Character counts | WORLD
Sound journalism, grounded in facts and Biblical truth | Donate

Character counts

Is it a missing ingredient in our economy?

You have {{ remainingArticles }} free {{ counterWords }} remaining. You've read all of your free articles.

Full access isn’t far.

We can’t release more of our sound journalism without a subscription, but we can make it easy for you to come aboard.

Get started for as low as $3.99 per month.

Current WORLD subscribers can log in to access content. Just go to "SIGN IN" at the top right.


Already a member? Sign in.

This is the 15th in a series of classic columns (edited for space) by Joel Belz. Joel wrote this column amid an ­economic crisis for the Oct. 4, 2008, issue of WORLD.

Three decades ago my father, several of my brothers, and I sat with Presley Edwards, the retired top man at the A.G. Edwards brokerage firm, to quiz him over breakfast on some of the main things he had learned during his years in business. “Two things come to my mind,” he mused. “First, find more start-up money than you ever think you’ll need. Figure as closely as you can what it’ll take. Double that. Double that again. Multiply that by 10. And then pray that you have enough.”

And second? “Hire the smartest people you possibly can. Don’t stint on that.”

That’s the conversation that would stick most in my mind when the stock markets start gyrating—except for another conversation I had 20 years later with Presley Edwards’ son Ben. Ben Edwards was chairman of the board and CEO of A.G. Edwards as that company grew into the only Top 10 brokerage not headquartered in New York. It was often the Edwards’ willingness to go against the crowd that led to so much of its success.

When I told Ben Edwards about my earlier conver­sation with his father, he laughed. “I can imagine Dad saying that,” he said. “And I’d still agree with his first point. But I’d have to adjust his second one. These days, we can hire all the smart young people we want. These days, we have to look a whole lot harder for character.”

What a difference a generation makes. “The temptations are so much bigger,” he went on, “and the moral ability to handle them seems so much more limited.”

That was 10 years ago. So I called Ben Edwards again last week, and we talked about whether the current economic earthquake is mostly about failure of know-how, failure of character, or something altogether different.

I was surprised and impressed how reluctant this former boss to 14,000 people was to point his finger at ­others. Instead, he modestly illustrated how easily power goes to someone’s head. “If you’re a CEO … that means you’ve got good people in charge of every area of your business—leaving you with not a heck of a lot to do. So what do you do? You feel embarrassed because you’re the highest paid person and you ought to be doing important things. So you downsize, or you acquire or be acquired, or do any of these things that make the front page of the financial papers. When I’d get tempted like that and everything was going smoothly, I’d go out and do something unimportant until I got over it. But I’ve seen it happen with a lot of CEOs.”

Or, Ben pointed out, “your company’s making a lot of money ... and you start thinking that you’re smart and you’re responsible. You take credit—when actually it’s the little people who are doing the grunt work that are really making or losing your money—and maybe in spite of your bad decisions!”

This, I thought, is exactly the kind of character that we so much need but see so little of these days. This ­veteran of high finance opposes repeated government bailouts, defies anybody “to show where the government’s running something has made it better,” and scorns the scandalous “good-ole’ Charlie” bonuses so many companies have offered non-performing executives.

But still he looks at himself, saying he’s been guilty of greed, and that “the most dishonest thing is when we justify something in our heart by saying that everybody’s doing it.”

Here’s the kicker. The A.G. Edwards firm is no more. After Ben Edwards’ retirement and against his protests, the company was sold in 2007 to Wachovia. And now Wachovia is reeling, its stock only a fifth what it was two years ago. So does Ben Edwards, also being treated these days for life-threatening cancer, feel like Job? “Not at all,” he says with gusto. “I’ve had way more blessings than anyone I know. I’m a blessed man.”

Today, it wasn’t a smart market analysis I needed. I needed a real live example of the kind of character that makes any economy strong. But it’s in short supply.

Joel Belz

Joel Belz (1941–2024) was WORLD’s founder and a regular contributor of commentary for WORLD Magazine and WORLD Radio. He served as editor, publisher, and CEO for more than three decades at WORLD and was the author of Consider These Things. Visit WORLD’s memorial tribute page.


Please wait while we load the latest comments...