John Mack retired earlier this year, but you won’t find him whiling away his days on the golf course. “I hate golf,” the 67-year-old former Morgan Stanley CEO says on a recent evening at Loi, a Greek restaurant on the Upper West Side. “Golf is only fun if you’re squeezing it in.” As he speaks, his iPhone buzzes. “I’m sorry, m’dear,” he says in his North Carolina drawl, reaching a Rolex-heavy hand into his pocket and silencing a text. Mack has just come from the office, and in a little over an hour, he is scheduled to meet a former colleague to talk business over the restaurant’s famous grape leaves. Mack is of Lebanese descent and has thick dark eyebrows whose tendrils act like a barometer of his moods. “Even though I’m retired, I’m very active,” he explains, tucking the phone back in his pocket.
This is something of an understatement. Like any titan emeritus, Mack has his hand in several nonprofits, including New York–Presbyterian Hospital, where as chairman of the board he presides over a Who’s Who of ex-CEOs of Too Big to Fail institutions, among them Sandy Weill (Citigroup), Hank Greenberg (AIG), and Richard Fuld (Lehman Brothers). Mack fits neatly into this crowd. But unlike his fellow board members, the man the Wall Street Journal once called “Mr. Morgan Stanley” has emerged with his reputation not only unscathed but burnished.
While the company he headed is a shadow of its former self—this year, Morgan Stanley is laying off 1,600 people, Moody’s is threatening to downgrade its credit rating, and the share price is down 32 percent over the past twelve months—Mack stock, it seems, is up. He’s taken a position as an adviser to the China Investment Corporation, the $400 billion Chinese sovereign-wealth fund, and joined the board of Rev Worldwide, a company that specializes in prepaid debit cards. Last month, Mack scored a high-profile appointment as a senior adviser to private-equity firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts. “And those are just the things I can tell you about,” he says with a chuckle.
“Having John Mack on our board definitely adds a certain amount of credibility,” says Roy Sosa, the CEO of Rev Worldwide. “When companies like MasterCard heard we had John on our board, they were extremely delighted. I think had we been a publicly traded company, our stock would have gone up that day.”
At Loi, Mack runs down a list of his recent activities: He just got back from Southern California, where he sat on a panel at a “brain spa” organized by Ari Emanuel and met with some tech companies he was interested in working with. “From there, I went to San Francisco. I talked to a couple of CEOs; one of them was asking for advice,” he says. “The usual things.” Next, he will head to China, to speak about financial reform at the Boao Forum—“their little Davos,” as he puts it.
At some point, he will also have to find some time to work on his book, which he says is about leadership and the lessons he’s learned during his 40-year Wall Street career. Four years after the financial crisis nearly devastated the firm he was running, Mack is on the verge of becoming his own brand, like a Jack Welch or Jeffrey Immelt, a Trusted Name in Business. So, wait: How did that happen?
“He saved Morgan Stanley,” says Sosa, repeating the conventional wisdom that has become central to Mack’s post-crisis identity. “We fought to [the] death,” Mack told an audience of NYU students not long ago, recounting the now-familiar story of how, when government officials were pressuring him to give up and merge with another bank in 2008, he managed to procure an eleventh-hour $9 billion investment from Mitsubishi UFJ. This moment was dramatized in the HBO version of Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Too Big to Fail. “Tell [Geithner] to get fucked,” Mack, played by the guy from Monk with mascara on his eyebrows, hollers at his assistant. “I’m trying to save my firm!”
“It makes John Mack a real Patton-type character,” Byron Wien, the vice-chairman at Blackstone and a former colleague of Mack’s, said on Charlie Rose when the book came out.
“No surprise there,” replied Rose, who frequently hosts Mack on his show and whose ex-wife is Mack’s sister-in-law. In some ways, it isn’t surprising. Mack is a great storyteller and a media-friendly figure. And it’s true the deal he made with the Japanese helped buoy Morgan Stanley when it seemed in danger of sliding into the abyss. On the other hand, it was ultimately the government that was the firm’s real angel of mercy. In September 2008, the Federal Reserve accepted a last-minute bid from Morgan Stanley to become a bank holding company, which allowed them to borrow $107 billion. They later received $10 billion in TARP money. “John Mack saved Morgan Stanley to the extent that he got a giant government bailout,” says former TARP special inspector general Neil Barofsky. “Without that support, the company likely would have disappeared.” And, as others point out, had it not been for Mack, Morgan Stanley might not have needed saving in the first place. “He’s like the arsonist fireman,” a onetime colleague drily observes.