Richard H. Jenrette, who was a co-founder of the first Wall Street firm to offer shares to the public and who, after selling it to the giant but ailing Equitable Life Assurance Society, presided as chief executive over the company’s revival, died on Friday in Charleston, S.C. He was 89.
His death, at Roper House, one of many historical homes he restored in a parallel avocational career, was confirmed by Margize Howell, co-president of Classical American Homes Preservation Trust, which Mr. Jenrette founded. She said the cause was complications of lymphoma.
A courtly, soft-spoken North Carolina native whom The New York Times once called the “last gentleman on Wall Street,” Mr. Jenrette (pronounced JEN-reht) enjoyed storybook business success beginning in 1960.
That year, after an early stint at the venerable Wall Street firm Brown Brothers Harriman, he teamed up with two younger Harvard Business School friends, William H. Donaldson and Dan Lufkin, to form Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette, the first Wall Street securities firm started from scratch since the early 1930s.
By Mr. Jenrette’s account, it was Mr. Lufkin who first observed that Wall Street research operations of the day were concentrated on big blue-chip companies. Mr. Lufkin proposed that D.L.J., as their firm would be known, focus on small, fast-growing companies, which the partners came to see as the wave of the future.
For his part, Mr. Jenrette believed that while big companies were quite profitable, their stocks had become so expensive as to suggest limited further gains.
“We concocted something that was totally contrarian,” he recounted in his 1997 memoir, “Jenrette: The Contrarian Manager.”
The firm built its business serving institutional clients by providing them with detailed research on small-capitalization stocks. At the time, at least in the early years, most Wall Street firms were still focusing on big stocks for individual investors.
Institutions began showering D.L.J. with commissions at a time when commission rates were still fixed at high levels and portfolio managers were beginning to trade more frequently.
“We hit a gusher,” Mr. Jenrette wrote.
D.L.J. made its precedent-setting public stock offering in early 1970, and the considerable profits it reaped very likely contributed to the demise four years later of fixed commissions, pressure for which was already building.
Many securities firms followed with public offerings of their own, giving rise to criticism that publicly owned firms took on more risk than they would have had they remained private partnerships.
When Mr. Donaldson and Mr. Lufkin left the firm, Mr. Jenrette became chief executive and, after surviving a severe downturn in 1974, restored high profitability and sold D.L.J. to Equitable Life for $440 million, twice its book value, in 1985.
Like his houses, Mr. Jenrette said, “I considered D.L.J. a restoration job.”
Mr. Jenrette was induced to join Equitable as vice chairman and as president and chief executive of the Equitable Investment Corporation, the holding company for Equitable’s investment-oriented subsidiaries, including the D.L.J. brokerage firm and its Real Estate Group. The investment corporation thrived, and in 1987 Mr. Jenrette was named chairman of Equitable.
Equitable, then a 140-year old insurance grande dame owned by its policyholders, had gotten into debilitating financial trouble with a flawed version of a product called guaranteed investment contracts, and it had suffered reverses in junk bonds and real estate.
Mr. Jenrette’s capital-raising solution was the industry’s first significant demutualization — the process by which a customer-owned mutual organization is transformed into a joint stock company. Accomplished in two years, the process led to a highly successful public stock offering. Mr. Jenrette retired in 1996.
His basic precept as a manager was to “hire people smarter than you are,” he said, and he often used handwriting analysis and color charts to evaluate candidates. He also expressed more than a passing interest in astrology, to which he devoted 16 pages of his memoir, providing the signs of dozens of prominent business, political and sports figures.
Mr. Jenrette indulged a passion for meticulous record-keeping. He weighed himself daily, kept a diary for the bulk of his adult life and even in his advanced retirement years calculated the value of his liquid assets every day.
At the same time, he was building a far-ranging reputation involving what he called his hobby: buying and restoring historic American homes, more than a dozen of which he lavishly decorated and furnished with period antiques.
“I’m probably better known for old houses and antiques than for Wall Street,’’ Mr. Jenrette said in an interview for this obituary in 2012.
The setting for the interview was the high-ceilinged octagonal library at Edgewater, his six-columned home built in 1824 on a Hudson River peninsula just north of Poughkeepsie in Dutchess County, N.Y. He bought the home in 1969 from the author Gore Vidal, who had done his writing in the library. It still housed a large collection of Mr. Vidal’s books.
Mr. Jenrette “had a major impact on preservation,’’ probably as much as any single individual, said David J. Brown, executive vice president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Mr. Brown cited in particular two Jenrette rescues in Charleston: the elegant Mills House hotel and the Roper House, on the Battery overlooking the harbor and Fort Sumter. Those restorations, Mr. Brown said, helped spark the city’s renaissance as a destination for what has become known as heritage tourism.
A self-acknowledged “house-aholic,” Mr. Jenrette explained his interest by saying that it was probably inspired by “a dozen too many’’ viewings of “Gone With the Wind” as a child.
Mr. Jenrette’s renown in historic restoration circles led to his hosting world dignitaries, including the emperor and empress of Japan and Charles, the Prince of Wales, who wrote the foreword to Mr. Jenrette’s 1995 book, “Adventures With Old Houses.’’
He also assembled what was believed to be the largest private collection of Duncan Phyfe furniture; many of the pieces are now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Richard Hampton Jenrette was born on April 5, 1929, in Raleigh, N.C. His father, Joseph, was a successful local insurance salesman. His mother, Emma,was an avid gardener and lived to 101, according to the publication New York Social Diary.
Richard was still in public school when he took a summer job as a sportswriter on The Raleigh Times. His boss was Jesse Helms, who would serve six terms in the United States Senate. Mr. Jenrette later moved to The News & Observer in Raleigh, the state capital.
After graduating from the University of North Carolina, where he majored in journalism and edited The Daily Tar Heel, Mr. Jenrette reluctantly apprenticed as an insurance salesman, taking after his father.
He didn’t relish a career prospecting for clients, he said, though what he called “a great two-year sales experience’’ gave him credibility four decades later when he found himself chief executive of Equitable Life.
With the Korean War on and his draft board hovering, Mr. Jenrette started a two-year active stint with the North Carolina National Guard. As a sergeant assigned to counterintelligence duty, he met a group of Harvard graduates.
Having heard that Harvard Business School was seeking to become more diverse — “affirmative action in 1951 was a Southern white male,” he remarked — he secretly applied to the school without telling his family that he hoped to quit the insurance business.
After graduating with a master’s in business administration and weighing various job offers, he joined Brown Brothers Harriman, the very model of an old-time Wall Street firm, whose oak-paneled ambience included roll-top desks, a large coal-burning fireplace and oil paintings of the founders.
He spent two years there as a portfolio manager — one client was Greta Garbo — before leaving at 30 to start his own firm with Mr. Donaldson and Mr. Lufki.
Mr. Jenrette’s partner, William L. Thompson, died in 2013. He is survived by a nephew and nieces with whom he was close: Dr. Joseph M. Jenrette III, Helen Wooddy, Betty Romberg and Nancy Reynolds.
In his later years Mr. Jenrette had owned several historic houses, all of which were to go to his Classical American Homes Preservation Trust. In addition to the Roper House, they included Millford Plantation in Pinewood, S.C., Ayr Mount in Hillsborough, N.C., and Cane Garden on St. Croix, in the United States Virgin Islands.
In Manhattan, his townhouses at 67 East 93rd Street and the adjacent No.69, which was his office, once belonged to George F. Baker, the New York banker who donated the money for the campus of the Harvard Business School.
“I’m a bachelor,” Mr. Jenrette said in 2012, “so these houses are kind of like my children.”
Ms. Howell, of the Preservation Trust, said Mr. Jenrette had regarded Edgewater as his primary residence. He bought the estate from Mr. Vidal for $125,000; in 2012 it was estimated to be worth as much as $15 million.
It was, Mr. Jenrette said, “the great love of my life.”