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After fatal car crash, Berwyn partner pays tribute to fintech pioneer Judson Bergman

Swept up in a vision Wall Street didn’t at first share, they built Envestnet, and its business mission — to move advisors' investment paperwork online.

Judson Bergman, who recently died in a car accident, was a fintech pioneer who founded Envestnet, which has about $800 million in sales, and employs over 4,000 nationwide.
Judson Bergman, who recently died in a car accident, was a fintech pioneer who founded Envestnet, which has about $800 million in sales, and employs over 4,000 nationwide.Read moreBergman family

Bill Crager was visiting clients Oct. 3 when he got the call: Judson Bergman, his boss and 20-year collaborator at Envestnet, the Chicago-based financial technology firm, and his wife, Mary Miller, had been killed with their taxi driver in a San Francisco car crash.

“I don’t know how to describe the scope of what that phone call meant to me,” said Crager, who is based in Berwyn, where Envestnet employs more than 300 at its five-year-old operations center.

They had been partners since negotiating the purchase by Bergman’s old employer, John Nuveen & Co., of Crager’s then-employer, Radnor-based Rittenhouse Financial Services, in the late 1990s. Swept up in a vision that Wall Street didn’t at first share, they built Envestnet, and its business mission — to serve financial advisers and institutions by moving investment paperwork online.

“Jud was more than a business partner, and more than a friend," Crager told me. "We were together in so many things. Highs and lows. We leaned on each other.” He compared Bergman’s impact on America’s army of financial advisors and their clients — one-third of the industry uses Envestnet — to the late John C. Bogle’s impact on retirement investors through Malvern-based Vanguard Group, the fund giant that Bogle founded.

At Envestnet, Bergman was CEO, Crager was president. The firm went public in 2010 — amid the Great Recession — at $9 a share, and trades now around $60. Sales have doubled since 2015, to more than $800 million. It employs more than 4,000 nationwide.

Crager talked to Bergman’s brother Bart — the brothers had worked as young men in the family’s farm construction business around their native Minnesota — and Bergman’s son Elliott, who with his sister Natalie fronts the rock band Wild Belle. The band canceled its gig at Radio City Music Hall and other tour dates, as the stricken siblings and Miller’s three children began preparing memorials.

Following their emergency plan, Crager got Envestnet’s top lawyer, financial officer and HR chief on the phone. They convened the board, and Crager was put in charge as interim chief executive. Director Ross Chapin stepped in as interim chair. They were able to get word to key people just before the Bergmans’ deaths were announced in news reports. “We have all experienced a great loss at Envestnet,” they told employees and clients.

“Bill and Jud worked closely over the last 20 years and have built a resilient team that will see us through these dark days,” acting chairman Chapin wrote.

Elliott said his father liked to paraphrase a famous statement by Founding Father John Adams: "I am a warrior, that my son might be a farmer, that his son might be a poet. But my father was really all three of those things. He built silos for farms; it was the family business, Bergman Silos. Then he built a company that democratized financial planning to bring it to a much larger swath of the population; people knew him as this great business mind. And we know him as this creative spirit. He played the guitar and sang Bob Dylan songs almost every night. I just went through his desk, it is full of colored markers, rulers, protractors and compass. He was always planning and always building.”

Daughter Elise, a mother of three, owns a design firm. Her husband, Colin Moore, was partners with Jud in a rye whiskey distillery, Judson & Moore. Son Bennett is a poet earning his master’s at the Iowa Writers Workshop. Their mother, Susan Bergman, was a writer who died of cancer, in 2006.

“He encouraged us and understood the precarious nature of a career in the arts," Elliott said. "He connected with people in every walk of life. He understood what unconditional love was. He was a devoutly religious person who understood at a very deep level how the love of Christ can be embodied through our human interactions.”

Crager said Bergman shared his late 1990s vision “that we could build something really transformational, and use this thing called the Internet to do it. Financial services had not fully utilized the technology to rebuild Wall Street’s infrastructure.”

They started with a small group, including Jim Lumberg and Brandon Thomas -- still with Envestnet -- plus "a card table and a bunch of ideas,” first at a Chicago law office, later in the city’s Jewelers’ Building.

Crager said Bergman quoted Lincoln for inspiration as often as he quoted Dylan -- his fellow Midwesterner.

“His magic was in letting people understand a higher purpose to what we did,” Crager told me. “His point was, by building something that makes advice more accessible and better, we can really help millions of American households achieve their aspirations. When you do that, and you aren’t primarily motivated by every dollar or every technology release, you motivate people.”

(Spelling of Jim Lumberg’s name has been corrected)