Financial magnate recalls lessons from the Corps

16 May 2000 | Sgt. Jeffrey Castro

For a man with more than 30 years of experience in the financial industry, using the values he learned as a young man in training and later in the jungles of Vietnam came naturally.  The similarities between the battlefield and the business world are few, but high above the din of pedestrians and traffic along 6th Avenue, he uses the lessons daily. 

As senior vice chairman, chief operating officer and a director of AXA Financial, Inc., one of the world's largest financial institutions worth more than $450 billion, Michael Hegarty has another title he holds close to his heart; Captain, United States Marine Corps. 

After graduating from Iona College, Hegarty began working as a teacher in New York's Spanish Harlem in 1966.  He planned to teach while saving up to go to law school, but teaching was draining him physically and emotionally.

"I was 21 and the students were 17, so I wasn't much older than they were," said Hegarty.  "And the students were out of control, there was a rape and a murder at the school while I was there -- so I knew that I didn't want to do this for much longer."

At the time, the Vietnam conflict had begun and the draft was in full swing, Hegarty knew he would be drafted if he stopped teaching.  Unfazed at the prospect of war, he stopped teaching and joined the Marines.

"I went to a Marine recruiter and he said they would love to have me," said Hegarty.  "But I wear glasses, so they said that even though I have a college degree I'd have to go to Parris Island and be enlisted first, then they would put in a waiver for me to go to OCS.  I thought it was a ploy, but I went along with it anyway."

"Parris Island was surreal," said Hegarty.  "The harassment, the punishment, it wasn't a pleasant experience, but it wasn't intimidating.  I learned a lot about myself at boot camp." 

"Officer Candidates School was 180 degrees from Parris Island," he added.  "At boot camp they stressed collective strengths, at OCS they stressed more personal mental and physical strength.  Both were defining moments in my life, I learned how hard I could push myself ... strength and endurance I learned from the Marine Corps."

After Parris Island he was sent to Vietnamese language school where he studied the language for 11 months.  From there he went to OCS and was appointed an infantry officer and sent to Vietnam in 1968.

"I came back fine," said Hegarty.  "I was in a lot of firefights, some lasted five seconds, some lasted an hour."  Hegarty added there was one event he'll never forget.

After having spent more than seven months in Vietnam, Hegarty had already been in more than 100 firefights.  His unit was battle tested and as a platoon leader he was well respected by his Marines.  

"My unit was doing night patrols and ambushes," he said in a more serious tone.  "The NVA moved at night, so it would just be a random occasion if we met the enemy.  One of my squad leaders came to get me and I went to grab my gear, but I couldn't find my helmet.  I didn't want to wear someone else's helmet so I decided not go.  My men understood and it was OK.  They got ambushed and all 13 were killed."

Hegarty calls the incident "very ironic" and that memory, along with many others from his 13-month tour in Vietnam, have left an indelible mark on his memory.

After four years in the Corps, Hegarty decided it was time to punch out.  He had a great experience in the Marine Corps, but for the good of his family he decided it was time to go.

"I thought I was a pretty good Marine," said Hegarty.  "I liked the value system of the Marine Corps and it became a very strong part of my life ... it has served me well and will continue to serve me well over time.  I will always have a strong affection for the Marine Corps."

Transitioning from a captain in the Marines to civilian in 1970 wasn't difficult for Hegarty.  Beginning at Manufacturers Hanover Bank in New York, he worked his way up the corporate ladder to the position he holds today.  Along with his current position at AXA he is a director of Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette brokerage and Alliance Capital Management as well as a director of the Life Insurance Council of New York.  He is also president, chief operating officer and director of the Equitable Life Assurance Society of the United States.

Hegarty described some of the concepts he learned in the Marine Corps that he applies to his business dealings.

"The Marine Corps has a very effective value system," said Hegarty.  "The values really relate to business as well; integrity, self sacrifice, respect.  I also learned not to ask someone to do something I wasn't prepared to do myself.  You have to have empathy and respect for people and the Marine Corps has all that."

Hegarty alluded to something he called a "social contract," an idea that everyone has a commitment to those around them.  At work, at home etc., everyone has a responsibility to use their value system to interact with each other.  Hegarty believes that a Marine's values are among the highest and has advice for Marines getting out or still in the Corps.

"Your value system is very important," he said.  "Use the values from the Marines and maintain it because it will be a strength.  The Marine Corps has a history of not only having a high value system but of executing those values.  Seek work environments that are similar and you'll be happier." 

He also stressed education as way for Marines to get ahead.

"Life is about learning, if you stop learning you're in trouble," he said.  "Growth creates productivity."

As for today's Marine Corps, Hegarty believes the strong value system has not changed, but the overall readiness of the Corps has gotten much better since his tour. 

"They are a lot more spit polished than when I was in," he said.  "And I think there is a lot more consistency within the Marine Corps now."  He added that the high esteem that the public holds for the Marines has not changed. 

"They still have that mystique about them that the other services never had ... Espirit de Corps and the discipline still makes the Marine Corps elite," he said.

"I'm not the kind of guy who talks about my being a Marine all the time," said Hegarty.  "When I meet another Marine I have an instant bond with them, immediate respect and empathy.  It's a very unique psychological event that happens in the Marine Corps.  I can still remember what my drill instructors said during boot camp, 'Only special people become Marines and once you're in you're part of a special group.'  It's a great organization."

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