Jon Corzine’s Life Lessons to FDU Students: ‘Giving Up Is Not an Option’

Colleen O'Dea | December 4, 2015 | Politics
Former U.S. senator and governor counsels ‘resiliency,’ and warns that ‘winning at all costs’ is not an acceptable personal or business goal

Former U.S. senator and governor counsels ‘resiliency,’ and warns that ‘winning at all costs’ is not an acceptable personal or business goal

In his first public address in four years, former New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine on Thursday night discussed his successes and failures before a crowd of business students on Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Florham-Madison campus.

He spoke frankly about his setbacks and personal troubles: a near-fatal accident while he was traveling between political events, his loss to Republican Gov. Chris Christie, the collapse of MF Global Holdings while he was at the helm. Although Corzine has settled one suit related to MF Global, he faces another, brought by the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission.

“After my defeat for re-election as governor, I failed in my attempt as a private equity investor,” he said. “That defeat was not easy; defeats are not easy.”

Although he did not specifically mention it, Corzine also has had to deal with personal tragedy. His youngest son Jeffrey, who had battled depression for years, committed suicide in March of 2014.

“Events don’t always go as we plan. It is absolutely essential that we learn from those issues as we go forward,” he told the audience.

“The greatest test of one’s character is how you deal with those things … understanding causes lets you achieve recovery. Giving up is not an option, just not an option. Starting over is an option, something everyone should be willing to do.”

Corzine also gave a hint of what starting over may mean to him now.

What he would really like to do next, he said, is teach. He also wants to advocate for such causes as more quality early-childhood education, narrowing the income gap, a fairer criminal justice system, solving homelessness, and fixing the nation’s crumbling infrastructure.

The talk by the 68-year-old bearded former Wall Street executive who spent the first decade of this millennium in elected office, first in the U.S. Senate and then as New Jersey’s governor, was meant to provide life and career lessons to students in FDU’s Silberman College of Business. He titled his talk, “A Life with Purpose: Reflections on Success and Failure,” and focused on what helped him succeed in life and how he dealt with setbacks.

“When I chose to pursue public service, the odds of failure were great,” said the Democrat, who won the most expensive U.S. Senate race in history in 2000, in part by spending more than $60 million of his own money to bankroll his campaign. “With a little bit of luck and a lot of hard work by a lot of people, with incredible amounts of preparation and a real purpose to the platform I advocated, I won. I was really honored to serve the people of New Jersey for nearly a decade. Unequivocally, these were the best years of my life. I felt I did more for people in that way than in any other way I could give back.”

“Resiliency is an important characteristic,” he said early in his speech. “In my life, there have been some rough spots. I learned how to deal with those. I have a phrase for it: Buckle up.”

That is particularly significant to the former Marine who almost died midway through his tenure as governor when he was seriously injured in a car accident while travelling from one political event to another.

Corzine, still wearing his hair longer than the average politician or bond trader, touched on the incident. He said he was conducting a staff meeting, turning around in his seat, and not wearing a seatbelt when the car “spun out of control on a rainy night.” A State Police investigation determined that the governor’s SUV was travelling at more than 90 miles per hour.

“I was in an induced coma for 11 days,” he said. “I had to decide how to use this as good thing. My staff and I decided to offer ourselves to the National Transportation Safety Board to make a public service announcement. I went on TV and said, ‘I’m New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine and I should be dead.’ I don’t know how many people’s lives it saved, but it made a difference.”

The moral of the story: “Have a purpose in your life.”

For Corzine, that has been helping people, through politics — he said political science was his favorite course in college, although it wasn’t his original career path — or philanthropy.

He described some periods of his life as “a relatively, if not qualified, success.” He was the youngest partner in the modern era of the investment banking firm Goldman-Sachs and said he was proud that for three of the five years in which he served as its CEO, the company was named one of the nation’s 10 best places to work.

But when he lost his bid for a second term in office to the current Gov. Chris Christie, he went back into the financial world, where he would experience another major failure.

He spoke briefly about his post-politics legal troubles involving the collapse of MF Global Holdings Ltd., a multinational futures brokerage that he was appointed to head shortly after leaving office. About 19 months later, the firm declared bankruptcy. Corzine was subpoenaed and testified before Congress in December 2011 and said he did not know what had happened to more than $1 billion in client funds that had gone missing. That was, essentially, Corzine’s last public speaking appearance.

“I haven’t had a mic in my hand for five years, since I left politics,” he jokes on beginning his talk.

During the summer, Corzine and other former executives reached a $64.5 million settlement with investors. Still pending is a suit by the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which seeks civil fines and a ban on working in the commodity futures industry. Corzine intimated he could not say much about what happened to MF Global as a result of pending legal action, but said he hoped “someday I can speak directly to this issue more fully.”

In taking the helm of MF Global, Corzine said, “My first objective was to turn it around, give it health to be more successful, build up my capacity to be a philanthropist. I understood the risk and surrounded myself with good people, but, regrettably, I was wrong. The consequences were anything but pleasant.

Although he said at the outset he would not discuss politics, Corzine ventured into the area briefly during his speech and afterward, when he answered reporters’ questions for several minutes after leaving the podium.

In answering a student’s question, Corzine said that addressing the issue of climate change might be economically harmful but it is absolutely necessary. And he decried the recent spate of presidential debates, saying the media have turned them “in a very unfair way into a reality show,” but they “ought to stay focused on the fundamental things that matter in people’s lives.”

While he hosted a fundraising event for Hilary Clinton’s presidential campaign, he shrugged off a question about her asking him to play any role in her administration, saying, “That’s not going to happen.”

Corzine cautioned the students not to lose their integrity for the sake of achieving a goal, or how he moved on.

“Winning at all costs, it isn’t worth it,” he said. “It isn’t acceptable … My political life was filled with many, many choices. Sometimes it’s hard to choose. You know what is right and wrong in your own mind.”

Further, he urged the students to accept their failures and move on.

His characterizations of himself were not always kind. He called himself stubborn and said he learned that “yelling at subordinates not a great idea if you want to get a lot out of them.”

Corzine arrived with a small group of others, including wife Sharon, who he married in 2010. He said after the event that he no longer lives in Hoboken, acceding to his wife’s wishes to live near her grandchildren in Manhattan. He said he has a small home office where he works.

He said he misses politics and his decision to keep a low profile since leaving Trenton in January 2010 was dictated by outside forces.

“There have been several events that have occurred in my life in the interim that make it complicated,” he said.

But Corzine said he expects to lead a somewhat more public life once his legal troubles are resolved, though probably not as public as other former governors.

“I would like to have a voice, but I will not be as involved as some,” he said.

“I have been blessed in my life with great opportunity, and great opportunity to do more than serve myself,” he said. “Public service is the place where you can make the biggest difference in people’s lives.” “If you want make a difference in how the world works or in other people’s lives, that’s how it works, baby.”