Jay Fishman, Who Built Travelers After Citigroup, Dies at 63

  • Encounter at New York City Ballet led to $17.9 billion merger
  • He led firm through financial crisis by shunning mortgage debt

Jay Fishman in 2010.

Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Jay Fishman, the chairman and former chief executive officer of Travelers Cos. who steered the insurer through the financial crisis and into the Dow Jones Industrial Average, has died. He was 63.

He died Friday at his home in New Jersey, Patrick Linehan, a spokesman for the company, said by telephone. Fishman had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, and was replaced in 2015 as CEO by Alan Schnitzer. Travelers said in a statement that John Dasburg was named chairman of the board.

“Though he would be too humble to admit it, Jay was an icon among corporate leaders,” Schnitzer said in the statement. “I’ll miss my dear and close friend, and on behalf of all of us at Travelers, our hearts go out to his wife of nearly 40 years and childhood sweetheart Randy Fishman, Jay and Randy’s children and their beloved grandchildren.”

For the better part of two decades, Fishman was the steady hand guiding Travelers through natural disasters, market cycles and the Great Recession. But his path to running one of the biggest U.S. insurers was circuitous.

Leaves Citigroup

He first oversaw the business in the late 1990s, when it was part of Sanford “Sandy” Weill’s Citigroup Inc. In 2001, he got the urge to run his own company and left to take the top job at a competitor, St. Paul Cos.

Two years later, he bumped into his former colleague, Robert Lipp, at the New York City Ballet. By that time, Citigroup had spun off Travelers, and Lipp was running it.

“We just started chatting, and we thought it would be useful to get to together and talk about the possibilities of perhaps putting the two companies together,” Fishman recalled at the time.

They dubbed the idea, “Project Charlie,” after Lipp’s daughter’s 70-pound (32-kilogram) English bulldog. It was a fitting name for a blockbuster deal. Their $17.9 billion transaction installed Fishman as CEO of the combined company, which eventually took the Travelers name.

Evaluating Risks

Above all else, Fishman knew he was in the business of risk. He just wasn’t going to be pushed into writing insurance or buying securities that didn’t properly compensate the insurer for the chance of losses.

He used the word “thoughtful” on almost every conference call for years, occasionally several times at an event. He spoke of “underwriting thoughtfulness,” “thoughtful data-driven strategies,” “thoughtful pricing” and “being very thoughtful on the management of capital.”

When central bank stimulus policies drove bond yields to record lows, Fishman wasn’t one to buy riskier securities to pick up extra income. Instead, he focused on making sure Travelers was profitable as an underwriter, and boosted shareholder returns through an aggressive stock buyback program.

“People say, ‘Where are you going for yield?’ And the answer is, ‘Nowhere,’” he said at a conference in September 2012. “We continue to be invested in the same asset classes that we have been before and accept the premise of lower returns.”

Resisted Temptation

That same posture had already served Travelers well. In the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis, Fishman resisted the temptation to buy mortgage-linked bonds that would have boosted short-term profit at his company. Several of its competitors didn’t and were hurt in the crash.

“Jay was not fooled by the housing bubble,” Weill said in a 2015 interview. “They sacrificed earnings to protect their capital.”

As a result, Travelers emerged from the crisis as one of the strongest U.S. financial firms. In 2009, it was added to the 30-company Dow Jones Industrial Average along with Cisco Systems Inc., replacing General Motors and Citigroup, both of which required government bailouts.

Just before the crisis, Travelers had bought back its iconic red umbrella logo from Citigroup. To mark the occasion, Weill sent his former deputy a collection of cuff links and ties emblazoned with the image. Some of them were made by Hermes.

Logo Pride

“I was very proud of the logo,” Weill said. “And I had pride that at least somebody who was doing a good job was using that logo again.”

Among the executives Fishman worked with was Jamie Dimon, now the leader of JPMorgan Chase & Co.

“From the time I hired Jay into what ultimately became Citi, he was from start to end a great professional and, more importantly, a treasured friend,” Dimon said in an e-mailed statement.

Jay Steven Fishman was born Nov. 4, 1952, in New York to Edward Fishman and the former Shirley Cantor. He grew up in the Bronx, and his father ran a small printing business, scraping together enough money for rent and his kids’ education.

After graduating from University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, Fishman worked at American Can Co. and Shearson Lehman before joining Weill at the company that would eventually become Citigroup. In 2000, he was also named the bank’s chief operating officer in charge of finance and risk.

Serious Reservations

Even though Weill saw him as a top candidate to take over his job one day, Fishman had his doubts.

“I wouldn’t have been an effective CEO” at Citigroup, he told Forbes for a 2011 article. “I had next to no experience in sales and trading, limited experience in investment banking and no experience in commercial banking.”

What he knew was insurance. With his focus on cutting costs, buying back shares and seeking rate increases from the least profitable customers, he oversaw years of gains for investors. From 2005, Travelers’ stock climbed every year except in 2008.

His standing in the corporate world helped him land positions on the boards of Exxon Mobil Corp., where he was the presiding director, and Carlyle Group LP, a private-equity firm. He also was a supporter of education and the arts, serving as a trustee for the University of Pennsylvania. In 2012, he was named chairman of the New York City Ballet.

In 2015, Fishman helped raise $20 million for scientists to develop therapies to treat ALS. That year, in an interview with Charlie Rose, he reflected on how fortunate he’d been and how he moved past the emotions of knowing his life would be cut short.

“I quickly said I wasn’t going to let the end of my life change the definition, or change my perspective on how I looked at the rest of it,” he said in the interview. “We’re all going to face this -- maybe not this disease -- but no one gets out alive.”

Fishman and his wife had two children.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
LEARN MORE