Wall Street Legend Ace Greenberg Dead at 86

Alan ‘Ace’ Greenberg, the legendary Wall Street trader who guided investment bank Bear Stearns to the top tier of U.S. financial firms only to see it collapse in the early stages of the 2008 financial crisis, died Friday. He was 86.

His son Theodore told the New York Times, which first reported Greenberg’s death, that the cause was complications related to cancer.

Greenberg rose up through the ranks of Bear Stearns eventually serving as its CEO from 1978 to 1993 and Chairman of the Board from 1985 to 2001. In all, he spent more than six decades involved with the firm, a rarity on Wall Street where traders often move from job to job.

Greenberg was known as a personable and hands-on manager, one who spoke regularly his employees, strolling among the trading desks chatting up traders. He was also the rare Wall Street CEO who answered his own phone, a practice he maintained even as he led Bear Stearns’ sprawling operations.

While serving as Chairman of the Executive Committee of Bear Stearns, Greenberg oversaw the collapse of the company in March 2008 as it reeled toward bankruptcy as a result of its broad exposure to the faltering U.S. housing market.

Bear Stearns, under CEO James Cayne, had become a major player in mortgage-backed securities, investment vehicles packed with subprime mortgages.

Greenberg was subsequently involved in the talks with JPMorgan Chase (NYSE:JPM) which eventually bought out the failing company at the request of the U.S. government for a firesale price of $10 a share.

On Friday, JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon issued a memo to employees in tribute to Greenberg: “It’s hard to imagine a financial services industry without Ace. In many respects, he epitomized the American dream, rising from a clerk to the corner office during his 65 years with the firm. Whether he was building Bear Stearns into an industry powerhouse or wowing the trading floor with his penchant for magic, Ace’s personality permeated everything he did. His intelligence and wit was only surpassed by his generosity and thoughtfulness.”

Known as a bit of an eccentric and an avid philanthropist, Greenberg raised eyebrows in the late 1990s when he donated $1 million to help poor people get access to Viagra, the popular impotency drug.

Greenberg was a champion bridge player who hired fellow player Cayne as a stockbroker. Cayne eventually replaced Greenberg as CEO in 1993 and held the job until January 2008 just before the firm’s collapse in March 2008.

Greenberg authored Memos from the Chairman, a compilation of memos he issued to the associates of Bear Stearns during his tenure as CEO. He was also an enthusiastic amateur magician.