On March 1, C. Robert Henrikson will become CEO of MetLife, which is by most measures the largest life insurance company in the U.S. He’ll add the title of chairman on April 25. A recent conversation with National Underwriter at MetLife’s Long Island City headquarters covered a wide range of topics, including Henrikson’s 33-year career at Met, growth opportunities for the company and important issues facing the business.
SP: I notice that your bio says you started at Met over 30 years ago as a sales rep. How long were you an agent?
RH: I started in 1972 and was an agent for two years. Then I moved over to focus on pension sales in ’74 and really enjoyed it. I moved into the pension business more because I found a mentor. Also, the timing was good–the company was looking to expand the Atlanta office. Later I went to Chicago and sold a pile of business in Iowa, Wisconsin and downstate Illinois. I’ve been in sales virtually my entire career, one way or another.
SP: You’ve had responsibilities all over the company, which area did you enjoy the most?
RH: This one [as president and COO]! It gets better every day. I’ve enjoyed it all along the way. I’ve had many and varied opportunities at one company for 33 years, from selling individual policies to mega contracts to huge corporations. Then later being asked to run the institutional business. And I’ve had phenomenal teammates along the way.
SP: Many people have a hard time making the transition from sales to management. To what do you attribute your exceptional transition?
RH: All I can say is activity followed. It’s been a natural evolution. I’ve always been excited by talking to people about solutions, building credibility in terms of understanding what their needs are and then being able to tailor solutions. There’s very little difference in the transition to sales management from sales to having responsibility for client relationships with all those big companies. Then going in to run and manage the entire division was a natural progression.
It’s been a continual and logical path. Take, for example, when I became president and COO, having responsibility for the individual side, as well. The timing in terms of marketplace need is phenomenal because years ago in the employer plan sponsor community the main customer was either the treasurer of the company or the head of employee benefits. Years ago, neither they nor we talked about the employee being our customer. Today the employer wants to know how you can provide decision support and make offerings suitable for employees. They welcome our competencies around that area. Twenty years ago some of those competencies would have been linked only to retail products.
The ability to bring together and leverage the power of this company in the product design on both the individual and institutional sides and to see problems on a common platform basis, the opportunity is immense. I don’t think I would have been as strong a leader in that particular marketplace had I not had experience dealing with individual clients.
SP: When you become CEO the company will be going back to being headed by an insurance man. Will you have a different perspective going forward [than Robert Benmosche, the current CEO, who came to Met from outside the insurance business]?
RH: I may surprise you with this answer. I said this to myself years ago and to remind other people, as well: I wake up in the morning, look in the mirror and say, ‘Wow, there’s a guy who’s never worked anywhere but MetLife; is that a liability or an asset?’
If you’re worried about it being a liability, you’re in great shape. But when you surround yourself with great talent you can be looking constantly for the strongest team of people with different experiences.
On the other hand, I’ve had over 33 years of experience where I’ve seen some things in a prior iteration coming back in the marketplace. We can’t go backward, nor would we want to, but there are capabilities we’ve developed over the years that can be levered over new circumstances and that is very exciting.
SP: What is the one thing that has changed most for you since Met became a public company?
RH: Let me answer for somebody else first. I think it’s the best thing that ever happened to our clients. The reason I say this is that as a mutual we were always strong, but with some of the largest companies on earth as our business clients, sometimes they’d say, ‘Could you do this for us?’ It might be a product or a particular service and our thought process was to work hard to be accommodative as long as it didn’t have a negative effect on our client base.
But now as a public company, simply being in something means you have to commit to investing in it, commit to target returns on capital, commit to win. You can’t be in something as a hobby or merely as an accommodation. So today, if that client asked us if we were not going to continue to invest in that proposition and recognize it as a commercially viable model, we would decline and we would speak in this language to the client.
This has had a great effect on me because when we went public, I had to say to myself, ‘I’ve been here for a long time and being very much a bullish player in the marketplace representing a mutual life insurance company, is this good for our clients?’ It didn’t take me long to figure out it was excellent for our clients. That was an awakening for me.
SP: Anything you miss about being a mutual?
RH: Probably a few hours a day [laughter]. I don’t miss anything. We’re much more open, honest, straightforward, market-driven and client-focused than we’ve ever been.
SP: If there is such a thing, what is a typical day like for you?
RH: Extremely busy. There’s always something exciting going on. I travel a lot, visit clients, agencies, do town meetings with employees around the country.
SP: How long has it been your goal to achieve the top spot at Met?
RH: This may sound strange, but I never woke up years ago and said I wanted to be CEO of MetLife. When Bob announced his intention and said this company deserved the best CEO it could possibly have, I didn’t think there was anyone better suited than I am. But keep in mind that I’ve been a member of a very focused and winning team.
With Bob retiring, one of the things that me coming in as CEO provides is a great deal of continuity. Our styles are different and we have different strengths and weaknesses, but this team has worked together very hard and it’s hard for me to separate our success from myself. I’ve worked very closely with Bob the entire time he’s been here.
SP: What will actually change when you become CEO?
RH: Well, the announcement is almost a year old. The first statement is to stay the course. This is not a situation of ‘now we have a new leader, let’s take a hard right or left’–that’s not the idea. We’ve done an unbelievable job under Bob’s leadership of removing what I call plaque from the system and creating a platform for further growth. We’ve created a lead in the market and I intend to expand that lead.
SP: Is your job more visionary as a CEO than as president?
RH: I don’t go for the visionary thing. This is not stand up on the hill; I have the answer; follow me. We have a strong team of players.
SP: Is there anything that keeps you up at night?
RH: There’s paranoia about missing opportunities. If I look back over 33 years, at the same time that we and the industry made great strides, there were also opportunities we missed. To the extent possible I’d like to minimize missed opportunities.
SP: Were you upset about group life not being included in TRIA?
RH: Not at all. I was more concerned that life might be linked in with other types of risk products from insurance companies such as property-casualty products.