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
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.
Career: Travelers: chairman and CEO beginning in 2004, stepped down as CEO in December 2015. Chairman, CEO and president of The St. Paul Cos., 2001-2004; chairman, CEO and president of Travelers insurance business under Citi, 1998-2001
Family: Married 40 years to childhood sweetheart Randy; two sons, three grandchildren
Home: Born in the Bronx and spent a good part of upbringing there; moved to Englewood, N.J., in 1998
Education: Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, bachelor’s degree in economics and master of science degree in accounting
R&R: golf, skiing
Favorite vacation spot: The Colorado Rockies (summer and winter)
Last books he read: The Boys in the Boat, Citizens of London, 1941: Fighting the Shadow War
Industry board: Previously served on the board of the American Insurance Association
Other boards: Director of ExxonMobil Corporation, Chairman of the board of New York City Ballet, director of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, trustee of New York-Presbyterian Hospital
Couldn’t leave home without: Music—of almost any kind
Heroes: My wife
Motto: Lean in
“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.
“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.
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.
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 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 been very outspoken with your concerns about the economy. What are they in a nutshell?
I’m for the American opportunity, and I’m concerned that a number of broad-based economic factors are causing decisions to be made that may very well limit that opportunity. That doesn’t mean I’m projecting a depression next year, but the annual deficit issue has not been solved. We’ve gotten accustomed to $400 billion, $500 billion, $600 billion deficits, but if you look at the data, we’re going to be back at trillion-dollar levels relatively soon.
What’s going to force that?
The continued aging of the population. Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid and, if we ever get there, higher interest rates. The U.S. government is an amazing beneficiary of low interest rates. The debt has about tripled, and the interest cost is about the same. If we ever get back to—pick a number, say 5% on the 10-year Treasury—the interest impact will be consequential. Eventually, there will be some serious fiscal response. It doesn’t matter what it is, it will be contractionary. If you tax more, it’s contractionary. If you spend less, it’s contractionary. If you spend less and tax more, it’s contractionary. We used to think of a balanced budget as being neutral and a deficit budget being expansionary. We’ve lost sight of all that. We are following a fiscal policy that is quite expansionary, and it ain’t working.
What do you think the response will be?
It will have to be politically unpalatable to both sides; they’ll each hold their nose, but they’ll go forward. On the one hand, you might talk about higher taxation. On the other, you might talk about changing the retirement age for Social Security or means testing of Social Security and Medicare instead of them being a straight entitlement at a certain age. The politics will never allow just taking one side, so I think that’s in our future.
What would you do if you were king for a day?
There’s a lot of complaining, policy-wise, about the double taxation that occurs to corporations. You pay the 35% tax at the corporate level, then on dividends. So what if we were to lower the corporate rate, i.e., eliminate a piece of that double tax, and raise the dividend rate? How much would you recover? If I were king for a day, I’d make that change to the corporate tax rate. I’d raise the dividend and interest income rates to the ordinary income tax rates, but I’d provide a broad swath for middle-income Americans to pay no tax. So I’ve conveyed more of the tax from the corporate level to the personal level, where the wealth really ends up. And I would say we’re going to sunset this in five years. If it’s working and we’re moving in the right direction, we now have a platform to keep going, but no one has to make a decision forever.
How would it affect the insurance industry?
How many insurance businesses have been created in the last 30 years? Many. How many in the U.S.? None. You could blame regulation, too, but for sure taxes. If you’re going to start a new company, start it outside the U.S. That’s indicative of the competitive disadvantage we deal with every day. We offset it in other ways, so I’m not complaining, but I’m making an observation that, if you are a believer that inversions are a problem, the best and only way to solve it is to make the tax environment here for corporations to be more like it would be everywhere else.
Fishman credited his mentors with much of his success. Here’s what he had to say about them.
Sandy Weill, retired chairman and CEO of Citigroup
Sandy would roam the halls, and he would sit down and say, “I’m thinking about this, that or the other thing. What do you think?” He didn’t have a fancy name for it, but he called it “roaming the halls.” It kept him in touch with the business, and those of us who were around him understood that he valued your input. He may not agree with you, and don’t take it for granted that what you’re saying will be the decision that he makes—that would be foolish. But the boss is asking you for your intellectual integrity. And that’s one of the hallmarks of this place. We sit in this room and we say, “What do you think?”
Jamie Dimon, chairman, president and CEO of JPMorgan Chase; lured Fishman from Shearson Lehman to join Weill’s Primerica
One of the few criticisms I had for Jamie over the years was that I kept pleading with him to stop losing patience with those of us who are only going at 90 mph, will you please? You’re going at 120. Give us a chance to come along with you. But he was that quick, and he’s really that good. Jamie also rolled up his sleeves. He wasn’t a manager from 40,000 feet; he was a manager from 400 feet. When I came to Travelers, I decided I would go down to accounts payable. If you want to see where the money’s going, go to accounts payable, go where the checks are issued. So I went down in the beginning maybe once a week, and I watched vouchers come through this system to see where the money was going.
When Jamie first got involved in commercial credit, that’s what he did. He actually signed the checks. You want to know where the money’s going? Watch it go out the door. That may sound so stunningly simple. Jamie taught me that. He validated that as appropriate and necessary behavior for the chief financial officer. Someone can say, “What are you doing in accounts payable? You should be doing something more important.” Jamie would say, “Right now there’s nothing more important than this.” Jamie validated for me the notion of rolling up your sleeves and really being in it, and at least until I’m not, I’m still trying to be in it as much as I can.
Robert Lipp, senior advisor of Stone Point Capital and executive chairman of StoneRiver Group; preceded Fishman as Travelers CEO
Bob taught me how to be an operator, and I don’t mean that disparagingly. If you’re an operator, you know your business. At Chemical Bank, he had responsibility for their operations. Bob wanted to understand how the actual check-clearing process worked, so he would show up in Brooklyn at 2 a.m. with a couple of boxes of Dunkin Donuts under his arms. He’d go from person to person to see how checks actually cleared the bank. I wonder how many presidents of a bank could actually tell you how checks really clear, the actual process?
Bob was also passionate about meritocracy. You have to take care of the people who really make your business hum. That means you have to know who makes it hum. That gets down to how I evaluate performance. We ended up at Travelers with something that he had devised at Chemical Bank called a controllable income statement. If you’re a branch manager, it’s your cigar box. It’s the money that goes in and the money that goes out. You own those results, and we’re going to measure them. At the end of the year, when we’re having a conversation about performance, it’s not because you’re a good guy. It’s because the numbers say you did a good job or they say you didn’t do a good job. That became central to everything we did at Travelers.
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.
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.]
Since his diagnosis with ALS, a progressive and fatal neuromuscular disease better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, Jay Fishman devoted his time and considerable financial resources to help advance both research and patient care.
“I feel a responsibility to have made a meaningful difference to the ALS community,” Fishman said. “And everybody here is helping me do good work. Hundreds of employees have given contributions. We’re going to keep finding opportunities to put time and dollars to work.”
Here are some of those efforts:
> The Fishman Family and Travelers were among the keystone funders for the launch of Answer ALS, a groundbreaking research project launched last fall by Johns Hopkins University’s Robert Packard Center for ALS Research, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center’s Regenerative Medicine Institute and the Massachusetts General Hospital Neurological Clinical Research Institute.
“It’s a complicated disease, and the technology of genomics and proteomics have changed so much in the last five years that we can now do things analytically we couldn’t do before,” Fishman said. “So my wife and I made a very substantial contribution to it—in total we ended up raising $20 million dollars in short order—and we got the program off and running.”
All of the data gathered in the research project will be made publicly available with free, open access to the ALS research community.
“This is an unprecedented approach to understanding and defeating disease,” Dr. Jeffrey Rothstein, executive director of Answer ALS, said in a press statement. “This project will bring together world-renowned ALS research scientists to work against an aggressive timeline for understanding, treating and eventually finding a cure for this disease. The substantial initial funding from these generous supporters is a critical step forward in our effort to provide hope to those affected by ALS.”
> With a $1.5 million gift from Jay and Randy Fishman and their subsequent fundraising efforts (including more than $400,000 from the Travelers management committee), the Augmentative Communication Program at Boston Children’s Hospital launched a program dedicated to adults with ALS. The program promotes technologies, including “message banking,” to allow people with ALS to continue to communicate in their own voice as the disease progresses and they lose the ability to speak. They are working to distribute the technology to ALS clinics around the country.
“You get that diagnosis initially, and it’s a really bad day. When people say what should I do, the answer often is nothing, so get out your bucket list,” Fishman said. “Now we can say, ‘Here’s what you’re going to do. First, we’re going to start voice banking, so your voice is preserved. It gives the patient a sense of control and engagement.”
> In July, the University of Pennsylvania medical system announced a $3 million gift to establish the Randy and Jay Fishman Program for Home Assisted Ventilation. The program will support comprehensive at-home respiratory care for adult patients with chronic breathing problems due to ALS and other diseases. “We met this wonderful physician at the University of Pennsylvania who is, no doubt, helping me to keep breathing,” Fishman said. “I felt a responsibility to give them the resources to bring that program out more broadly. Hopefully, it becomes more of a standard of care.”
> Travelers and many of its employees have also provided support for ALS-related causes. Through its sponsorship of The Travelers Championship, a PGA Tour event, the insurer raises money for local charities, donating 100% of its net proceeds to nonprofits throughout New England. This year’s primary beneficiary of the record $2.8 million raised was the ALS Clinic at the Hospital for Special Care in New Britain, Connecticut. And of the total, the Bruce Edwards Foundation Benefit Dinner generated more than $1.2 million to support ALS research.
In the tournament’s final round, golfer Jim Furyk scored a historic 58—the all-time lowest score on the PGA Tour—with 10 birdies and an eagle to land at 12 under par. In recognition of this achievement, Travelers donated $58,000 to Furyk’s charity of choice. While Furyk insisted the full donation go to the Bruce Edwards Foundation for ALS Research, Fishman and Travelers chief administrative officer Andy Bessette turned around and pledged half the amount to the Jim & Tabitha Furyk Foundation, which is dedicated to helping support organizations that lend a hand to those who can’t fulfill their most basic needs.