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Q&A: Gordon Stewart


III president sets stage to retire at end of year
Man of many talents, Gordon Stewart ready to write next chapter

Published July 31, 2006

NEW YORK--In a remarkably multifaceted career, Gordon Stewart has been a presidential speechwriter; a director of stage, film and television productions; an orchestra conductor; and a college English professor. He says he has used all of the skills acquired from those experiences--politics, international affairs and the arts--in his role as president of the Insurance Information Institute for the past 15 years. This month, Mr. Stewart announced he will retire from the "Triple I" at year end, and III Senior Vp and Chief Economist Robert Hartwig will succeed him. Mr. Stewart spoke recently with Business Insurance Editor Regis Coccia about his tenure at the III.

Q: Why did you decide to retire from the III now?

A: There are three reasons, really. One is, what I envisioned I might be able to do here and what I actually accomplished when I learned more about the business. I feel I've been able to achieve those things which I had hoped to do, including our expansion now into life insurance information. If you look at Triple I today, it has pulled off an impossible paradox. It's both highly credible and the most frequently used source of insurance information in the world. To be both completely credible and totally used is not an easy feat.

Second, there are nice things about being president of the III, with a small "p," but one of them is not immortality. You don't get that. On July 22, our wonderful daughter turned 7 years old. On that same day, I turned 67. It's flattering that a lot of people were a bit surprised at that, but these are the chronological facts, and the time comes.

Third, this is a terrific group of people with a great guy named Robert Hartwig who everybody knows is ready to lead, and this is the time to do it. The last important act of any good leader is not to be followed by chaos, confusion, fear, conflict or uncertainty, but to prepare for a strong future. So, I look at these three conditions. I've done what I came to do and I think more than I could've envisioned at the start. Fifteen years (as president) is a long time. And I've got a great bunch that I can seamlessly hand this over to.

Q: What's next for you? What would you like to do after III?

A: I've done many things before I came into this industry and I've remained very active in a number of them. I'm a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations and am extremely interested in those sorts of subjects. I'm active in academic circles and I'm still involved politically. I expect to embark on a number of very interesting projects. I have found in life that if you do things that you believe in, and are passionate about, then the right results will happen. This next phase of my life will unfold as it's supposed to.

Q: What were your proudest accomplishments during your tenure at the III?

A: Building an organization that is completely trusted and universally used. In the 15 years that I've been here, people have disagreed with us, but no one has ever suggested that anything we've said here is materially wrong or deceptive or inaccurate. On the other side, we're the single most-used source in the industry, and I think I can prove that.

(Mr. Stewart demonstrated on his office computer a Google search using the word "insurance." Out of 1.1 billion entries, the Insurance Information Institute site was the first nonpaid entry listed. He then searched "annuities," and III came up fifth out of nearly 25 million entries.)

I have tried to be, in a very diverse, heterogeneous, contentious, nationalistic industry, to the extent possible, a unifying presence. So we established the Joint Industry Forum, which is the only time and place when all 14 national and international associations come together and people across all party lines sit down over a meal and talk. We have disaster information centers, where there are collective response mechanisms after events such as Hurricane Andrew, 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.

Thirdly, one of the few initiatives I kept when I came here was our national survey (which polls public approval of the insurance industry). It has asked the same question of the same sample since 1968. When I started here at the III, we were in the low 30s, right above consumer finance. Slow climb. Now, for the last five years, we've been at 55% or above, which, as one CEO said, is a rating a lot of politicians would kill for. We are hardly claiming sole credit for this increase. On the other hand, if during the time I had been here we had gone from 55% to 32%, I think I and the Triple I would have had something to answer for. The fact there has been an active, credible means of communicating to the American public has helped the industry enormously, along with some behavior changes by the industry.

I also think it is partly a result of a generation of CEOs who are more in touch and in contact with the public. These companies are doing a better job of trying to anticipate where discontent will arise and asking themselves, "What's my part in this?" When I first came here, I found an almost universal tendency on the part of the industry to blame everybody else for everything: lawyers, consumer activists, communist agitators, who knows what--all of whom exist, by the way, and are a problem. They're not phantoms. Nonetheless, companies didn't include on their list anything much about themselves. We worked with them and said, "Here are some things we can all do together that might make some of our public problems go away." Now, there has been much more willingness to say, "What can we as an industry do about problems we're having rather than simply blame everybody else?"

Lastly, I would cite the organization itself. This is a terrific group of people who did not just materialize out of thin air. We have 14 out of a staff of 24 who talk to the public and the media. I'm just one of them. I try to encourage a whole group of people to be qualified, to know the answers. Bob himself just excels at this. The leadership is now ready.

Q: You've had a very diverse set of career experiences. How did those kinds of skills help you as president of the III?

A: I was probably a very odd choice for this job, having this diverse background, and I wondered what all of these things that I've done could possibly have to do with what I would face at the III. Turns out, I've used every single one of them. And that is one of the things that has made doing this job so satisfying.

Directing: that Web site is partly an aesthetic achievement. In some ways, I've seen the Web as my great play. Having directed in television, movies, radio and in stage, one of the things you learn is that each medium has its own artistic imperatives, and you'd better understand each on its own terms. Most early Web ventures failed because people saw them as taking content they already have and putting it up on the Web, or as a cool visual thing to win design prizes. What they didn't understand is that the beauty, the aesthetic, of the Web lies in its utility and how easy, how comfortable it is for people to use.

Another thing you learn in directing--everybody should be a director once to learn this--you have four weeks to get this show open. In four weeks, people are going to walk into this auditorium, the lights will go down, the curtain will come up and something had better damn well happen. What you learn is that the likelihood of that show succeeding depends more on what you do in the first week than what you do in the last week. And that means understanding what the material is you're working with and who you have cast in those roles. If you've done those two things right--have a good script and good actors in the first week--by the fourth week you'll be getting things ready, which is almost where we are today with III. So directing has helped enormously because you project forward and say, "Uh oh, my success or failure depends on what I do early, now, not pulling a rabbit out of a hat in dress rehearsal."

Conducting: two things that I have taken (from that) I've used at III. One is that preparation is absolutely everything. You do not wish to appear before a competent orchestra, pick up that stick and have them look at you and not know what the hell you're doing. You need to know every note in the score. And that's something I've tried with the subject matter of insurance to the best of my ability; to come to understand it, understand the score, in that sense. Second, in today's world and at a nonprofit organization, you can't force people to play for you. They have to want to play. And the way you do that is by having good musicians in the first place and then letting them play. Today's conductor, when he has wonderful musicians, you will notice, doesn't have to beat time during their solos. At III, we have great players in media, research and the Web--it's a pleasure to see them performing as such a high level.

What did I learn from seven years at the (American) Stock Exchange with (former Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman) Arthur Levitt? A whole lot that has been vital. I myself would not seek to run an insurance company. I also know I wouldn't last 15 minutes on the exchange floor trying to be a specialist or a trader, but I watched what they do and came to understand what was important to them, how difficult their jobs were, the kinds of challenges they faced. I've watched how CEOs deal with running successful companies. I couldn't do it, but I know what they go through. When it comes to the membership part of III, our success is achieved, in large part, from understanding and empathizing, and trying to help with the reality of what these CEOs do.

The political experience has also been vital in my role as III president. One thing Henry Kissinger imparted: people are policy. Know the people and you will know the policy. All of these things--even a degree in European history--is helpful when it comes to dealing with global companies. I've wound up using virtually everything, and I can't predict on any given day, how those experiences will help.

As the staff here can attest, I am obsessive about writing, perhaps because I am also a former Amherst College English professor who has worked on three State of the Union addresses. One of the reasons we're valued as a resource and are so credible is that this place is always clear and literate.

Q: How have the III's relations with the industry been during your years here?

A: One thing III can be proud of is having the strongest, broadest board in the industry. And we have been blessed with outstanding chairmen. Since coming to the III, I've learned a great deal from industry CEOs. I believe all our board members could explain today why there should be a III, why they're a part of it, and what their companies get out of it. I don't think there is another business in America that has an independent, free-standing organization like the III. What usually happens is that the national lobby trade, the American Assn. of Whatever, creates some sort of department or a paper subsidiary that's really just a front and tries to pass it off as an independent, credible source of information. I don't think there's another American industry that has a III. And that's something we should all feel pretty good about. I think that's directly connected to the historically high approval ratings our industry has today. But to have that, you have to be willing to trust an organization to represent you fairly, fully and honestly. I'm fully confident the wonderful people at the III will accomplish even greater things in the years to come.