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Richard Jenrette, 89, restored historic homes after Wall Street success

  • NEW YORK TIMES

    Richard Jenrette at one of a dozen historic American homes he restored and furnished with period antiques, in Charleston, S.C., in 1996. Jenrette, who was a co-founder of the first Wall Street firm to offer shares to the public and who, after selling it to the giant but ailing Equitable Life Assurance Society, presided as chief executive over the company’s revival, died on April 20 in Charleston. He was 89.

Richard H. Jenrette, who was a founder of the first Wall Street firm to offer shares to the public and who, after selling it to the giant but ailing Equitable Life Assurance Society, presided as chief executive over the company’s revival, died Sunday in Charleston, S.C. He was 89.

His death, at Roper House, one of many historical homes he restored in a parallel avocational career, was confirmed by Margize Howell, a president of Classical American Homes Preservation Trust, which Jenrette founded. She said the cause was complications of lymphoma.

A courtly, soft-spoken North Carolina native whom the Times once called the “last gentleman on Wall Street,” Jenrette enjoyed storybook business success beginning in 1960.

That year, after an early stint at the venerable Wall Street firm Brown Brothers Harriman, he teamed up with two younger Harvard Business School friends, William H. Donaldson and Dan Lufkin, to form Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette, the first Wall Street securities firm started from scratch since the early 1930s.

By Jenrette’s account it was Lufkin who first observed that Wall Street research operations of the day were concentrated on big blue-chip companies. Lufkin proposed that DLJ, as their firm would be known, focus on small, fast-growing companies, which the partners came to see as the wave of the future.

For his part, Jenrette believed that while big companies were quite profitable, their stocks had become so expensive as to suggest limited further gains.

“We concocted something that was totally contrarian,” he recounted in his 1997 memoir, “Jenrette: The Contrarian Manager.”

DLJ made its precedent-setting public stock offering in early 1970, and the considerable profits it reaped likely contributed to the demise, about five years later, of fixed commissions, pressure for which was already building.

Many securities firms followed with public offerings of their own, giving rise to criticism that publicly owned firms took on more risk than they would have had they remained private partnerships.

When Donaldson and Lufkin left the firm, Jenrette became chief executive and, after surviving a severe downturn in 1974, restored high profitability and sold DLJ to Equitable Life for $440 million, twice its book value, in 1985.

Like his houses, Jenrette said, “I considered DLJ a restoration job.”

Jenrette was induced to join Equitable as vice chairman and as president and chief executive of Equitable Investment Corp., the holding company for Equitable’s investment-oriented subsidiaries, including the DLJ brokerage and its Real Estate Group. The investment corporation thrived, and in 1987 Jenrette was named chairman of Equitable.

Jenrette retired in 1996.

Jenrette was also building a far-ranging reputation involving what he called his hobby: buying and restoring historic American homes, more than a dozen of which he lavishly decorated and furnished with period antiques.

“I’m probably better known for old houses and antiques than for Wall Street,” Jenrette said in an interview for this obituary in 2012.

The setting for the interview was the high-ceilinged octagonal library at Edgewater, his six-columned home built in 1824 on a Hudson River peninsula just north of Poughkeepsie in Dutchess County, N.Y. He bought the home in 1969 from author Gore Vidal, who had done his writing in the library. It still housed a large collection of Vidal’s books.

Jenrette “had a major impact on preservation,” probably as much as any single individual, said David J. Brown, executive vice president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Brown cited in particular two Jenrette rescues in Charleston: the elegant Mills House hotel and the Roper House, on the Battery overlooking the harbor and Fort Sumter.

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