Jim Johnson has been remarkably successful in leading the huge corporation that is the nation's largest source of funds for home mortgages. This month, he stepped down from his job as CEO and chairman of Fannie Mae, succeeded by Frank Raines. He leaves behind a decade of industry-redefining achievements.
What grabs your eye first is the hubcap-sized circular Rolodex crammed full of cards. Then, a moment later, you more fully grasp that this is the office of a master of the Washington game of contacts when you spot two more of the monster Rolodexes sitting on the same desk.
It's a late November day and you are in the large antechamber waiting to enter the inner sanctum of Fannie Mae's outgoing CEO - Jim Johnson. Later you realize this large space is actually mission control - where legions of serious and very organized people track the communications and messages that must reach Jim Johnson every day, wherever he may be - and then send the appropriate messages back out. The description is simple; the task is not. The demands of his job have conjured up a fall travel schedule that even, for him, sounds excessive. He recites the destinations since the first of October through the third week in November: "I've been in Phoenix, Williamsburg, Philadelphia, four trips to New York, Boston, Detroit, three trips to Chicago, Minneapolis, Seattle, Charlotte, Tokyo, Beijing, Hong Kong, Taipei and London." Jim Johnson travels a lot.
The large, framed Asian artwork on the far wall in mission control signals that Fannie Mae is a company as much about international finance as it is about American homebuyers. The art lends a kind of serenity to the quiet, intense business of tracking Johnson as he orbits the business, housing, art, nonprofit, think-tank and government worlds that he routinely moves among in Washington, D.C., around the country - and internationally.
His exhaustive travel schedule would leave most people strung out, hollow-eyed and craving solitude. Yet Johnson seems remarkably mellow in his casual navy crewneck sweater, button-down shirt, casual pants and black metal horn-rimmed glasses. He's relaxed, even - definitely not what you'd expect. Not bad for a man with three jobs - each one a legitimate Washington power job with all the attendant scheduling and decision-making complexities. Johnson, up until this year, was CEO and chairman of Fannie Mae, and he will remain chairman of the executive committee of the board of directors through all of this year. He serves as chairman of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the most prestigious performing arts venue in the nation's capital. His third job is chairman of the board of trustees of the Brookings Institution, a highly respected Washington think tank.
As he relaxes into his wing-back chair by the fireplace in his office, he explains how he balances his demanding life so that there is time to spend with his family. His son is in seventh grade across the street from Johnson's office - Sidwell Friends, the same private school that Chelsea Clinton attended, is literally across Wisconsin Avenue from Fannie Mae's headquarters. You can see the school grounds from Johnson's office windows. Johnson says he drives his son to school and darts across Wisconsin Avenue to attend official school events.
With the efficiency of a person who juggles a lot in a day, he has plotted his commute from home to office so that it clocks in at "about three minutes." He lives, he says, about one mile from his office. Location. Location. Location. Johnson lives by that. He says that from Fannie Mae's office it is about five minutes to the Kennedy Center and five minutes to Brookings. His "in-town logistics" are fabulous, he says; that's what makes it all work. But when he gets to the part about being able to walk across the street to his son's school and comparing that to "like being in a small town," that's where he loses me. I mean, he had just said he was in far parts of the globe for much of the last six weeks. His wife, Maxine, works in Boston, so her commute is via National Airport, which is an okay drive from upper Northwest Washington, but even Johnson concedes that it adds a bit of complexity to their busy lives.
So it's not like he really believes it's like a small-town, since he has actually lived in a small town in Benson, Minnesota. But it's more like he has found a wonderful, unique niche in the global village that he travels in that works for him. His point is that, where most Americans every day spend two hours in commuting time to drop kids off and get back and forth to work, he spends 15 minutes, he says. On that score, he does have us all beat. He is a Master of the Housing Finance Universe, at home in the global village and a dad just across the street. All at once. Now, that's something.
But aside from his deftness at managing Washington logistics, Jim Johnson leaves Fannie Mac with a strong legacy, one that started in 1990, when David Maxwell announced he would step down and Johnson was elected by the Fannie Mac board to succeed him as Fannie Mae chairman and CEO. We interviewed him about the stamp he has left on Fannie Mae, how he juggles his responsibilities and about some of his accomplishments. We also asked him about the future direction of Fannie Mae under his successor, Frank Raines, the new CEO and chairman.
Q: How do you let go and delegate, when you have so many things you are responsible for? Don't you feel like there must be something going on that you forgot about or didn't delegate?
A: I guess the letting go is easy, because with the number of things I am dealing with, I know there are hundreds of things going on that I have something to do with, that I don't currently know where they stand or what's happening. If it's life and death, then, obviously, I can be found at any time and get messages and give messages back and so on, particularly when you're in the Far East.
I was just in China and Japan for a week, three or four weeks ago. That's terrific, because when you wake up in the morning there, it's late afternoon here. It's 12-13 hours difference. So when you're starting your day over there, the previous day is just ending here, so you can get clips and you can get messages, and that's not so bad. But letting go is not much of a problem.
Q: During your years as Fannie Mae's CEO, how much has been accomplished to lower housing affordability barriers and what's left to be done?
A: I think the '90s have been the decade of all decades in terms of dealing with housing affordability. It's in part because of the macroeconomic environment, in part because of the near-full-employment experience we've had, [and] in part because we have more and more people who see the potential, through their wage income, to be homeowners. But if you look at every single significant barrier facing people, we have made, I believe, significant progress on every one of those barriers.
Typically, the most important barrier that people talk about is accumulating savings for a down payment and closing costs. We have shown now that we can do high [loan-to-value] lending and do it successfully. It's a revolution in the 1990s.
There's a major barrier that flows from lack of information. There are 33 million Americans for whom English is not their first language. There are millions and millions of Americans who don't feel comfortable with the basic language and concepts of the mortgage finance system. We have had a terrific decade in terms of providing people with more outreach, more information, more understanding. There is dramatically more activity, I believe, on the ground all around the country. Whether it's flowing from lenders or...