N’Gunu Tiny is CEO and Chairman of Emerald Group, an international investment company with a focus on financial inclusion in the developing world.
There are many figures from industry and banking that have inspired me and continue to inspire me. Whether it’s their legacy in the form of great art collections and vast fortunes, or their tenacity during their life, there is much to admire.
Andre Meyer is a name that is perhaps not as world-renowned today as Carnegie or Rockefeller. Still, this French born US banker was hugely innovative and changed the world of finance and consumer spending in many ways.
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Who was Andre Meyer, and what is his legacy?
When Andre Meyer died in 1979, he was hailed as one of the world’s most successful financial genii of the modern banking era. His trajectory from a low-income family in France to a highly successful Wall Street banker is fascinating and inspiring.
Born in Paris in 1898, Meyer was interested in the stock market and how it worked from a very early age. Forced to leave school at 16 to earn money, he landed a position as a messenger at the Paris Bourse, France’s securities market, today is known as Euronext Paris.
Always ready to learn, tenacious and proactive, Meyer learned everything he could about the ins and outs of stock trading. Thanks partly to a shortage of workers due to the Great War, he got his first major position with a small bank in Paris called Baur & Fils.
So impressive was his performance at the bank that he was quickly snapped up by the much bigger and well-known investment banking firm Lazard Freres. A few short years later and Meyer was made partner.
Transforming consumer product financing
In the latter half of the ‘20s, Meyer created and launched a finance company called the Société pour la Vente a Credit d’Automobiles (Sovac). This was a ground-breaking, innovative company that introduced the idea of car financing directly to consumers.
Creating this was a hugely impactful move by Meyer. Sovac proved to be a driver of consumer credit and particularly with leasing products, and forever linked the Lazard Freres name with this kind of forward-thinking financing.
In 1927, then-ailing car giant Citroen appointed Meyer to its Board of Directors, and he was integral in totally changing the company’s fortunes. By instigating a financial restructuring strategy, Citroen was saved from totally going under. So significant was Meyer’s contribution to France’s economic strength, the Government awarded him the Legion of Honour.
Nazi occupation and move to New York City
When the Nazis arrived in Paris during World War 2, Meyer and his wife and two kids moved to the New York City office of Lazard Frere. He moved there along with the bank’s Chairman Pierre David-Weill, who returned to France following the liberation of Paris by the Allies in 1944. He left Meyer in New York City as head of the US operations of the bank, where he stayed until his death in 1979.
David Rockefeller famously said that Andre Meyer was “the most creative financial genius of our time in the investment banking world.” And he was absolutely right. After the Second World War, Meyer went on to become one of the most important people within the US financial system.
Often called “the Picasso of banking”, thanks to his Avant Garde yet genius approach to financing, he transformed financing techniques across American businesses. These innovative financing strategies and techniques laid the groundwork for the US finances products and services we see today.
Throughout the 1960s, Meyer turned Lazard Freres into the most significant mergers and acquisitions (M&A) firm in the country. His influence spread around the global financial system too. In fact, it’s difficult to understate the importance of his innovative approach to financing, particularly its impact on consumers.
Political ties and influence
Meyer managed to stay relatively low level in terms of publicity. He was much more comfortable behind the scenes and was so influential that he became an advisor to the Kennedy family. Following the assassination of JFK, Meyer remained an advisor and friend to his widow, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, until his death.
He was also a close friend and advisor to President Lyndon Johnson and spent a lot of time in the Oval Office as a consultant during Johnson’s tenure.
All of this is inspiring to me – Meyer’s life story shows just what can be achieved without an expensive or elite education, and from tenacity, an innovative outlook and a fearless drive to change the world for the better.
As with many of the major US bankers during the monumental changes from the late 19th century to the late 20th century, Meyer was also a big art collector. The connection between banking and fine art is proven time and again by these financial heavyweights. Arguably, without these men and their influence on the global economic system, the art market today would look very different.
Meyer was a huge collector of art, and he had eclectic and wide-ranging tastes. His collection included original music scores, paintings by the likes of Monet and Picasso, sculptures by famous artists and a lot of Louis XIV furniture.
In 1961, he gave the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) – which had been started by David Rockefeller’s wife and other significant banking families and investors – a collection of art that included a major work by Cezanne. And after Meyer’s death, MoMA ended up buying his collection of European art from the 19th century.
Meyer is an example of what can be achieved, regardless of background or start in life. With no fancy education or set up at the likes of Harvard University, and no family assistance, Meyer left an indelible mark on the modern financial system. And, while people may not be as familiar with his name as the likes of Rockefeller and Carnegie, his contribution was arguably greater.
Meyer died at his holiday home in Valais, Switzerland, in 1979 and was buried near his former business partner and great friend Pierre David-Weill in his home town of Paris.