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Barry Ritholtz

Northwestern Mutual Braces for Disruptive Technology

CEO John Schlifske has weathered ultra-low interest rates, but what about technology? 

Managing through social and technological disruptions over a period of 150 years means building on strengths and improving weaknesses, according to John Schlifske, the chief executive officer of Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. and this week’s guest on the Masters in Business podcast. The 160-year-old firm has underwritten more than $2 trillion in life insurance policies, and has $300 billion in client assets under management. 

Schlifske discusses how scraping paint off trucks at his father’s small trucking business made him want to go to college and work in an office. He joined the Fortune 100 company in 1987 as an investment specialist – his second job out of graduate school – and rose through the ranks to become CEO 11 years ago. He explains the headwinds low interest rates create for policy holders. In the 1990s, when long term rates were as high as 8%, the returns on bonds were significant greater than what can be had today with yields of around 3% on long-term bonds. A visit Schlifske took to Japan in the 1980s laid bare the pernicious impact ultra-low yields could have on insurers.