Roger W. Ferguson Jr. was not a kid prone to the irrational exuberance of youth. He first aspired to being a Federal Reserve governor when he was in high school.
"I spent most of my time studying," said Ferguson, who grew up in Washington amid the tumult and giddiness of the 1960s.
Ferguson's diligence was rewarded two years ago when President Clinton named him to a governor's seat. And last week Clinton tapped the techie economist to succeed Alice M. Rivlin as the Fed's vice chair. If Ferguson, 47, is approved by the Senate, as appears likely, he would be the first African American to hold that post.
It was the latest in a run of achievement for Ferguson, the son of an Army mapmaker and District elementary school teacher, who helped put himself through Harvard University by scrubbing dormitory bathrooms. Friends and colleagues are hard-pressed to describe Ferguson as anything beyond sober, studious and serious--the words "boring" and "wonk" are thrown around, too. He fits the Fed profile like a bland suit.
In the past year, he has worked to educate global regulators on the possible impact of year 2000 computer glitches on financial institutions. His views on monetary policy are not well known, and the subject was placed off-limits during a brief interview Wednesday at his Fed office.
At the Fed, Ferguson has gained a reputation as a hyper-pragmatist, acutely prepared, and rarely prone to stubborn positions. At his confirmation hearing two years ago, Ferguson identified the Fed's central mandate as "price stability."
"I would call [Ferguson] a sensible centrist, non-ideological," said Janet L. Yellen, the former chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers and former Fed governor, who was teaching at Harvard University in the 1970s when Ferguson was there.
He is known as a personable consensus-builder, "strong but not pushy," Rivlin said, and sometimes blunt.
"He is distinctively straightforward, which is a good and not a totally common thing in Washington," said Treasury Secretary Lawrence H. Summers, a Harvard classmate of Ferguson's, who is credited with bringing him to the administration's attention.
Ferguson grew up in a middle-class household in Northeast Washington and shuns any rags-to-riches imagery in his background. Yes, he cleaned dorm bathrooms for two years at Harvard, but his parents paid for part of his tuition, he's quick to point out. And lot of undergrads did similar work at Harvard, he said. This conforms to an ethic of honest labor at a university he reveres and champions.
Likewise, Ferguson seems unconcerned with the milestone significance of being the first black nominee to be the Fed's No. 2. "I don't carry a heavy mantle of representation for a group of people," Ferguson said.
As the only African American among the Fed's seven governors--and the third to serve on the board--Ferguson said he has an "awareness" of his position, and that he was first inspired to join the Fed when President Lyndon B. Johnson named Andrew Brimmer to be the first black governor in 1966.
But race is hardly the "defining statement" of his identity, he said. "My goal is just to be successful in any position I hold."
Ferguson's run of success has proceeded unabated from his outset. He excelled at elite schools--Sidwell Friends, Cambridge University and Harvard, where he graduated magna cum laude and earned advanced degrees in law and economics.
After a stint at the New York law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell, Ferguson joined the management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. in 1984. He worked on several projects--he won't disclose his clients--and gained strong knowledge of the inner processes of banks and financial institutions. He also honed an interest in technology, overseeing the firm's investment in research tools as the Internet was revolutionizing how large organi- zations were managing information.
In this role, Ferguson traversed McKinsey's distinctive offices around the world, overseeing a centralized research operation with a delicate touch.
"Roger had to convince people in various offices to give up control over research and information," said Rajat Gupta, McKinsey's managing director. He would sometimes meet resistance from field managers, Gupta said, and occasionally would return frustrated to his New York office.
"My instinct would be to go back and issue an edict," Gupta said. "But Roger would provide good counsel. He would suggest we give them a little time, and that they would come around. And they usually did."
Ferguson talks fast and lives his days on a tight schedule. He seems largely unburdened by angst and self-absorption, evoking noticeable boredom--and discomfort--when the questions turn to frivolous things, such as who his idols are.
When asked this, Ferguson shrugged and turned jittery. His impeccably neat office went quiet.
"I wish I had a pat answer," he said, "but I didn't really have any idols." Finally, he cited his parents, an uncle who earned a PhD in nuclear engineering, and a pediatrician aunt who conducted research on sickle-cell anemia.
Hobbies? He winces slightly.
"I don't have any deep hobbies," he said, fidgeting on the couch. "I frankly don't have any time." His non-work time essentially is given to "the soccer dad circuit," featuring his 8-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter. He sleeps seven hours a night, lives in the District and the last movie he saw was "Inspector Gadget."
Associates are stumped for a neat Ferguson anecdote, any quirky window of poignancy. We'll settle for this: Rajat Gupta recalls a McKinsey picnic a few years ago. Gupta's teenage daughter was considering prospective colleges at the time, and he remembers talking to Ferguson. "I remember he showed a very human side," he said. "He wanted to make sure my daughter went to Harvard."
Roger W. Ferguson Jr.Position: Nominee, Federal Reserve vice chairman
Born: Oct. 28, 1951, in Washington
Education: BA in economics, magna cum laude, in 1973; JD, cum laude, 1979; PhD in economics, 1981, all from Harvard University
Career highlights: Currently a member of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve; worked at the McKinsey & Co. international consulting firm in New York and Davis Polk & Wardwell in New York
Personal: Married to Annette L. Nazareth; two children
SOURCE: Federal Reserve Board