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Gender Issues: Lessons From Hetty Green

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Dec 17, 2012    •    730 Views

Perhaps we should remember Hetty Green when trying to erase the gender pay gap.

Hetty Green, who died at age 82 in 1916, was a multimillionaire who owned Dewey, a terrier that bit people. Asked why she kept him, she replied, “He loves me and he doesn’t know how rich I am.”

Hetty Green With Dewey

Hetty Green Was A Successful 19th Century Investor Who Amassed A Fortune

Totaling at least $100 million, more than $2 billion today, her fortune was Wall Street money that she amassed through her own investing savvy. Born Hetty Robinson into a wealthy New England family, she was sent to New York by her dad with $1200 to buy clothes and find a husband. Instead, she saved most of the money and married years later when she was 31. When her father died in 1865, she inherited $1 million and a $5 million trust. But that was just the beginning.

Hetty Robinson Green was a patient investor and a tough negotiator. After the Civil War, she bought undervalued government bonds and then railroad securities. When banks needed money, buying some of their loans, she began to amass a real estate portfolio that grew to hundreds of properties. As with the Georgia Central Railroad, when one faction offered to buy her securities, she understood timing and intimidation. Knowing the Georgia Central investors needed her, she held out until the shares that she purchased at $70 apiece climbed to $127.50 and earned her a $385,000 profit.

Yes, some called her the Witch of Wall Street because she wore a dowdy black dress (see picture below) and lived modestly in Brooklyn and then Hoboken. Not a spender, whether buying bread, visiting a doctor or purchasing stock, she negotiated. But when NYC faced a financial crisis during the Panic of 1907, it was Green who made the $1.1 million bond purchase that provided emergency funding. And when churches needed to borrow, her interest rate was low.

As an investor, she knew her goals, adhered to her principles and permitted no one to pay her unfairly. A model for aggressive negotiating, Hetty Green is a perfect example of a woman who would not accept the gender pay gap of 23 cents for white women and 31 cents for black women on each dollar earned described in yesterday’s NY Times article, “How To Attack the Pay Gap? Speak up.” Indeed, she could have taught all of us how to “Speak up.”

A Final Fact: Green summed up wise investing when she said, “I buy when things are low and no one wants them. I keep them…until they go up and people are anxious to buy…I never speculate. Such stocks as belong to me were purchased simply as an investment, never on margin.”

Monday posts will focus on gender issues.

Sources and Resources: The 2004 book, Hetty: The Genius and Madness of America’s First Female Tycoon was a fast and interesting read, the source of my quote on her investing philosophy (pp. 166-167). The book reminds us that, like Rockefeller, Carnegie, Morgan, Gould, and Armour, she too was born during the 1830s and built a massive fortune. Her Dewey quote was from a Barron’s column by John Steele Gordon.

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