

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