The Jolting Peter Lewis — A CEO Who Mattered
Insurance, art, architecture, civil liberties, auto safety, think tanks, peace, free thinkers, political candidates, marijuana, his alma mater Princeton University — these and other varied interests drove the inquiring career of the late Peter Lewis, chairman of the board of Progressive Insurance, who passed away at age 80 last month.
He interacted with many people who sparked his sense of the “unconventionally possible” as he built Progressive into the nation’s fourth largest auto insurer and made himself into one of the nation’s leading philanthropists.
Peter was my classmate at Princeton. More than 25 years ago, I suggested he equip his company cars with air bags, both to prevent costly crash injuries to his employees and also to set an example for other insurance companies to give meaning to their “loss prevention” rhetoric. At lunch, he grasped the suggestion immediately and agreed. When I called for a progress report, he casually said it was done, as if to say, what else did you expect?
I never expected much in talking to corporate chiefs about what they should do in their own and the public’s interest. In my experience, they had difficulty listening to anything not on their bureaucratic wavelength. With Peter it was different, and not because of any Princeton connection.
For example, he heard about my remarks that insurance companies were not engaged in meaningful competition. On a trip to Washington, D.C., we had lunch and he said that the big auto insurers compete like crazy. “What do you mean?” he asked.
I replied that State Farm, Allstate, Geico, Progressive, etc. competed against each other in ads, marketing, sales incentives and imagery, but not directly for the consumers’ benefit. I explained that it was almost impossible for the average customer to compare policies and prices between the various companies. His eyes lit up. It wasn’t long before the famously successful Progressive ads were offering free competitors’ rates, including Progressive’s, even if the latter was higher than one or more of the other auto insurers.
Other proposals he thought about and turned down. One that he considered too complicated was for Progressive to build a few prototype safety cars in order to push the auto companies to liberate their engineers and build more crash-worthy vehicles with better handling and therefore fewer claims. This idea stemmed from the pioneering Liberty Mutual Insurance Co. project in the 1950s when it rebuilt a much safer Chevrolet.
However, in the early ’90s, Peter made sure Progressive was a financial supporter of the effective new group Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.
Another proposal was to fund organizers who would convince coalitions in major cities across the country to demand that presidential debates come to their communities in 2012. This would break the grip of the three “debates” choreographed by the Republican and the Democratic parties, through their creation, the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD). CPD is a private nonprofit that picks the reporters, invites only candidates from its two patron parties and solicits corporate donations for its budget. Peter “loved the idea,” but after considerable back and forth, concluded it was not possible to pull it off.
Peter was deeply serious about civil liberties and worried about invasions of privacy, repression of dissenting views and government snooping in the aftermath of 9/11. He became the largest individual donor to the American Civil Liberties Union, with a record-breaking endowment gift of $7 million. He hated President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, which he called “a disaster in all ways,” and funded civic opposition, including ours, to this worsening, brutal quagmire.
As a prominent Democrat, he supported John Kerry’s presidential campaign with many millions of dollars. After Bush’s re-election and Kerry’s wishy-washy performance in 2004, he told me he was pretty much turned off of political campaigns.
He became “more focused on building the institutions that will facilitate and support progressive policy for years into the future.” As was his wont, he went beyond by helping launch Media Matters and the Center for American Progress, and was the founder of the Management Center, which conducts seminars to help nonprofits be more efficient and effective.
Once Peter joked that before joining the Princeton University Board of Trustees, the due diligence report called him a “functional pothead.” Yet to my knowledge, he was known for promptly returning calls. He suffered pain — his leg was amputated below the knee due to chronic infection and poor circulation — but rarely exclaimed it. Instead he responded by becoming physically fit.
As a major patron of the arts from his hometown in Cleveland to New York City and elsewhere, he saw artists as making people view their surroundings through innovative, irreverent eyes. At Progressive’s headquarters, he hung Andy Warhol’s “Mao” portraits and relished the anger of some employees, noting that at least they were stimulated.
Whenever I asked him how business was, he would talk about how “terrific” his successor — New Zealander Glenn Renwick — was as CEO, before noting some new approach like “instant claims service.”
Occasionally he expressed disappointment about his and other charitable and political contributions not getting results. “I’m at the edge of despair” about the state of the country, he confessed several years ago.
That disappointment, bordering on resignation, seemed to come forth during a discussion I arranged at the New York Public Library with Peter and Ted Turner, two of the protagonists in my book, “Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!” — a work of political fiction that could inspire real world change. He began to doubt whether any major proposals for change could break through.
But Peter had so many irons in the fire that he always found sources of resiliency. And he liked to shock people out of their comfort zone. Earlier this year, he relayed a conversation that he had with the new president of Princeton, Christopher L. Eisgruber, wherein he urged the Princeton football program be dropped. Even though Peter is Princeton’s largest benefactor in the modern era ($220 million), he may have stepped out of bounds on that one. Which is just what the boundary-breaker expected, to turn silence now into conversation later.
Peter Lewis put so many forces in motion that his beloved extended family need not wonder about a legacy. They grieve through the enlivening presences, futures and memories he gave them. He leaves behind a candid forthcoming autobiography that should show how he kept evolving and renewing himself to the benefit of many people.