Thomas A. James

Thomas A. James

Chairman emeritus, Raymond James Financial

At the giant corporations that dominate today's securities industry, few founders or key members of the founder's family still play a meaningful role. Thomas A. James, now chairman emeritus of Raymond James Financial, is one of those few.

Mr. James, 75, relinquished his chairman's role in February 2017, passing the top management baton to Paul Reilly. Nevertheless, Mr. James retains a board seat, still approves every new product the firm offers and wryly makes it known that he is the company's largest individual shareholder.

As influential as his continued role as a board member at one of the nation's largest wealth management firms outside New York or part of a global bank may be, it is largely as the architect and champion of the Raymond James' corporate culture that Mr. James continues to shape the future of the company. His influence is evident in the businesses in which Raymond James operates, its approach to investing and risk, and its emphasis on financial planning — all of which have shaped the entire wealth management business.

The improbable starting point for a company now managing almost $700 billion in assets, and whose name is emblazoned on the home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, was Robert A. James Investments, the eponymous firm started by Tom James' father, in 1962, in St. Petersburg, Fla.

"In addition to being a person of high moral character and a great financial planner, my father had business sense and saw an opportunity in all the people retiring to Florida and leaving their advisers behind up north," Mr. James said.

In 1964, the firm merged with another small broker-dealer, Raymond & Associates, to become Raymond James & Associates. In 1966, after graduating magna cum laude from Harvard College and receiving an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School, Tom James joined his father's firm.

"Even though I was president of the Harvard Young Republican Club, I had the idealism of that era and was against the Vietnam War," said the former guitarist of a rock band he formed in college. "The only way I could earn a deferment was to go to law school, and the only way to do that and also earn a living was to work for my father."


Since his father "loved people and didn't like doing administrative things," Mr. James took on the managerial responsibilities of the firm, starting with its investment research and investment banking activities. In 1970, at the age of 27, he became chief executive.

The bear market of 1973-74, which saw the Dow Jones Industrial Average benchmark lose more than 45% of its value, almost put a quick end to Mr. James' career, and the firm itself, as its capital base dwindled. The young executive proposed a merger to the then much larger, regional firm, J.C. Bradford & Co., but that firm's management declined, anxious about its own capital base. J.C. Bradford was later acquired by PaineWebber, which itself was acquired by UBS.

So, Mr. James stopped taking a salary, sold off a coin collection to raise cash and developed a six-month plan to cut costs and, if worse came to worst, unwind the business. Fortunately, the market turned around, and the firm resumed its growth. But the crisis taught him a valuable lesson.

"I learned that management isn't in control of whether or not you succeed; things can get so bad they are out of your control," Mr. James said. "And I learned I didn't want to go through that again, so I wanted to make sure we retained capital to be prepared for the next downturn."

The firm structured compensation so there would be lower base salaries plus higher bonuses based on personal and corporate performance; and instituted a strict budgeting process in all business units, which required planning for different outcomes.

"The financial controls and budgeting were important elements in the firm's success, but most important are our values," Mr. James said. "Clients come first. Our reputation is built on the value we provide to clients. Second, is hiring the best people we can find and training them."


Building talent, whether in investment banking, research or retail, always has been a priority for Mr. James.

"In 1994, Tom came to me and a couple of other women advisers," recalled Margaret Starner, a veteran Raymond James adviser in Coral Gables, Fla. "He was aware that women advisers had fewer compliance issues and more loyal clients, and recognized these traits should be valued and nurtured. He wanted us to start a group that would be supportive of women advisers."

Ms. Starner and the others formed what is now the Network for Women Advisors — but only after Mr. James agreed to their demands.

"We didn't want the group to be seen as a way to sell stuff; we wanted to solve problems, and we wanted a budget for the organization that didn't come from vendors," she said. "We also wanted total control over the program, which Tom gave us. Very few executives would have had the courage to give us that much autonomy."

The program has made a big difference in the quality and development of women at Raymond James, Ms. Starner said.

"Tom has been its champion from the start," she said. "He may skip other meetings, but he always comes to the annual women's symposium."

Raymond James' best efforts and intentions notwithstanding, the firm has not escaped its share of regulatory run-ins. One of the most costly came in May 2016, when the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority Inc. fined the firm a record $17 million for compliance failures in its anti-money-laundering programs.

"In the securities business, sometimes it's a regulatory problem, sometimes it's a business problem, but something always can come up that tests a firm," said Raymond A. "Chip" Mason, founder and former CEO of Legg Mason.

Mr. Mason — who in 1962, at the age of 25, founded a regional brokerage firm that he built into today's asset management giant — holds his peer in high regard.

"He always worked hard and went through some rough times at the beginning, but he stuck to his knitting," Mr. Mason said. "Tom never bet the farm, constantly pushed for new systems and never gave up. He was always focused on consistency and trying to improve things."

A variation of that latter point, in fact, is what Mr. James says he would like his legacy to be.

"I would want my grandchildren to say, ‘That's a great firm doing a great job helping a lot of families reach their financial objectives. It has a lot of fine people, who I recommend you see if you want something done.'"

— Evan Cooper


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