John Bachmann honed his work ethic making deliveries for his family’s furniture store, but another story from his Salem, Illinois, boyhood may have been even more formative.
The longtime leader of brokerage firm Edward Jones was nearing retirement age when colleague John Beuerlein asked why Bachmann still worked so hard, putting in long days at the firm and on various civic boards.
Bachmann responded by telling about a time when, as a boy of 10 or 11, he and a friend rode a raft down a flooded street. As the water propelled them toward a drainage culvert, Bachmann jumped to safety but the friend drowned.
“I made the commitment that day that I was going to live my life for my friend,” Beuerlein recalled Bachmann telling him. “I work hard every day for both of us.”
That youthful vow would spur Bachmann, who died Wednesday in Charleston, South Carolina, at age 80, as he built Edward Jones from a small St. Louis firm to an industry leader and worked on local causes ranging from the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra to the region’s business-attraction strategy.
Many of his civic contributions from 20 years ago still reverberate today. A strategic-planning effort he led for the Regional Chamber and Growth Association focused on industries that should do well in St. Louis, including a study on the plant and life sciences. That study, and the biotech growth that followed, was cited as an inspiration for recent efforts in the geospatial industry.
Bachmann joined Edward Jones in 1959 as an undergraduate intern from Wabash College in Indiana, spending his days delivering messages, marking stock prices on a tote board and cleaning the basement.
After earning a master’s degree at Northwestern University, he joined Edward Jones full time, taking a $500-a-month offer, the lowest for anyone in his grad-school class. But he got the chance to learn the brokerage business from the ground up, opening a one-person office in Columbia, Missouri.
He returned to St. Louis in 1970 to work closely with Edward D. “Ted” Jones Jr., son of the firm’s founder. When Jones retired in 1980, Bachmann became managing partner.
Bachmann took charge of a firm with about 200 offices, most of them in small towns. That number grew to 9,000 by the time he retired 24 years later, and is now more than 15,000.
“Ted Jones came up with the business model, but John saw the opportunity to dramatically expand our branch network,” says Jim Weddle, one of Bachmann’s successors as managing partner. “He was the guy with the vision.”
His vision was informed by the era’s leading business thinkers. Bachmann enlisted Peter Drucker, who is sometimes called the father of modern management, as a frequent adviser, and consulted with Harvard professor Michael Porter.
Both theorists helped Bachmann think of Edward Jones’ employees as its comparative advantage, and under his leadership the firm began appearing on best-workplaces lists.
Bachmann was sometimes criticized for resisting industry trends. The firm never offered online trading, for example, because Bachmann knew customers came to Edward Jones for personalized advice, not do-it-yourself tools.
“Someone once said we shot ourselves in the foot,” he told the Wall Street Journal for a 2001 story about the online-trading decision. “Well, I guess we missed.”
Beuerlein, a retired Edward Jones general partner, says his longtime boss was as passionate about his many volunteer jobs, which included board positions at United Way and the St. Louis Science Center, as he was about his firm. “There wasn’t a cause he didn’t like, especially if it was focused on making St. Louis a better place,” Beuerlein said.
“I know John was a big fan of Peter Drucker,” said Dick Fleming, former RCGA president. “For those of us who were fortunate enough to work with him, John became the Peter Drucker for many folks here in St. Louis to whom he was a mentor.”
In a lifetime of professional and civic accomplishments, Bachmann more than met his pledge to his drowned young friend. St. Louis is fortunate to have benefited from his energy.