Reflections on the Death of My Dear Friend, Mentor and First Boss: Jack Rivkin

I learned just a few hours ago that a dear old friend of mine, Jack L. Rivkin, passed away two days ago—on Election Day in the USA.  Each of us grieves in a different way—as an ex-analyst, the way I tend to come to terms with things is by writing about them.  I only ever became an analyst because of two people who, against all evidence, had faith in me—and one of them was Jack.  The other was a woman, who I do not think would be at all offended if I said that no single person has had as much impact on my professional career as Jack—I will miss him immensely.

I read the brief statement announcing his death put out by his recent employer.  It seemed so limited that I felt especially driven to write something which brings to life this extraordinary character and human being.  Much of what I could say about him is personal—of great interest to me—but of no interest to most readers.  I also feel especially compelled to write about something positive—particularly in these gloomy times.  So, permit me to indulge myself with a few paragraphs about this exceptional man and offer, from his life, some bright spots amidst the all the darkness.

Jack was “intellectually curious”.  In truth, I rarely used the expression until I met him, but have probably overused it ever since.  He had that childlike wonder about so many things.  Those of us around him, found his curiosity infectious.  It helped make him a top-flight investment professional, of course, but describing him as such misses the unique point of the man.  That he rose to senior levels at several firms is true, but is a one-dimensional view of someone with many facets, driven always by the passion to listen, to learn, to question, to challenge, to understand and to go beyond.  Meetings with him would always start late and run way over—he could sit and chat endlessly about a topic and was unperturbed by the consequences.  In these anti-intellectual times when complexity is avoided, discussion and enquiry replaced by soundbites and facts rendered irrelevant, Jack’s passion for knowledge, truth and understanding help me to remember much better days.

Jack was gender-blind.  At a time when Wall Street had hardly any women, Jack hired them in abundance.  In fact, as I recall, well over 1/3 of the Research Department for which I worked was female.  And this department became top-ranked on Wall Street, winning many awards.  Jack had taken a team which was barely in the top ten and turned it into the best by far, eclipsing larger and better-funded teams at such Wall Street heavyweights like Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs.   This was the subject of one of Harvard Business School’s most popular case studies, “Lehman Brothers: Rise of the Equity Research Department” in 2006.  Inspiring management was a factor, but I always felt his “secret sauce” was that he valued people on their merit—other factors were not of concern.  This was felt not only by the women in the department, but by everyone.  And he was indifferent to the puerile and predictable attempts to undermine what he had built.  Given the recent election and the attitudes revealed, Jack’s humanity and respect for all provides a striking contrast.

Jack possessed courage, as is partly evidenced by how he built his department.  He also was able and willing to speak truth to power—and did so, often suffering the consequences.  Had he played the game at Lehman, where I worked, I think he could have come to run it. I am also of the opinion that had this happened, the firm would not have gone under.  This is particularly significant given that the collapse of that firm nearly brought the global financial system down with it.  But my impression was that those running the firm feared his intelligence, his competence, his integrity and his increasingly well-regarded success across the firm.  He simply had to go.  Jack not only stuck to his principles but was also principled in his work.  This was much less rare in finance in those days but it was definitely uncommon.  I hardly need to draw the comparison again with modern times.

Finally, Jack was a real person.  He had an engaging smile, played very competitive tennis, loved green pens, co-authored a book, could admit when he was wrong, was genuinely liked and admired by those who worked for him, enjoyed young people (always a good sign), wrestled at university, enjoyed life, was true to himself–intellectually honest as well as curious.

I shall miss him greatly and will remain forever in his debt

6 thoughts on “Reflections on the Death of My Dear Friend, Mentor and First Boss: Jack Rivkin”

  1. Rodney, thank you for this heartfelt tribute. As a former analyst, I share your need to write to come to terms with things.

    I never knew Jack Rivkin well, though I made the decision to leave Salomon Brothers and join Shearson Lehman largely due to Jack’s reputation, all that you write here. Sadly, shortly after I joined the firm, Jack was removed. I was exceedingly disappointed, though worked to make the most of it.

    I send you my deepest condolences. I am so very sorry.

    1. Heidi, we never met but I can imagine why you left Salomon to come work at Shearson with Jack. He was in a class of few. Sadly, when people are so patently competent, so honourable and so smart it threatens thos who have fewer of these characteristics or gifts. How distressing! thanks for writing, rod

  2. Excellent write-up about Jack Rivkin. Rodney captured many of Jack’s traits and reasons why people respected him and loved working for him, as I also did throughout many Firms.

  3. Thanks, Rod, for putting into words exactly how I feel and remember Jack. Rarely does a person leave this earth having impacted and improved so many lives in such a short timespan. Jack was one-of-a-kind. His passion and his intellect were other-worldly. He is sorely missed.
    Teena Lerner (Lehman Brothers 1987-1996)

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