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Jack Sandner, longtime Chicago Mercantile Exchange chairman, dies at 79

He had an almost 50-year association with the old Merc and led it into electronic trading and toward a transformative acquisition of the Chicago Board of Trade.

Jack Sandner on the trading floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange in 1997.
Jack Sandner on the trading floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange in 1997.
Sun-Times file photo

Jack Sandner, chairman of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange for most of the 1980s and 1990s, used to glory in showing VIPs and everyday visitors the colorful, chaotic trading floor he oversaw. He would call it “the cathedral of capitalism,” words spoken with gratitude and reverence.

But he also knew change was coming to his cathedral, and that it would have to adjust. He was involved in the first steps toward computerized trading that would change the character of futures trading, a core Chicago industry.

In 1997, he announced to the Chicago Sun-Times a revolutionary plan: allowing traders to use the internet to send orders for futures contracts directly to the trading floor. It would be a bracing new day for a business steeped in tradition, in the “open outcry” method of moving money with shouts and hand signals.

“The roof will come off the Chicago Mercantile Exchange in terms of trading volume,” Mr. Sandner predicted. He was right, but any plan so profound for people’s livelihoods was going to be controversial. Mr. Sandner knew his beloved Merc was a political place, more bruising than most Chicago wards, but he’d been a champion amateur boxer, and was confident about his chances.

“I could see Jack persuading somebody to do something that he thought was the right thing to do,” said businessman Patrick Ryan, one of his longtime friends. One example: when Mr. Sandner, as a trustee at the University of Notre Dame, convinced the school to start a program for people with special needs. “He lived his faith,” Ryan said. “He succeeded, and he wanted everybody else to.”

Mr. Sandner died Thursday night at Northwestern Memorial Hospital after a stroke, said his son Christopher. Mr. Sandner, 79, lived in Lake Bluff.

He had an almost 50-year association with the old Merc, now called CME Group, retiring from its board in 2018 while agreeing to serve as a consultant. Mr. Sandner was involved in every initiative as the company acquired its longtime rival, the Chicago Board of Trade, and they changed from member-owned clubs to publicly traded companies, answering to shareholders and pursuing new business instead of protecting old turfs.

Mr. Sandner came from a modest background, graduating from Southern Illinois University and then, relatives say, basically talking his way into Notre Dame, where he earned a law degree. He became fascinated with the idea behind futures contracts — buying or selling something you don’t actually own. They can be used to speculate or to safeguard risks.

CME Group Chairman Terry Duffy called Mr. Sandner “a true visionary who made many contributions to our industry. It was with sheer grit and determination that he also steadied the organization through some of the biggest crises of the day, including the Gold and Silver crisis of 1980 and the Black Monday crash of 1987.”

Even when times at work were tough, Mr. Sandner never lost his cheerful, upbeat ways, Christopher Sandner said. “When he was home, he was always present. And he attended our events as kids,” he said.

He recalled his father always had two briefcases — one for work, the other with school assignments his children had prepared. Mr. Sandner would review them and suggest improvements. “You could only love that a parent cared that much,” Christopher Sandner said.

Mr. Sandner and his wife of 51 years, Carole, had eight children, all adopted. “I think that speaks loudly about the character Jack had. He had a heart that was boundless,” Ryan said. At his death, Mr. Sandner was a board member of Ryan’s insurance firm, Ryan Specialty Group, and of Virtu Financial.

Another friend for decades, businessman Andrew McKenna, recalled Mr. Sandner’s kindness and devotion to his family. “He was a man of great energy. It seemed like he never had a bad day,” McKenna said.

Mr. Sandner rubbed elbows with presidents and Cabinet secretaries and often testified on behalf of the futures industry at congressional hearings, taking his family on “work vacations” to see the sites in Washington, D.C., or elsewhere. But he gave ample time to affairs close to home. His board memberships included Roosevelt University, the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Museum of Science and Industry, among many others.

His honors included a Horatio Alger Award in honor of his climb toward success, a Points of Light Award from President George H.W. Bush and induction into the Futures Industry Association’s Hall of Fame.

The old “open outcry” system is gone, replaced by remote trading governed by algorithms and executed on computer mainframes. To many who remember the old ways, Mr. Sandner’s death seems like the passing of an era.

But Christopher Sandner said his father never wavered in his faith about accepting change in the way markets worked. “You had to find new ways to embrace technology,” he said. “It enhanced what they did down there in the trading pits.”

Mr. Sandner’s survivors also include seven grandchildren, with an eighth on the way. His son said services will be private, due to pandemic restrictions.