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Edward ‘Ned’ Johnson, Former Fidelity CEO and Fund Pioneer, Dies

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Ned Johnson and daughter Abigail Johnson in 2004.

Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis/Getty Images

Edward “Ned” Johnson III hailed from one of the oldest families in Boston. But he accomplished something entirely new: He brought investment products to Main Street in huge numbers, and in the process he built a company that reaches into every part of American life.

His vehicle was Fidelity Investments, founded by his father, which he reinvented as the industry’s largest supermarket of products: from money-market funds to 401Ks to a stable of mutual funds run by superstar investors like Peter Lynch.

Johnson ran Fidelity for four decades, into his 80s. He handed the reins to his daughter, Abigail Johnson, in 2014.

Ned Johnson died on Wednesday at age 91.

In a LinkedIn post on Thursday, his daughter Abigail Johnson wrote that her father passed away at home in Florida surrounded by his family. She noted his love of the stock market and a good debate, and his knack for taking the contrarian view on “just about anything.”

Johnson, who started at Fidelity as an analyst for then-go-go investor Gerald Tsai, took over as CEO from his father during the brutal ’70s bear market, when stocks were a very tough sell. He employed technologies to reach ordinary investors—telephones, television, computers. He pioneered new products—sector funds, retirement plans, brokerage accounts—and new ways of marketing. He nurtured stars, like Lynch, who became household names.

By the ’80s, the market was rising and Fidelity was exploding in size. It ended last year administering roughly $11.8 trillion in assets and overseeing almost $4.5 trillion.

“Ned’s real genius was understanding that if he could hire and promote the most successful money managers, he could create and grow the most successful active-management firm out there—and that is what he did,” says Jim Lowell, who first met Johnson as a child at his grandparents’ summer home on Massachusetts’ North Shore and has for decades edited the Fidelity Investor newsletter.

“Most investors have really bought the passive [investing] party line—and that may never change. But what will be forever is that Ned Johnson set out to create a company populated by excellent active managers, and he succeeded,” he adds.

Lowell notes that one of Johnson’s less recognized achievements may be improving gender diversity. “His single biggest impact unquestionably is that he orchestrated a successful transition to leadership by his daughter, Abigail Johnson, who is one of the most powerful women in finance,” he says.

Johnson’s death, along with that of Vanguard Group founder Jack Bogle three years ago, may mark a turning of the page in the struggle between active and passive investing. “There is a question of whether mutual funds as a whole are on their way out,” says Lowell. Fidelity itself now sells index and exchange-traded funds.

Those changes occurred on Abigail Johnson’s watch. “I don’t think there is any arguing that Fidelity is an institution that serves millions of different investors large and small and has really evolved further from its roots ,” says Ben Johnson, director of global exchange-traded fund research at Morningstar. “Countless investors have benefited from their broad spectrum of choices, from Fidelity Contrafund to zero-fee index mutual funds and ETFs, and their recently announced first foray into direct indexing. Fidelity has come a long way from where it started.”

Write to Reshma Kapadia at reshma.kapadia@barrons.com

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