24 May 2017
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John J. Brennan, MBA 1980

2017 Alumni Achievement Award Recipient
by Susan Young

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Chairman Emeritus, The Vanguard Group

It’s 6 a.m. on a Sunday and Jack Brennan is making pancakes for his grandson, Jack, taking advantage of an opportunity to spend quality time with his namesake as the rest of the family sleeps. Never one to let a teaching moment go to waste, he cuts a pancake in half and explains that the two halves make a whole.

That Sunday ritual encapsulates how people closest to Jack Brennan describe him: He is a genius with numbers, reads people well, works hard, believes in the transformative power of education, likes to be in charge but hates the spotlight, and is devoted to his family.

Brennan often says he’s the luckiest person in the world, but it’s clear that his success involves considerable amounts of intelligence, hard work, and ambition. A middle-class kid whose early jobs included serving as a union laborer and a garbage collector, Brennan made it to Dartmouth College, where his academic advisor encouraged him to attend HBS. Upon graduation, he joined Johnson Wax. “I was exposed to some tremendously successful leaders,” he says of his time in Wisconsin. “It was HBS 2.0: I got to see how a big, global enterprise works.”

Brennan took that experience to Vanguard in 1982, joining the Valley Forge, Pennsylvania–based pioneer of index funds when it was only seven years old. By 1989, the year he was named president, the company was regarded as an emerging industry leader in low-cost investing. As the firm expanded and opened the first of several overseas offices in 1996, Brennan was named CEO. “When I started, we were tiny,” he reflects. “We grew 100 percent per year for several years. It was an opportunity I found completely engaging.” Brennan, often at his desk by 5 a.m., steered the firm to a leadership position. Today Vanguard has over $4 trillion under management and maintains a sharp focus on low client costs for its 25 million investors.

In 2008, at the age of 54, Brennan turned the company over to his handpicked successor, Bill McNabb. “Jack surprised us,” says McNabb recalling the shockwaves—and tears—that went through the company when Brennan announced his retirement. “But he put so much energy into the development of people that he was confident we would succeed.” Like so many colleagues, McNabb is clearly full of respect and admiration for his mentor. Brennan now serves as an advisor to Vanguard and leads its charitable arm. He spends several days a month at corporate headquarters, working out of a small, cluttered office that belies the deep influence he’s had on the firm.

“I always assumed that today was my last day here and that I had to earn the right to be invited back to work tomorrow.”
“I always assumed that today was my last day here and that I had to earn the right to be invited back to work tomorrow.”

While work has always been important to him, Brennan’s commitment to his family has guided his time outside of the office. “We had a no-briefcase-at-home policy,” says Cathy Brennan, his Dartmouth classmate to whom he has been married since 1980. Family dinners were a priority in the Brennan household, even if they were sometimes held after 8 p.m. to accommodate frenetic schedules.

Jack Brennan was raised and remains a devout Catholic. He chairs the board of the University of Notre Dame, from which his and Cathy’s three children graduated. There is, however, a second religion in the family: sports. Brennan, a marathon runner, coached his kids’ teams to the point that some neighborhood parents thought he worked for the recreation department.

The Brennans now split their time between Pennsylvania and Boston, where Cathy runs a nonprofit mentoring program for inner-city high school students. “These are amazing kids who just need a chance,” says Jack, whose paternal grandfather labored as a janitor at Harvard to put his kids through college. Time with their kids and grandkids remains a priority and the family comes together around sports, education, and faith. “People ask about my biggest accomplishment and want to hear about Vanguard,” says Brennan. “But that is incidental to what really matters: my kids and my marriage.”

Photo by Susan Young

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Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1980, Section D

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