What happens when a bank gets a reminder that its indispensable man won't be around forever?
That's the dilemma facing the shareholders and board of directors of JPMorgan Chase & Co. a day after chief executive Jamie Dimon announced that he had been diagnosed with throat cancer.
Doctors believe Mr. Dimon's cancer is curable and that he will make a full recovery after 8 weeks of chemotherapy and radiation to begin shortly. "We will continue to run the company as normal," Mr. Dimon wrote in a note released Tuesday. The bank's board is "totally supportive."
One hopes that the situation will be no more than a temporary scare for Mr. Dimon and his family. But it raises a broader question already facing the bank: What's next after Mr. Dimon?
More than ever, Mr. Dimon, 58, is synonymous with JPMorgan. He serves as both chairman and chief executive of the largest U.S. bank, a dual role that he successfully defended against a proxy vote last year. Shareholders love him ("He's a superb leader," one long-time investor told me earlier this year, expressing a widespread sentiment).
Mr. Dimon's tenure at the top of the institution began in 2006. In recent years, a number of senior JPMorgan executives have headed for the exits, including several potential successors. One factor raised in the departures was that there was no clear route to the top of JPMorgan.
Mr. Dimon and Lloyd Blankfein, the chief executive of Goldman Sachs Group Inc., are the last two members of an elite club – bank leaders who weathered the 2008 financial crisis and still run the ship. Mr. Dimon's reign has survived public opprobrium, Occupy Wall Street protests, fraud cases, a trading debacle, historic fines and, except for a single quarter, kept the bank making money.
Perhaps the better question to ask is what's left for Mr. Dimon to achieve. A clear answer is grooming a replacement. JPMorgan's board of directors would be negligent if it didn't have a succession plan in place. But there is a large difference between a plan that a company creates as a precaution and one that it actively executes.
Among those mentioned as potential successors to Mr. Dimon: Gordon Smith, the head of JPMorgan's consumer bank; Matthew Zames, the firm's chief operating officer; and Daniel Pinto, the head of the investment bank.
An orderly and intelligent transfer of power is one of Mr. Dimon's last pieces of unfinished business at JPMorgan. His former mentor, Sandy Weill, once rued the fact that he had "made a very bad decision on succession" (translation: he fired Mr. Dimon from Citigroup). If Mr. Dimon proceeds wisely, that's one regret he may be able to avoid.