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Alumni Awards 2001 - Dick Fisher

 
7/2/2001
In addition to supporting Morgan Stanley's commitment to technology, Dick Fisher (HBS MBA '62), chairman emeritus of Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co., anticipated the significance of globalization by taking a much-publicized gamble in relatively untested markets such as India and China.

When Dick Fisher joined Morgan Stanley in 1962, the venerable investment banking firm had a staff of 110 and annual revenues of about $8 million. Today, it has more than 64,000 employees in offices stretching from New York and London to S£o Paulo and Beijing. Revenues last year totaled more than $26 billion, the result of a broad position in sales and trading as well as a diversity of businesses and products that were virtually unimaginable before full-service financial institutions became the dominant force in the marketplace. Named president of the firm in 1984 and chairman in 1991, Fisher is widely recognized for his role in both envisioning and executing the changes that established Morgan Stanley as a powerful presence in the world of global finance.

Fisher's wide-ranging intellectual curiosity as a student of history and philosophy at Princeton fostered an early interest in teaching, but after graduating in 1957 at the age of twenty, he was undecided on his next course of study. As a result, he accepted a position in the college's admissions office, traveling around the country to interview applicants. In time, the Philadelphia native decided that what he really wanted was "more experience." Rather than apply to graduate school, Fisher decided to "go to the other extreme" and discover whatever opportunities he could in business.

After a brief return to Philadelphia as a trainee at the Insurance Company of North America, Fisher landed a position in retail sales at Eastman Dillon, Union Securities and Company, where he worked on commission. "Understanding what it takes to follow up on leads and build client relationships in the face of rejection was a terrific experience," he observes. "We were given an advance to live on, but if you didn't earn it back in commission, you owed that money to the firm. It focused me on my work, to say the least."

As Fisher's understanding of the business developed, the finer points of finance intrigued him."I think I was the only person in the office who enjoyed reading company prospectuses," he laughs. "At that point it became clear that going to business school would be a good way to expand my knowledge base."

At HBS, a course in corporate finance with Professor Warren A. Law solidified Fisher's interest in the field. Between his first and second years in the MBA Program, he worked at Morgan Stanley's New York headquarters as an intern. The firm's exacting standards made a deep impression on Fisher, who returned there as an associate after graduating as a Baker Scholar. "It was like being in the Marine Corps," he recalls. His first "back-breaker" assignment involved analyzing the economic feasibility of a Canadian hydroelectric plant for London's Rothschild family. "Morgan Stanley decided to build a computer model, which was no mean feat in 1962," says Fisher, who was sent to IBM to master the FORTRAN and COBOL programming languages. "I never thought I'd be learning about computers, but it was great training—and the beginning of the firm's commitment to high-powered analytics."

In 1970, Fisher was elected a managing director. Yet even as his career progressed, the financial landscape was changing, with competitors moving to take advantage of increasing demand in the marketplace for retail services in areas such as municipal bonds, money markets, and mortgage-backed securities. Fisher and his colleagues presented their analysis and recommendations for change to Morgan Stanley's senior partners, persuading them that the wholesale culture of the major "bulge bracket" investment banks would need to make way for a deeper position in retail activities such as research, sales, and trading. As a result, the firm embarked upon a major growth strategy in 1971, with Fisher as one of its leading architects. He concentrated first on corporate bonds and then moved to institutional equities before becoming director of the capital markets division. From 1970 to 1983, revenues increased from $22 million to just over $470 million.

In addition to supporting Morgan Stanley's commitment to technology, Fisher anticipated the significance of globalization by taking a much-publicized gamble in relatively untested markets such as India and China. The $10 billion merger he helped negotiate between the Morgan Stanley Group and Dean Witter, Discover & Co. in 1997 marked another prescient move, as the banking industry experienced a period of intense consolidation. "We had been telling clients that in those circumstances, there's a first-mover advantage. Essentially, we took our own advice," he smiles. While the media often highlighted differences between Dean Witter's mass-market culture and Morgan Stanley's "white shoe" reputation, Fisher points out that the deal created a union between an existing network of retail brokers and Morgan Stanley's strong position in areas like international money management and underwriting.

In his current role as chairman emeritus, Fisher is removed from daily decision-making processes but continues to work with clients and assist with special issues, a position that has allowed him to expand his lifelong commitment to education and the arts. A trustee of Bard College and chairman of the board of both Rockefeller University and the Urban Institute, he also serves as chairman of the Brooklyn Academy of Music Endowment Trust and as a trustee of Classroom, Inc. (a nonprofit organization that provides educational software to middle schools) and the Tate Gallery American Fund.

Fisher's home and Sixth Avenue office include paintings by Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning, and Franz Kline, among other abstract expressionists. An avid amateur cook, he is also an investor, along with his wife, Jeanne, in a new Manhattan restaurant called Craft. "I've always been attracted to people-intensive businesses," observes Fisher. "The restaurant industry is similar to investment banking in that sense-it takes a great team of people working together to do the job well. I enjoy that."

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