Five weeks before Jay Fishman’s death on August 19, managing editor Leslie Werstein Hann and editor in chief Rick Pullen sat down with the executive chairman of the board of The Travelers Companies to discuss his business, outlook and career. It was one of the last in-depth interviews he granted. —Editor
“This is where people came, running away from oppression. It is as much the fabric of the United States as anything.”
“It took a while, but we became a company driven by numbers and data.”
“I feel a responsibility to have made a meaningful difference to the ALS community.”
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When Jay Fishman first discovered the The Wall Street Journal as a college student, it became something of an obsession. He taped the articles that fascinated him to his dorm wall and spent study breaks in the library spinning through microfiche. Before long, he’d read most of the Journal articles from before the stock market crashed in 1929 through the first five years of the Great Depression.
“What I found interesting, of course, was I knew the ending,” Fishman said.
Geeky as it sounds—and those are his words—anyone who watched Fishman run Travelers over more than a decade would nod at the realization that it is not surprising at all.
After leaving Citicorp at the top of his game, he turned around an ailing St. Paul Companies and orchestrated its merger with Travelers. He transformed Travelers into a data-driven enterprise, betting on risks the company could understand well and rejecting the lure of high-flying investments. Eschewing the mortgage-backed securities that triggered the 2008 financial meltdown, Fishman steered Travelers through the crisis with relative ease.
Fishman stepped down as CEO Nov. 30, four months after telling employees the neuromuscular disease that had been ailing him was amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. ALS is a progressive neurological disease that attacks the nerve cells responsible for controlling voluntary muscles.
Fishman was using a wheelchair when we met in early July, and a machine helped him breathe all but a few hours a day. Even still, he was going to the office each day to work on the business of Travelers in his role as executive chairman, having handed over the reins as CEO to Alan Schnitzer. He also spent considerable time on the ALS-related charities that he saw as his legacy.
Over the course of a two-hour interview with Leader’s Edge in Travelers’ New York City headquarters, Fishman talked often about responsibility, whether it was to the memory of his grandmother, who emigrated alone at age 12 and earned money to bring the rest of her family to America; to honor the sweat labor of people like his father, who used what little money he had to send his son to private school; to leave Travelers a better place than when he joined; to his wife of 40 years and his two sons; and to the ALS community of researchers trying to find treatments and a cure.
You had better be very prepared to get into any discussion of substance with Jay Fishman. I used to take him through thoughts and ideas that I had about the business. He was so knowledgeable, smart, experienced, and principled (I could go on) in knowing the best way forward. I learned from him during many occasions and figured if I can convince Jay it was a good idea I had something very good. He was a tremendous leader for Travelers and had his company aligned to a greater purpose. They were as aligned under his leadership as I have seen in the insurance industry.Tweet
“If you asked me six months before I was diagnosed with the disease, I would have told you I was the luckiest guy in the whole world. I still feel that way,” Fishman said. “This is how my life is going to come to an end, but it doesn’t define what my life was.”
Jay Fishman died just over a month later.
When we met last time you didn’t want to be photographed on the golf course and you didn’t want to be photographed without a tie. Why not?
Boy, I could think of a lot of questions that you would ask. That actually wasn’t one of them. With all the challenges I face—and I’m not complaining—I generally come to the office without a tie. You’re coming here today, so I put on my suit and I put a tie on, because that’s the way I present myself on behalf of the company.
I’ve spent more than my share of time on the golf course but with friends in social settings: I’m not a guy who does business on the golf course. The image of an insurance professional spending productive time on the golf course struck me as not right. Not for me anyway.
I went to the Broadmoor to speak with our most important distributors. I didn’t go to play golf; I didn’t go to party. We’d entertain, of course, but that was all in the pursuit of wanting to let our agents and brokers know how much we appreciate everything they do for us.
I just feel more comfortable projecting myself as a professional doing a job for agents, for brokers, for customers, for insurance, not 160 yards into the third hole. I always thought of myself as a professional person. I want to continue to present myself that way.
Tell us a little about your upbringing.
I was born in the Bronx. My father had a tiny printing business here in New York. He was first-generation American; all four of my grandparents emigrated here from Russia. I have a strong view about immigration because I look at the opportunity that’s been provided to me and my family.
So you disagree with some of the current political rhetoric?
We have been the land of opportunity forever, and people put themselves at risk to come here to do better for themselves and their kids. To me that’s a good spirit, a good intention. I understand the world is complicated and you simply can’t say, all right, you want to come, come on in—there has to be a process. But our mindset should be one of encouraging diversity, encouraging that opportunity. If you’re a bad person, yeah, we don’t want you here.
I love Jay Fishman. He fought a really awful disease all the way to the end. He was a source of great strength to so many of us. He and Randy, his partner in life, were always passionate about the business. Anybody who ever worked with Jay or knew him valued his intellect, hard work, passion and willingness to give back.Tweet
I don’t care where you’re from or what your religion is, but for 200-plus years we’ve been the beacon of opportunity. The Statue of Liberty is down in the harbor, a few miles from here. This is where people came, running away from oppression. It is as much the fabric of the United States as anything.
My maternal grandmother was sent here by herself when she was 12. She lived with distant relatives, got a job as a seamstress and made enough money so one by one the whole family came over. How do you come from that background and not feel a deep sense of obligation and responsibility to preserve it, to make it available to other people?
You’ve said that when you were growing up you never imagined this bigger world, yet here you are, having run one of the nation’s largest insurance companies.
Your world is your school, so mine was blue collar—hard working, put on overalls and go to work. I couldn’t spell Wall Street if you spotted me to the first L in Wall. I didn’t even know it existed. At college I really began to see things differently. I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania as a transfer student in the second semester of my sophomore year. I was wait-listed on admission and then ultimately turned down, which I remind the administration there as often as I can. I studied accounting. I say this with great love and affection: that was my father’s view of what you did; you became an accountant. The alternative was to learn the printing business, but that was not in the cards.
Maybe your father was onto something. During your tenure as CEO, you infused an accountant’s spirit into the Travelers culture.
It’s tough for me to describe how bereft of data it was when I got here. There were no numbers, so we started on the quest of building an information system. We started with a controllable income statement for every office. It was robust, but over the next 10 years it became remarkable. We were looking at profitability by agent, profitability by program, profitability by agents you are growing with, profitability by agents you’re shrinking with. It would be printed out each month, and in the upper right hand corner was the branch manager’s name and phone number. It was easy to pick up the phone and call that branch manager and say, “I’m looking at your statement for June, congratulations, well done, how are you doing it?” You couldn’t call every branch every month, but you didn’t have to. All you had to call was a few and everybody knew you were looking at the numbers. It took a while, but we became a company driven by numbers and data.
How does this apply to agents and brokers?
In the early days, we knew more about the agent’s business with us than they did. I remember sitting with a prominent group, and they were complaining about rates, as every agent always will every day. So I said, “I’m curious, what do you think your rate change with us was in the first six months of this year?” The fellow said it had to be down 10%. And I said, “Up 2.3, and here’s the data.” All of a sudden the discussion becomes fact-based. The only way we’re going to be successful is if they are successful, so let’s help them in every way we can. We had this increasingly robust data, and it was useful information for them. Having the data provides a basis for solid relationships—relationships with employees, relationships with agents and brokers, relationships with stockholders.
Where are agents and brokers today in their use of data?
Agents are finally coming around to the point where they are beginning to accumulate data for the very appropriate purpose of being more efficient. They’re beginning to develop data that’s useful for us, too, which is new. We’re excited by what they’re doing because they see it through a different lens than we do and it will help us do a better job for them. And by that I mean responsiveness, efficiency, speed. The quote’s the quote. With data, you can talk about the extent to which an office is quoting or not quoting, or quoting and winning, or quoting and not winning. So the conversations, which had become frustratingly anecdotal, now have the capacity to be much more specific, which means that both sides can take the steps necessary to do business better.
What does the future look like to you for agents and brokers?
Jay was a brilliant corporate leader, an incredibly good person, and a great friend. I admired him immensely. As a result of his smart, steady management, his company not only survived the financial crisis but prospered. Jay’s leadership should be a model for others in the financial services industry.Tweet
I may be a dinosaur, but I’m much more bullish about the roles of agents and brokers in their traditional advice-giving posture than probably anybody else. I tell our agents all the time that your job is to be your customer’s chief worry officer. They don’t have the knowledge, the time, the expertise, the energy or the desire to actually be worried about the things that you’re supposed to be, so that’s your job. And if you really do that well, then you become a trusted advisor. The average small commercial policy runs 40 pages long. My local roofer, after spending the day in the hot sun on a roof, is not going to want to sit down at night and become smart enough about insurance to do it himself to save $150.
What is your view of how the cyber insurance market is developing?
There are a lot of moving parts in all this. Some that are insurable, there are some where we’ve not yet cracked the code as to how to make them insurable, and then there are some that probably will never be insurable. We’ll cover a stolen laptop, and we will cover regulatory costs that have to be incurred if your system is exposed. What you don’t want to do is inadvertently underwrite a very large company. For example, someone says, “I’ve got a little cleaning business here, and if my Internet goes down I’m in trouble, so I’m buying insurance for that.” We’ll write insurance for that. But does that mean that if the cable provider fails in that area for a week, that we’ve now provided indemnification for the cable company? Because that’s what we’ve in effect underwritten. So we really have to go at this very, very thoughtfully and carefully. It’s almost like the car was invented last year and now we’re starting to work on auto insurance. We’re still at the early stages of really understanding exposures, really understanding what clients would like to buy and making sure agents and brokers are knowledgeable enough about it to feel comfortable having that informed advisory consultation.
Let’s talk about your legacy, both at Travelers and your more recent work outside Travelers.
Travelers is in a much better place than it was when I got here. I’m stunningly proud of what the team accomplished here. No one person can accomplish anything in our business, so I get way too much credit for the success of the place. I’m like the conductor in the New York Philharmonic: They can play pretty well without their conductor. And that’s what I feel about myself. But this has been a remarkable journey and a remarkable group of people, and I couldn’t be more proud of having been a part of the place.
You have been very open about your illness, and it sounds like the response has been phenomenal.
I learned about 2½ years ago that I have amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. It is a 100% fatal disease. There is no treatment. It’s symptomatic relief. Most of the time I’m hooked up to a machine that helps me breathe. I get maybe three, four hours a day where I don’t need the support, and the rest of the 20, 21 hours I do. I’m so fortunate that I’m comfortable being like this, and I’m fortunate that people around here are comfortable with me being this way. I worried more about them than I did about myself. Was I going to make people uncomfortable? But the fact that this place has responded the way it has to me at a professional and a personal level is stunningly fortunate for me.
I’ve received, maybe it’s even a thousand by now, but it is certainly many hundreds of emails and notes and letters. I’ve kept them all. I have them electronically. I take three or four out and read them every now and then when I need a little lift. I know a lot of people, but they were mostly from people I didn’t know who wanted to let me know that they were going to keep me in their thoughts and their prayers. They all said it in different ways, but that’s what it was.
The truth is there are a lot of patients who would trade places with me. I’m still speaking after 21/2 years, that’s unusual. I’m still eating, that’s unusual. My mobility is really compromised now. My breathing is really compromised. But as long as I’ve got this [breathing machine] on I can still be here at work for what I’ll call a full day, though it’s not quite as full as it used to be. I finish every day with a martini or a glass of wine. It’s the absolute rule, never to be broken.
You have a great appreciation for the important things in life.
I think of my life in three orbits. First is friends and family—making sure that I’ve done everything that I should do with respect to that crowd. Nothing will be unsaid. There will be nothing left unclear. Everything is resolved and squared away and really good.
The second is I’ve been blessed to be able to bring the business career to closure and not just the fact that I was here when the company did so well, but I’ve left behind a better place and a better team that can take it from here.
The third orbit is my work with ALS. A cynic would say the only reason you’re involved with it is because you have it, and the answer is yeah, of course, it’s my responsibility. If I’m not going to do it, then who the heck would? With all the benefits and blessings I’ve had in my life, if that doesn’t put on me an obligation to get involved and be responsive and help in every way I can, then shame on me. And so the first thing we did was become a keystone funder of the largest basic research program ever undertaken to understand the disease. [See ALS Charitable Efforts.]
It sounds like you also have great support from your family.
I always respected Jay’s leadership style so much. He was so insightful on a vast multitude of topics, but beyond that, he was a very wise man. Combine that with a very caring individual with genuine humility, and you have a rarely seen leadership style that made you want to be part of the team. Jay was truly a great man.Tweet
I have a wife of 40 years. We met as children, when my wife was 13 and I was 15, so we know each other now 47 years. We have two sons, both of whom are married. One at a time, them with me or me with them, we are just talking about our lives together. I tell my sons that I admire them both. They are really good men with a really good sense of values, and notwithstanding the success my wife and I have had, they’ve got their own lives. My older son is a physician, my younger son is in the finance industry, and both are on their own feet, doing good things, building their own lives. At some point, I won’t be here, and I want them to know that I have a tremendous respect and admiration for who they are and what they’ve become. I hope that will give them strength in their dark moments in their lives. Everybody has them.
Your attitude is so impressive.
I don’t know where the strength comes from to be this way. I thank God it’s there, I really do. I realized early on it was either stay engaged or stay in bed. It’s easy to stay in bed, but it’s not me, I don’t know how to do it, so I’m going to keep going with every bit of help and assistance that people will give me. It takes a lot to keep me going now, but I’m going to keep going until God tells me it’s over.