This writer has seldom witnessed so meteoric an ascent to fame as that of James Needham, first to the Securities and Exchange Commission and then as chairman of the New York Stock Exchange.Jim was a pleasant, always-smiling CPA with an Irish mien and personality. In many ways, our careers paralleled each other as we moved up the ladder of the New York State Society and the American Institute of CPAs. In 1969, there was an opening on the Securities and Exchange Commission and the then-Secretary of Commerce, Maurice Stans, a past president of the AICPA, recommended that a CPA be appointed. Republican politics ordained that the post go to a designee in North Carolina. The firm of A.M. Pullen in Greensboro, N.C., was contacted and it recommended James Needham, who was managing partner of its New York office.

One day, after a meeting at the SEC with my friend, chief accountant John C. “Sandy” Burton Jr., with our usual exchange of thrusts and parries, he quipped, “A rolling loan gathers no interest.”

I then phoned Jim Needham on the SEC intercom and reached him at his office. Jim had an impressive spread; we were seated on a couch and after some small talk, he stunned me with, “Where do I go from here? I can’t go back to public accounting!” Events followed quickly and in 1972, he was named the first paid chairman of the New York Stock Exchange.

Needham believed that the securities industry was too clubby, and unfair to smaller investors; he advocated rate reform — there was more trading and the public was more willing to buy securities. Commissions for smaller investors had been as high as 10 to 15 percent, but were drastically reduced. He was also credited with making advances toward computer automation on the exchange to reduce paperwork and trading backlogs.

The barons of Wall Street were not pleased with him, and he was pressured to resign in April 1976, two years before his contract was to expire.

Needham made news in 2003 when he criticized what he considered NYSE excesses, including the $139.5 million payout package at the time for chairman Richard Grasso. He said that Grasso and the stock exchange board should resign, adding, “The New York Stock Exchange is now beginning to look like Enron and all those other crummy companies.”

After leaving the Big Board, he did corporate consulting on planning, financial and regulatory matters, and served on various company boards. President Ronald Reagan named him U.S. ambassador to the International Exposition in Japan in the mid-1980s.

In the summer of 2008, with the horrific reports of investment bank mismanagement, this writer ponders, “How I wish Jim Needham was running the show.”

Eli Mason, CPA, is a past president of the New York State Society of CPAs, a past chairman of the New York State Board for Public Accountancy, and a past vice president of the American Institute of CPAs.

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